The stucco-clad house in the highly coveted Tokeneke neighborhood had languished for a while in the otherwise white-hot Gold Coast market of 2005. One of the town’s older homes, set into a hillside and fabricated in nearly indestructible concrete, its unusual form and small, dimly lit rooms discouraged many buyers who were lured by its desirable location.
Because tile roofs and masonry construction are not standard New England architectural materials, it took a couple of California natives to see potential in the dowager villa. For them, the house evoked their sunny home state, even though the years had faded its beauty.
“We’ve always loved this style,” remarks Maggie Cellar, who is quickly seconded by her husband, Kurt.
The couple, who lived in Rowayton at the time, had decided to remain in the East but wanted a home with a West Coast vibe.
The previous owner, a dealer in European antiques, had enhanced the continental flavor of the interiors with some beautiful fixtures and fittings. The house boasted original flooring of small, terracotta tiles in the public rooms, and quarter-sawn oak in the family quarters. The masonry structure was undeniably solid, yet the place still had its drawbacks.
“The original windows were very small,” recalls Maggie, who pulls out some old “before” images that she and her husband saved. “Because the house is built into a hill, the kitchen is essentially underground. Even though we thought there were some great features, it was all a bit cavelike. The place had none of the light and flow of the Mediterranean-style houses we knew in California.”
Nonetheless, Kurt saw the possibilities beyond the shortage of daylight, the dark-stained wood elements, and the many partitions that broke up the space into uncomfortably proportioned rooms. With an eye toward renovation, the couple took the plunge and bought the home.
Enlisting the services of Lisa Gray of Gray Organschi Architecture in New Haven, the couple visualized their new house filled with plenty of light. This included renovating the pool area and adding openings to the house so that the outdoor space would integrate seamlessly with the new interiors. The goal was a comfortable family space with ample room for entertaining, indoors and out.
The architect, who grew up in a vintage 1927 house nearby and went to school in Tokeneke, remembered the home from her own childhood. “I have a special fondness for old houses, because I grew up in one. I admired the Cellars’ home as one that is completely unexpected and, at the same time, quite beautiful.”
She was also aware that the project would be technically challenging. “The home is solid and will be there long after everything around it has disappeared, but it needed light, and warmth, and a connection to the outdoors. Moving anything made of poured concrete is difficult, so we tried to make those changes that provided the maximum impact.”
Bringing the house up to twenty-first-century standards proved no small undertaking. The major systems needed replacement, and the entire house had to be insulated to make it energy efficient. “The electrical system was the old knob and tube variety,” Kurt remembers, referring to wiring that went out of favor in the 1930s. “That had to go. We also had to strip the walls and build them out with wood studs so we could insulate.”
Because of the home’s unusual construction, many improvements required special equipment or materials. “It wasn’t your average wood-frame structure,” admits Duane Dobyan, principal of Dobyan and Dobyan, general contractors for the project. He and his team used subcontractors from as far away as Massachusetts to find the highly skilled labor required for the renovations. To add windows and increase the size of existing openings, his team used diamond saws to cut through the masonry, which is more than a foot thick.
The Cellars saved certain elements from the old interiors and renewed others. In the breakfast area, they retained the beautiful Moroccan wrought-iron window grilles and shutters that the previous owner had installed. To repair the terracotta flooring, Maggie found matching salvaged tiles from France, through the Ann Sacks showroom in Greenwich.
In the upper-level family room/library, they kept one triad of original windows but removed some old shelving and installed new cabinetry. They also added pocket doors, which disappear into the walls so that space flows into the other public areas. As part of the reconfiguration, an unnecessarily large first-floor powder room was scaled down so that Kurt could use the square footage for a climate-controlled wine room.
The exterior also underwent a major revision. Since the house is virtually encircled by patios and terraces, there was room for the hot tub that Kurt coveted, outside the library. “Coming from California, he just had to have one,” says Maggie.
The focal point of the landscape was the pool area, which called for a complete restoration and upgrade. The couple kept only the shell of the original pool, replaced the piping and drains, replastered, painted it a soothing blue-green, and retiled. To make this outdoor space the centerpiece for warm-weather entertaining, Maggie and Kurt also added a stone fire pit and a fully equipped stainless-steel outdoor kitchen. Nine months into the renovation, the Cellars moved in with their two children while the contractors worked on the remaining exterior projects.
With strategically placed, larger windows and a central skylight on the upper level that Lisa Gray had designed to suffuse daylight throughout both floors of the house, the character of the interior was changed completely. The cavelike rooms had been transformed into a sunny, open space.
With the style of the new surroundings so clearly defined, it was easy to apply the Cellars’ California sensibilities to interior design considerations.
Bright white walls of textured plaster reflect and amplify the light—an effect that took a few tries for the plasterers, guided by the owners, to achieve. “We drove the plaster people crazy,” remembers Kurt. “We kept telling them, ‘chunky, not swirly,’ so they made three samples for us on boards, and we picked. They really got it right!”
Maggie enjoyed the process of filling the refurbished home with favorite things. She scoured local shops in Darien, Stamford, and other neighboring towns for just the right pieces. Now, furnishings in luscious colors, decorative accessories that include the couple’s favorite paintings by Cambodian artist Pakan Penn, and flooring and other elements preserved from the home’s early days all bask in the glow of flattering natural light.
With its fine points polished and lit from within, the home was ready to receive admirers. As they opened the house to friends and neighbors—the couple enjoys entertaining—Kurt and Maggie heard many anecdotes about its considerable history. “Depending on the generation, people knew different owners and interesting facts about the place,” says Kurt. “Some long-time locals remembered big parties that the owners in the seventies threw for their friends and neighbors. There are even rumors of catacombs beneath the house, though we never found them.”
One expert on town history provided the answer to the couple’s question about painted relief tiles, depicting angels, installed in three locations around the house. One such tile can be seen on an exterior wall adjacent to the pool. “Apparently there are two other houses in town that were built by the same man. No one is sure why, but he installed these angel ceramics in each house,” says Maggie.
She smiles at the recollection of discovering the origin of the home’s unusual totems. “It’s nice to be known as the people who own one of the angel houses of Darien.”