photograph by: Hülya kolabas
If you’ve spent extended time on an island, the briny air and light off the water and sand can seep under your skin and stay with you. And if that island is Nantucket, the clean lines, graceful ease and sea-glass colors of the cottages can inhabit your imagination in a way that waterfront mansions on the mainland don’t seem to do.
“Nantucket houses have a very strong presence but in a much simpler way than what’s typical of new houses in Fairfield County,” explains Bruce Beinfield of Beinfield Architects PC in Norwalk, who has studied the island’s architecture and designed new houses there. “Many clients tell us they want a Nantucket-style house, but most don’t really know what that means. Suzanne and Sandy Rand did.”
What the Darien couple also came to realize is that it’s possible to have Nantucket right here in Fairfield County.
Suzanne Rand spent her childhood on that jewel of an island off the Massachusetts coast. Sandy grew up in a big 1920s French Provincial house at the mouth of Cos Cob Harbor in Riverside. Together, they raised three children in his childhood home and spent every summer and early fall with other family members on Nantucket, where they also have a place.
Four years ago, after their son moved to New York City and both daughters married and settled in the area, the couple began thinking of their new life together — and their next house. “Our daughters live nearby, so we knew there wouldn’t be overnights,” Suzanne says. “We wanted something adult; we wanted to be able to entertain. What we didn’t want was to build some big place. We wanted small and clean and fresh.” Also desiring to be near their daughters, future grandchildren and Sandy’s job in Greenwich, they sought a new, smaller, waterfront house in the immediate area.
What they found, though, after months of looking, was something old: a 1920s cottage on Five Mile Harbor Road in Darien with a pink stucco exterior, small windows and virtually no views of the harbor. The Rand family home, though much bigger, suffered a similar lack of vision. “Houses from that era were trying to protect themselves from the water, so there were no big expanses of glass,” Suzanne reasons.
The good news was that the small, narrow lot would be easy to maintain, and it ran down to an old dock that extended 280 feet into the channel — something that, due to zoning restrictions, could not be built today. Then came an opportunity: Bruce Beinfield, whom they had hired to renovate the cottage, told them the place was in such poor condition that renovation wasn’t an option. It would be better to tear the place down and start from scratch. The Rands could be as close to the water as zoning permitted, in a house for two with enormous water views, and in a style close to the couple’s heart — “New England Island” — without leaving the mainland.
In a day when McMansions have dominated the county’s Gold Coast, Beinfield had an antithetical idea in designing the new house for Suzanne and Sandy. “What the house didn’t do,” he says, “was as important as what it did.” So instead of looking up or down the coast for reference points, he looked out to sea. “That meant reducing the big-house-on-the-water forms back down to the simple boxes that are found on Nantucket.”
Inward and Windward
Still, the building lot was firmly anchored to Darien, and that meant — at least for this couple with deep roots in southern Connecticut — a structure that could fit into two mindsets at the same time.
From the street, the Rand house presents a somewhat buttoned-down face to passersby. It’s a traditional Colonial, the formal entrance a solid paneled door framed by pilasters and a plain entablature (the section between the columns and the roof), with the standard suburban two-car garage bumped out from the façade to semienclose the front of the house. Beyond the front door, the interior is standard Colonial, too: The small foyer leads straight ahead to a staircase and front hall, with a small sitting room off to the left.
However, it is also very much a Nantucket building: a pure and simple form, unadorned with architectural detail and sheathed in islandlike gray shingles. At 3,800 square feet, it may be bigger than most traditional island cottages, if relatively small for this neck of the woods. But Beinfield’s firm created the illusion of restraint by using nine-over-nine double-hung windows on the first floor. Somewhat oversized, they are nonetheless in proportion with the façade, thereby keeping the scale of the building down.
Although the narrowness of the lot determined that the garage pop out at a cocked angled from the façade, with its trio of shuttered windows and a central, latticed trellis on the street-facing wall, this could easily pass for a small outbuilding of the type frequently found on the island.
People who live on the water tend to consider the back of the house the front. For the Rands the back is both grand entrance and portal to the heart of their home. Here, they can let it all hang out — and let the harbor in.
The backyard is a 650-square-foot patio connecting the old pier to the new house. Naturally, it doubles as a fresh-air foyer and an outdoor room for parties and family gatherings. Running nearly the width of the lot, this expanse of stone might feel hemmed in if not for the next-door neighbors’ spacious, rolling lawn — a carpet of greenery Sandy doesn’t have to mow.
Inside, the rear space is as open as the view. Basically, it is a large, L-shaped space composed of a casual living room, dining area and long kitchen, running from the back of the house to the front, with a central island and a breakfast table. What draws the patio and harbor in are glass doors and an enormous window that the previous house on the property lacked.
“The big window pulls all the water in but still blends in with traditional island architecture,” says Mark Goldman, an architect in Beinfield’s office who worked on the Rand project. “Rather than have a big expanse of glass, we dialed that back by using oversized panes but divided lights (individual panes framed by mullions), as if the back were a porch that was closed in for the winter.”
Light calls for a light touch. To take advantage of the water view and play of light, the Rands hired decorator Lynn Morgan, of Lynn Morgan Design in Rowayton, who has worked with Bruce for twenty years and is familiar with Nantucket style. In Beinfield and Morgan, the couple found the perfect team to replicate a piece of the island on the Connecticut mainland.
“Bringing Nantucket to Darien wasn’t hard to do,” Lynn says. “We kept the design simple but crisp and clean and fresh. The whole house is a reflection of the Rands.”
After Suzanne and Sandy divided the furniture from the old family house among their children and stored the rest, Lynn mixed what they had kept — pine tables and cabinets, maritime art, Nantucket-style baskets that Suzanne makes — with new pieces she selected and custom-woven rugs from Nantucket Looms. Then she splashed the space with a palette of island colors: sea-glass greens and blues, sea rose and coral, reed browns. “The tonalities lined up and worked together,” Lynn says.
All the objects are defined, even illuminated, against walls painted a high-gloss but creamy white that’s given depth and drama with the hint of indigo. This is an instance of interior design as art: thought-through but casual, maintaining a rare spareness that is somehow also full of the stuff that matters to two people who have raised a family and spent most of their life together.
“This house isn’t big, so everything had to fit,” Suzanne says. “Lynn has a great sense of proportion. She put our things around us so that we can look at them, but in an uncluttered way.”
Thanks to the existing dock, there’s also room for Sandy’s boat — a Regulator that he’s owned for more than thirty years — aboard which he plies the river with his grandchildren as mates.
The couple has settled into a new house with a timeless feel, a vacationlike home that can accommodate three generations year-round. “It sort of feels like a summer house, but it also feels like home. This house is a little more finished, more put together,” Suzanne says.
And despite an abiding attachment to Nantucket, she has found that life on the mainland has other advantages as well. “There aren’t piles of sandals everywhere, and sand on the floor, and buckets of shells outside. There aren’t wet towels on the doorknobs and railings.”