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Dream House
In the renovation of a 1903 shingle-style house on a Ruxton hilltop, 'every decision was drawn from joy.'

by Laura Wexler
Photographed by Erik Kvalsvik

In the early 1990s, soon after they moved into their three-bedroom 1980s home at the foot of L’Hirondelle Club Road in Ruxton, Bruce and Polly Behrens were walking their dog when a Shingle-style house atop the hill caught their eye.

Turns out that in winter, when the trees were bare, the Behrens could see that house through their bedroom window. “I would wake up and say, ‘Man, I like that place,’” says Bruce. “I’ve always been interested in architecture and I’ve always wanted to live in a shingle-style house.”

After a few years, says Polly, “We got up enough nerve to call the owners. They said, ‘You don’t know how many people have told us they want to buy this house.’”

Determined to keep their offer in the forefront of the homeowners’ mind, Polly took to walking the dog strategically, setting out at the hour she knew the owner would be returning from work. In 1999, the Behrens saw the owners at a neighborhood function and reiterated their interest. Soon afterward, the owners invited them to walk up for a visit.

“We spent four hours looking at the house and talking with the couple,” says Polly. “We looked at everything, even the furnace. When we returned home, Bruce had so many ideas and he was sketching them madly.”

The Behrens hoped things would move quickly after that, but it turned out to be another two years before they bought the home, and, after that, two years of renovations before they moved in. The wait, however, was worth it, they say. “We’ve been dreaming of this for so long,” Bruce said at the time. “We don’t want to rush the process— we want to enjoy it.”

Throughout the renovation, Polly and Bruce continued walking their dog up the hill each evening. But now, instead of dreaming about someone else’s house, they were visiting their future home, watching as their dream came to life.

Despite the Behrens’ love for their new home, at the time they bought it, it might best be described as “hiding its light under a bushel.” Most notably, says architect and designer Patrick Sutton, who designed the renovation, a 10-foot hill blocked the front of the house. “When we leveled the hill, all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh, it is a big house,’” he says.

“Opening the front yard was one of the best things we did,” says Bruce. “Otherwise, you could only see the house from the side.”

Atop the hill was a swimming pool— “right out the front door,” says Bruce— which was relocated to the rear of the home to take advantage of the greater privacy as well as the stunning views that extend for miles. The removal of the hill and the pool allowed the installation of a putting green, just beyond the curving driveway. And it allows the home to offer an introduction befitting its elegance, with the driveway curving around a massive Atlas cedar before passing under a porte cochere.

If leveling the hill and relocating the swimming pool were the most radical renovations to the three-acre property, the addition of a two-story wing was the most major change to the home itself. “Originally I thought we would do a one-story addition that would give us room for a large kitchen and family room,” says Bruce. “But Patrick said ‘you have to do a two-story addition or it won’t look right.’ He was absolutely right.”

As a way of blending the original house, built in 1903, with both the two-story addition and separate garage/wood shop, Sutton suggested adding grey shingles. This color scheme also allows the early 20th century architectural details— window casings, soffit mouldings, frieze boards and varoius trim elements— to really pop.

Throughout the renovation, the Behrens and Sutton sought to balance the desire for 21st-century living spaces with a reverence for the home’s original architecture. One way they did this was to largely preserve the floor plan in the original house, and restore— rather than renovate— the original design elements.

Just as in 1903, the front door opens into a foyer that features elaborate moulding, paneling and pilasters— as well as an elegant oval ceiling. From the foyer, a doorway leads into a small parlor whose walls are covered in a sumptuously patterned damask wallpaper in a shade of ivory. The leather furniture, Gothic lantern chandelier and, most importantly, the dark wood paneling, imbue the room with the library feel the Behrens desired.

“What’s most special about this room is that the black walnut paneling was made from two trees on the property that had to be cut down when we added the addition,” says Sutton. Polly and Bruce especially enjoyed showing the paneling to the former owners of the home. “They were sad we had to cut trees down, but thrilled that we could use them in the paneling,” says Polly.

Another nifty discovery in the library was the pocket doors leading into the formal living room and dining room, which had been camouflaged by French doors. The French doors remain in the formal living room, leading to the covered side porch where black wicker furniture sits among flower-filled planters original to the home. “We love that side porch,” says Bruce. “Even in the heat of the day, you’re shielded from the sun there.”

In the living room, Sutton kept the changes minimal; the marble surround for the fireplace was replaced, as well as the bay window. The custom-made rug, for which the Behrens chose the threads, features the warm gold, terra-cotta and green hues that comprise the home’s base palette. Underneath, the original Douglas fir flooring peeks out, which was sanded down to remove the pits made by a previous owner’s golf spikes.

Among the antiques, many of which, like the secretary, were bought at Gaines McHale, a parrot perches atop the mantle and parrot-themed plates hang on the wall. “With my name,” says Polly, “I had to have some parrots.”

At the north end of the home, beyond the dining room with its original sconces hanging on walls covered in a rich crimson silk, the central hall leads to the new addition, into the spacious kitchen and living room that Bruce, a lifelong architectural enthusiast, began planning the day he and Polly first visited the home.

Sutton gave the roomy breakfast nook an outdoorsy feel with a tongue-and-groove wood ceiling, limestone floors and columns framing the windows that echo the home’s porch columns. To complete the rustic feel, Sutton bought chairs from the Kellogg Collection and had the wood darkened and added a wrought iron chandelier that hangs over a table that seats 12. The painting above the sideboard was done by local artist John Brandon Sills. “We like local artists,” says Polly. “We go to the Choral Arts benefit every year and buy work from the Schulyer School and the Steven Scott gallery.”

The kitchen, with its two generously sized islands, is designed to accommodate multiple cooks— which is ideal, says Polly, since her three daughters and her son-in-laws cook, as Bruce is learning as well. The counter under the west-facing windows contains the main sink and dishwasher, and is dedicated to cleanup. The central island is for prep, with its two refrigerated drawers housing the produce Polly uses to make salads. And the island nearest the living room features a wine refrigerator and an ice-maker, along with bar stools pulled up to the counter. “You can swivel and look at the kitchen or swivel and look at the TV,” says Polly.

Speaking of television, Sutton mentions a question that often arises in living rooms. “You don’t want to block the fireplace and you don’t want to block the view, so what do you do with the TV?”

Sutton’s solution was to hide the television in the built-in window seat, rigging it so that at the flip of a switch, the top of the window seat opens and the TV rises. With the flip of a different switch, shades descend from the ceiling to block the glare. “It’s pretty neat,” says Polly.

The room is furnished with a custom made oversized Turkish ottoman with steel legs and a corner cricket table bought from Gaines McHale. As in the living room at the opposite end of the home, the palette of golds and greens— chosen after Polly showed Sutton a box of Smith & Hawken soaps whose hues she admired— fairly glows in the sunlight.

Just as the original design and siting of the home exhibits a studied thoughtfulness— it faces east/west and is generally one room deep on the first floor, meaning that each room benefits from east- and west-facing windows, for example— Polly and Bruce took an extreme amount of care in their wish list for the renovation.

Polly is an avid flower-arranger; thus, the butler’s pantry that lies just beyond the kitchen features a cast-concrete sink as well as an extra dishwasher. With a lot of outdoor activity— gardening, golfing on the putting green, swimming— not to mention four grandchildren all aged three and under, Polly knew it would be a good idea to have a bathroom off the mudroom that was “less fancy” than the beautiful powder room off the home’s central hallway. As a bonus, Sutton designed the Behren’s cat a “living room” just off the bathroom. “There’s a tall counter with an arch under it,” says Polly. “The cat eats atop the counter, where the dog can’t get its food, and the litter box slides underneath.”

The Behrens also insisted that an elevator shaft be incorporated into the addition. “I’m not leaving this house until I have to be carried out, so we thought it was a good idea,” says Polly.

In creating the back stairway that leads from the butler’s pantry to the master bedroom suite, some might have chosen to skimp on details— it is a “back” stairway, after all. But not the Behrens, says Sutton. “Their thought and care carried through all of the workmanship and craftspeople,” he says. The woodwork on the stair rails and railing was painstakingly copied from the home’s main stairway, and an oval window that echoes the original windows was installed high on the stairway’s interior wall.

The stairway ends in a cozy sitting room from which one door leads into Polly’s walk-in closet, and another leads into the serene master bedroom, with its sliding French doors that give onto a balcony. “It’s great to wake up in here in any season,” says Polly. Sutton designed the windows so that no central sill would divide the view.

Through Bruce’s closet and past the master bedroom, a study in serenity with its light blue Venetian stuccoed walls and jade green floor tile, the new addition joins the “old house” in what was originally a sleeping porch perched above the original kitchen, and is now Bruce’s office and Polly’s painting studio. Beyond are three more bedrooms, a crib room, a laundry room and two more bathrooms. Above, on the third floor, are two more bedrooms, a playroom and a bathroom. “We’ve had 14 people sleeping here at once,” says Polly. “In our old house, we never would have had room to host our daughters and their families.”

In the summer, some of those guests can sun at the pool while others relax on the shaded porch, walk the grounds or putt on the green. “It’s like having our own private resort,” says Polly.

In the end, perhaps the most unusual thing about the story of the Behrens and their dream home is how much they enjoyed the renovation. “I loved it,” says Bruce. “I loved so many of the decisions related to the restoration, to the preservation, of the home’s beauty.”

“The process was equal to the outcome,” says Sutton. “Every decision the Behrens made was drawn from joy.”

MAY/JUNE 2006

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