Natural Selection

Text by Maria LaPiana

A simple plan in sync with its surroundings makes for an unencumbered but effective shoreline landscape design.

Sometimes residential landscapes eclipse the very homes they are designed to complement. It may be because of the grandeur of the hardscape, an over-exuberance of plant material, or the sheer number of design elements.

It happens more often than you think—but this is most definitely not one of those times.

Reinvented by landscape architect Susan Cohen of Greenwich, this waterfront property in the Gold Coast enclave of Belle Haven is understated, proportionate, and exquisitely simple. It’s the only way to properly design a landscape, according to Cohen. “My work tends to be very simple,” she says, “especially when there is a view. You never want to upstage a view.”

The homeowner commissioned Cohen and architect Ira Grandberg of Mount Kisco, New York, some five years ago, when she purchased the property and decided to raze the existing house and build new.

“The homeowner recognized that landscape design was integral to her home,” says Cohen, who is also a teacher, writer, and coordinator of the landscape architecture program at the New York Botanical Garden.

The property sits on a private lane, and the house is perched on high ground overlooking Long Island Sound. Despite some construction challenges, the residence was designed for easy inside-out transitions; most doors are just a step or two above grade.

The homeowner’s personality had as much to do with the design as the view. “My client is a very open, warm person,” says Cohen. “So we wanted everything to feel welcoming.” While evergreen hollies and spruce were planted for privacy along the road, the gently curved driveway is genuinely inviting. Cohen thinks the drive may be the most important element in her design. The original plan called for a straightaway from the property line to the house, but she proposed a more sinuous way in. By circling slowly around existing plantings, the driveway embraces a grove of pink-flowering magnolia trees that would otherwise have been lost.

A stone retaining wall rises up slightly over the driveway. “It was built by the same mason who put stone on the house,” says Cohen, “so it would look as if it were all of a piece.” A parking court sits at the top of the driveway, next to a building ell with a porte cochere. “It helps to make the house not loom,” she says.

The front of the parking court is planted with boxwood and white rhododendron. There are beds for small yellow daffodils in the spring and annuals in the summer. Climbing hydrangea adorns many of the home’s stone walls.

A small orchard of flowering crabapple sits on a slight slope in view of the back door so the homeowner can enjoy its pink and white blooms in May. A small rose garden was planted by the kitchen to satisfy her love of fresh flowers. An enclosed dog run looks for all the world like a lovely, formal courtyard framed by iron gates and hydrangeas.

Cohen took cues from the shoreline in back to create several outdoor spaces. Rose fountain grasses sway on the sloping ground to the waterfront. “They wave in the breeze, which is one reason I chose them,” she says. “They also recall the sea grasses that grow at the water’s edge.”

There are several patios. One appears to jut out over the water: “It’s a little sitting place with its back to the house,” says Cohen. “It’s rustic, with teak benches and pink geraniums in pots.”

Another, just outside French doors to the kitchen, is trellised and paved in bluestone. The wide stone steps that lead up to it are made of native granite. “I wanted it to feel like a subtle yet dramatic transition to nature,” says Cohen.

A gazebo sits on a small promontory. It’s very much a part of the natural environment, says Cohen; a “private place that feels secluded and peaceful and brings you close to the water.” A manicured lawn leading down to the gazebo keeps the landscape looking “civilized,” she says.

All told, the project’s plant list is rather short, which is typical of Cohen’s work. “I like to keep things kind of quiet,” she says. “I wanted to create a sense of harmony, a place that feels serene and peaceful, soft and welcoming.” •

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