January 12, 2015
Text by Donna Pizzi Photography by Philip Clayton-Thompson
A humble 1950s ranch gets a makeover that marries classic Colonial architecture with casual contemporary interiors for the best of both form and function.
During last year’s New Canaan Cares Kitchen and Home Tour, hundreds of people filed through Jennifer and Rob Sechan’s house, no doubt surprised to find unexpected twists behind its classic colonial exterior. The coffered ceilings in the kitchen and adjacent family room are a counterpoint to wide white-oak flooring stained a rich espresso finish. Modern materials, like the easy-to-maintain polished quartz on the perimeter countertops, marry with classics like the Asian statuary marble of the backsplash. Contemporary custom cabinets play off an island topped with honed White Arabesque marble.
Down the kitchen staircase lies a newly excavated basement that holds an entertainment room filled with multiple hi-tech screens, scoreboards, and a bar, as well as a fitness room, wine cellar, and bathroom. Half the house was razed to create this little piece of heaven for Rob and the couple’s sports-minded children. It also serves as a gathering place for members of the New Canaan Youth Basketball teams for which Rob is president.
Upstairs, off the well-organized mudroom, is an indoor basketball court that doubles as a three-car garage.
The seeds for the renovations that turned this house into the home of the Sechans’ dreams were planted in 2011, five years after the family had moved in. The onetime ranch had already been converted to a colonial-style by a local builder, but the architecture suffered from a bit of schizophrenia, recalls Jennifer. “You walked in the front door and on the right was the new living room, guest bedroom, and office, which we rarely used. On the left was the tighter old ranch portion with low ceilings, a small kitchen, and dark family room.”
“It didn’t come together in a very elegant way,” adds Rob, “with no basement, a lot of undulation, and stairs that shouldn’t be there.”
Rob showed Jennifer a house that Wilton architect Michael Smith had built, hoping she would agree to move. Jennifer, however, was unwilling to give up her home’s prime location—a two-and-a-half-acre lot just a mile from New Canaan’s downtown.
Rob moved on to Plan B. Searching the Internet for an interior designer whose work spoke to him, he came across Garrison Hullinger, a designer in Portland, Oregon. Rob invited Hullinger to Connecticut, ostensibly to discuss decorating the couple’s Florida condo. “He must have thought I was a whack job,” says Rob. “What I really wanted was to show Garrison the Mike Smith home and have him convince Jenny to buy it.”
“The Smith home was stunning,” recalls Hullinger. He recommended the Sechans buy it and let him decorate it. Jennifer agreed it was a lovely house, but she still didn’t want to move.
As the three collaborated on the redecorating of the couple’s condo, a bond of trust began to grow between them.
“I just loved the whole family’s energy,” says Hullinger. “They were such fun to work with.”
Eventually, Rob and Jennifer reached a compromise. They would stay in their New Canaan home, if Rob could add a basement and if Smith would agree to be their architect. There was no need to compromise on the designer; the couple knew Hullinger would be perfect.
“I wanted to marry the traditional elements in Mike’s homes, which have a lot of character—porches, gables, and plenty of architectural details—with the transitional decorating element we were after,” explains Rob.
Smith initially approached the project as a remodeling of what already existed, but quickly realized that creating a house with grace, symmetry, and a cohesive design meant the old ranch section had to go. “We tried to work with the original ranch area rather than demolish it, but the results would have been substandard,” he explains. “In the original layout, the kitchen and family room were separate, with no access to the outdoors other than a small porch. The whole goal was to create a full basement, and an open feel between the kitchen and family room, where the family spends 95 percent of their time.”
Smith’s plans included removing a portico that spanned the back of the house, then opening up the family room, utility room, and Jennifer’s new office to the back patio and a new covered porch area. A trio of glass French doors and back-to-back fireplaces create the link between indoors and out. On the street side, he unified the two wings with the addition of a long porch that creates perfect visual symmetry.
Inside, Smith’s architectural detailing strengthened the classic colonial entry with boxed paneling, additional columns, and the replacement of several half-round windows with a trio of more-suitable rectangular styles. Hullinger struck a modern chord by hanging horizontal artwork across the boxed paneling, adding a stair runner with pewter-hued tread rails, and crowning the space with an edgy lantern fixture with modern geometric style.
“There is a certain level of tradition—symmetrical colonial trim profile and moldings—juxtaposed against more-contemporary light fixtures and wall finishes, which works really well,” says Smith. “The house is not stuffy; it’s light, bright, casual, with almost a modern feel to its interiors.”
Any worries that a crucial member of the design team lives on the other side of the country were dispelled early in the process. “The Internet makes it easy, with weekly conferences, and someone in Garrison’s office always available,” says Jennifer, who worked hand-in-glove with Hullinger to add a modern twist to the traditional kitchen design. “When Garrison decorates,” she adds, “he not only makes the room look good, but functional, as well. He listens to how each space is going to be used, and then saves a few surprises for the end.”
The biggest and best surprise, of course, was Rob’s long-coveted basement, a space that Hullinger says has a “masculine, rough-hewn feel—yet not too rustic or salvaged. We wanted some sophistication there.”
“It’s my husband’s favorite space,” says Jennifer.
The Sechans are delighted with the home the talented bicoastal team created. “It makes me happy every day I come home. I think Jenny feels the same way,” says Rob. “Either that,” he adds with a laugh, “or she’s just glad for all the renovations to be done!” •