Once again, less is more, and this is as true in home and garden design as in practically everything else. We’re finding that restraint not only reveals the bones of good houses and properties but tends to amplify those singular pleasures in which we do indulge.
Which makes what Rick and Betsy Skae did, and didn’t, do to the 1863 Federalist Colonial and land they bought in New Canaan ten years ago most noteworthy. By the time the couple moved in, the 6,000-square-foot house had already been aggrandized with two-story columns, and over the years the grounds had been whittled down to three and a half acres.
The Skaes freshened the formal structure while maintaining an early country feeling, then turned their attention outdoors.
The Skae property isn’t grandiose by Fairfield County estate standards. And although the grounds fall gradually away from the house, there was enough room and potential for the one new thing the couple really wanted: a backyard pool with hot tub. They just wanted it to look as if it had always been there. “Sometimes people put a pool in and it looks like it fell out of the sky,” Betsy notes.
But given their sensibilities, they also wanted the pool to be in an attractive setting and to match the tempered sophistication of the house. Four years ago Betsy hired a friend, landscape designer Diane Bilgore of DAB Design in Ridgefield and South Salem, to help do all that, and a little more.
“It’s one of my favorite properties,” Diane says. “It has a very old feel to it, but what’s remarkable is its historical correctness, not only in the architecture but in the stonework and choice of plant materials. There’s nothing loud here. It’s a very quiet property.”
First, the designer set the stage out front with a narrow, 200-foot-long shade garden, bordering the street and an early stone wall, of themed perennials and annuals in Betsy’s favorite colors—not the usual flashy reds, but soft greens and whites: ferns, hellebores, tricyrtis (toad lilies), hydrangea, Baby Whitewing begonias.
As with much of the other work done on the grounds, this was a collaborative effort. “Betsy has a fantastic eye,” observes Diane. “She doesn’t have a horticultural background—she may not know the names of the plants—but she really knows texture and scale.”
A PLEASING AND FITTING DESIGN
Since the focus of the grounds was to be the new pool, Diane came up with a design that would present and frame it in a way that was both pleasing to the eye and in keeping with the casual formality of the old house. In the fifteen-foot section of lawn between the house and the spot where the pool would sit, she created a small courtyard to serve as a kind of calming vestibule to counter the sun and splash of the pool area. It is a classical parterre of four planted beds with a boxwood at the center and gravel paths arranged to form a pleasing, symmetrical enclosure. Iron edging, tightly clipped hedges, and gravel paths contain the plantings. “When you walk in the courtyard and driveway, it’s a quiet, crunching sound,” Diane says, “and so different than asphalt.”
An antique armillary sphere that Betsy found helps ground the garden and serves to center the pool’s axis. Betsy feels that the courtyard “pulls the house into the pool area for me and connects the two.”
Since the backyard slopes away, the courtyard lies three steps down from the back of the house and the pool one more step down. Care was taken to move earth and create a natural-looking plinth for the excavation and surrounding bluestone deck. Based on a pool at another house the Skaes owned, the new, twenty-by-forty-five-foot pool, composed of gunite and constructed by Mark Swimm of Swimm Pools in Darien, is six and a half feet deep in the center and shallow at both ends, with gracefully curved staircases mirroring each other across the blue surface.
Symmetry rules this area, as it does just about everywhere else. “I’m very symmetrical,” admits Betsy. “I picked the shape of the pool because it is kind of formal, but it’s also somewhat casual due to the curved ends. They allowed us to put the big pots on either corner.” A particular challenge in designing pools invariably is how to blend the required fencing with the existing house. Rather than use wrought iron or bright-white wood, Betsy and Diane went with a fence and gate of natural wood over walls of old stone. Bordering the pool are hydrangea and perennial vines, like autumn-blooming clematis, along with beds of vibrant annuals that play off the water. “It’s a big show all summer,” Diane says of the area, “and in the winter it’s a clean and structured look.”
If the Skaes are fond of water, they’re particularly fond of trees. In fact, “We love trees!” Betsy proclaims. Rather than clear-cut the land, she had Gossett Brothers Nursery of South Salem, New York, move some twenty mature trees in order to open up the view from the back of the house and the pool deck.
Betsy also loves old stone. The antique pots, faux bois planters, and weathered iron armillary are from Pickets in Fairfield, a shop that specializes in garden antiques and decorative accessories. The armillary’s stone pedestal was found on the property.
Despite the changes to suit the needs and style of the Skaes, the overall look of the property is natural and fitting for New Canaan —wood and stone in harmony with traditional plantings and antique garden ornaments. “It probably doesn’t look like we did a lot,” says Betsy, “but we’ve done everything to maintain the property’s integrity. I think we’ve done a lot of good here.”