Nesting in Rowayton
October 11, 2019
Text by Megan Fulweiler Photography by Eric Piasecki/OTTO
Designer Leslie Dunn knew she could turn the forlorn house on Bell Island, a small neighborhood on the beachfront in Rowayton, Connecticut, into a pitch-perfect nest. Never mind the dark, nearly windowless rooms that underscored the home’s disregard for its fabulous setting. Her inner voice insisted she’d struck gold. And time has proven her right.
Dunn, a California transplant, had long yearned to be near water. With the children grown, she and her husband could finally make the move. “Bell Island is magical,” she says. “We feel very blessed.”
Blessed, too, is the three-story dwelling that began its life in the 1930s and along the way endured a fire. Working closely with architect Leonard Brandes, Dunn, an interior designer with a Norwalk, Connecticut-based practice, gutted the structure from top to bottom. The goal: to create an open floorplan, let in the light, and emphasize the long-overlooked views of Long Island Sound and the picturesque tidal estuary that lies just beyond the back patio.
While the basic shape of the house remained intact, Brandes says, the layout is a different story. First-floor non-structural walls came tumbling down and stabilizing steel beams went up, resulting in a smooth transition between the kitchen and the living and dining rooms. Character-lending antique beams salvaged from a Pennsylvania tobacco barn conceal the utilitarian steel and define the spaces, while a legion of new windows ushers in glorious light.
Gone is yesterday’s cramped galley. In its stead, Dunn, with the advice of designer Karen Berkemeyer, devised a stellar kitchen with a grand marble-topped island and black-painted custom cabinets. “Leslie and I have frequently collaborated,” Berkemeyer says. “I come from a technical background and she’s creative.”
Creativity is certainly at play in the adjacent living room, where friends and family sip pre-dinner cocktails while conversing with the cook. Dunn imported an Egyptian limestone surround to elevate the gas fireplace. A comfortable sofa and club chairs induce relaxation along with a coffee table that’s not averse to having someone—or everyone—put their feet up.
In fact, Dunn designed the place with good times in mind. “Flip-flop casual and dog-ready” is how she describes today’s transformation. Not afraid to mix high-dollar elements with less costly finds, she’s infused the house with twenty-first-century freshness. Peek, for example, into the tiny powder room. Dunn has cleverly parked a vanity she nabbed on sale and crowned with a glass bowl against a seductive blue Phillip Jeffries wallpaper.
A blue wave washes across the dining room’s ceiling, too. “I didn’t want to go the all-beach theme, but I wanted to respect where we were,” Dunn says. Splashes of blue—in the linen draperies, club chairs, and rug—reference water without going overboard.
Dunn gives the second-floor bedrooms a chic—not cutesy—nautical spin, as well. A guest who has never poked a toe into the sea would still love the cozy berth she labels “the boat room.” Clad in a deep-as-the-ocean azure wallpaper, the room sports a portrait of eighteenth-century Captain Nicholas Biddle and a high-gloss beadboard ceiling that conjures thoughts of opulent yachts.
The guestroom nearby takes a feminine approach with a softer palette. With striped walls hand-painted by Heidi Holzer Design and a framed nautilus above the bed, Dunn sets a mood as restful as a day at the beach.
The master suite was also enlarged and awarded a bounty of windows along with a generous bath. Collaborating with Berkemeyer, Dunn made sure the latter had plenty of storage (a must, she insists) and light for grooming.
If they’re not on the refurbished front porch, the airy third floor, with its multiple seating areas, is where everybody congregates. Dunn and Brandes raised the roof on yesterday’s attic and added a balcony for views of the water and, on clear days, Manhattan’s skyline.
“So much love went into this house,” says Dunn. “Because it was my home, I was willing to take risks, and it all worked.”
Indeed, the musty old house has disappeared, replaced by a charming haven where everyone is welcome, and no one wants to leave.