Old House, New Tricks
An 18th-century farmhouse gets a redo and a barn-raising
“By far, this was the best property we had seen, and the clients recognized it right away,” says Mac Patterson, recalling the day when he and the couple drove up to the hilltop parcel in Washington. The couple had enlisted Patterson’s firm, Austin Patterson Disston Architects, to help them find an old farm in Litchfield County as a second home. With a two-story frame house, a barn, and several outbuildings spread out on a generous amount of land, the property in Washington had everything they were looking for.
“The approach is a long driveway that passes through woods and emerges into farm fields—the view pops open to a fabulous cluster of barns and a main house,” Patterson says. “It is a wonderful sequential experience.” The five-bedroom house is built into the hill, and the front is almost a story above ground level. A long front porch provides a pastoral view of fields sloping down to a pond and a rising slope of woodland beyond. Based on his experience working on historic houses, Patterson estimates that part of the farmhouse dates from the 1700s, with a “major makeover” and expansion done in the 1860s. Some of the building’s most charming features, such as a double front door and a spacious front hall, resulted from the Victorian overhaul. With all their requirements met and then some, the clients pounced. Although the building was structurally sound, the new owners wanted to adapt the layout to their needs. “They have a specific way they use a house,” Patterson says. “She works at home and needed an office. He loved the outbuildings and was always poking around in the barn. They both cook and know what makes a good kitchen: you have to get from the stove to the sink to the fridge with no extra steps, and you need big pantries to see everything at eye level.”
They also asked Patterson to add a breakfast room and restore the intimate scale of the living room, which had been enlarged by a previous owner. Upstairs, they wanted to lose one of the bedrooms and re-use the space for a dressing room, a home office, and a master bathroom.
While the couple took refuge in a former shed that a previous owner had converted into a studio, the rehab got underway. One of the most striking results of the makeover is a dual passageway/pantry linking the sleek new kitchen and the adjacent breakfast room, which had been a sitting room. Re-using some honey-colored pine paneling in the old sitting room, Patterson built two deep portals, one on either side of the sitting-room/breakfast room fireplace. “You have the adjacency of the kitchen, but it’s not in your face if you’re in the next room,” Patterson explains. The wood glows with a patina of age. “The paneled walls of the sitting room had been butchered, so it felt good to use it in a way that brought out its character. After creating the walk-through pantries, we used the rest to line the breakfast room with a low wainscoting.”
In the kitchen, exposed ceiling timbers are painted white to match the rest of the ceiling, honoring the old structure while giving it a modern feeling. The ceiling coffers in the rest of the house are finished. Also downstairs, Patterson restored the front hall, with its curving staircase banister, and uncovered an upstairs window that allows light to illuminate the architectural details in the hall below.
To scale down the master bedroom and living room, while also creating space for the owners’ extensive library, he lined the rooms with deep bookshelves. An expansive armchair in front of a window in the master bedroom invites a comfortable read and at the same time fills the generous corner space. The new home office in a second-floor front room overlooks the pond. The owners chose light, creamy paint colors for the interiors, including the floor of the master bedroom. The warm tones pick up the natural light from the windows to give the spaces a contemporary ambience, in counterpoint to the building’s historical details.
Some of the most significant work took place outside. The house overlooks the long drive, which runs parallel to the front of the house—“We thought it was odd until we learned that the drive had been a public way,” Patterson says—before climbing the hill and ending in a parking area near the back door of the house. From here, no clear cues directed visitors how to enter the house. Patterson clarified the arrival sequence by redesigning the parking area, replacing the back door with a window, and creating a path through an existing stone wall to the front of the house.
Because the structurally shaky barns were important to the couple, they asked Patterson to shore them up. He strung them back together using cables and the existing timber. The result? “They still look like old barns,” he says.