A Custom Fit
How a pair of real estate pros transformed a somewhat cramped cottage into an ideal waterfront home
photograph by: john gruen
Among the handful of Fairfield County’s enviable seaside byways, where available properties are coveted and rare, fewer yet retain the timeless beauty of Harbor Road in Southport. As the well-preserved route along the village’s coastal boundary, its character and architecture are protected by a vigilant Historic District Commission, which reviews homeowners’ applications for renovations and restorations of harbor homes with thoughtful, thorough attention. To have a property here means following a set of architectural guidelines and rules that insure that the road and the surrounding district will retain its historic flavor into the future, despite periodic turnovers in ownership. The village and its residents like things as they are, and this cautious approach has preserved Harbor Road from the teardowns that have altered the character of other Fairfield County waterfronts.
Of course, aligning one’s dreams with a handbook of regulations can be daunting. When a turn-of-the-century, three-bedroom cottage came on the market a few years back, prospective buyers admired the direct waterfront and outstanding views of the Harbor and Long Island Sound, not to mention the rolling hills of the perfectly manicured golf course and backyards of nearby Sasco Hill estates. Still, they had to wonder how they might transform the compact piece of real estate into something suitable for contemporary living. The fine prospect — a broad view of the harbor from a protected inlet — was tempting, yet the home’s small size was, nevertheless, intimidating.
One couple with their eyes on this prize had the expertise to discern its potential. Bob Gibbons has broad experience as a developer of commercial and residential property. His wife, Elaine, has been a savvy real estate broker in the area for a couple of decades. While they were aware of the approvals process for renovating or restoring the house, they could also see beyond the awkward layout; the small, dark rooms; and an incongruous sunken family room with sliding glass doors leading to the back deck — all unfortunate remnants of the seventies. Yet in spite of the home’s apparent flaws, they were nevertheless captivated by the location.
And as anyone who has ever engaged in the hunt for a prime property will attest, location is the very first law of real estate.
The pair was not in need of a new home, though they have lived in a number of them. Elaine ticks off her Connecticut residential history: two homes in New Canaan, three in Wilton, one in Weston, one in Westport, and a few others. Obviously, real estate is her passion. “I can’t remember them all anymore,” says Elaine. “But we were living around the corner when this house came on the market, and we watched it for a while. Everyone who looked at it was a little afraid of it, because it was in the historic district. Our patience paid off, and we finally struck a deal.”
Then the work began, starting with a planning-and-approval process that took a year to complete. Although the house had to retain its original form and appearance on the outside, it needed a top-to-bottom exterior restoration as well as a completely reworked interior. To help them solve the design dilemmas and obtain the commission’s approval, the pair consulted architect David Scott Parker, a specialist in historically authentic restorations who has worked on a number of Southport residential projects.
While Harbor Road is lined with beautiful Greek Revival mansions, elaborate Victorians and even a couple of early Colonial homes, the house the Gibbonses now own is distinct from most of its neighbors. Although it was built in the Victorian period — town records say 1899, David Parker thinks it might have gone up in the 1880s — it has a simple, cottage form, rather than the turrets and other embellishments of the grander houses of its era. According to Parker’s research, the Gibbons place, its next-door neighbor and several others in town and in Westport were built by the Northrop brothers, master builders who worked in Southport and surrounding towns in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
“All of the houses in this particular style that the Northrops built are quite similar,” notes Parker. “They have three rooms up and three down. To get what they wanted, and also meet commission guidelines, Elaine and Bob had to completely remake the structure,” says Parker.
The couple had strong inclinations about the changes they needed. On the main floor, which was dark and cramped, interior walls had to be eliminated and the staircase moved. Elaine’s vision, in addition to adding an abundance of natural light inside, required that the public rooms offer a clear view of the harbor, from the front door to the back. While both Bob and Elaine knew they were dealing with a historically protected structure, they wanted to redo the interior to state-of-the-art building and technical standards.
The necessary surgery was dramatic. To create a master bedroom, a family room on the main floor, and a two-bay garage on the small lot, the seventies addition had to go; it was replaced with a structure on the same footprint that accommodated these three spaces. To craft an open floor plan and install twenty-first-century systems required a to-the-studs gut renovation. The interior load-bearing walls came down, replaced by steel beams that permitted the front-to-back vista that Elaine had imagined.
While the extreme makeover proceeded indoors, workers created an exterior that faithfully duplicated the home’s original appearance. Such was the precision of the restoration — two-over-two windows, custom-made porch brackets with the same star cutouts as the originals, and a new, hipped-roof box bay in the dining area that Parker believes was removed at some point in the home’s history — that the Northrup brothers, reappearing now, would instantly recognize their work.
Although well-thought-out and commission-vetted plans, and a capable construction crew handled the main elements of the project, the Gibbonses themselves orchestrated the finer details. Elaine was particular about materials; she wanted to avoid elements that have become almost generic to new construction. “I see granite everywhere. It’s a beautiful material, but I wanted something different for my own place,” she recalls. Scouring the stone yards, she found that limestone’s palette and texture suited her vision for the interiors. She used it in the baths and kitchen and it frames the new gas fireplaces.
While they have lived in larger houses, they embraced the discipline required to build within a prescribed and fairly rigid footprint to produce a space that lives large without an iota of unnecessary square footage. Cottage-style houses of this vintage are notorious for their lack of built-in storage, but Bob and Elaine handled the closet crisis with a large walk-in, adjacent to the master bedroom. In addition, the U-shaped kitchen features long runs of cabinets to accommodate the cooking, serving, and entertaining inventory. Moreover, Elaine pared down her possessions; she was ready. “It’s a good empty-nester house,” she says. “We’ve got the space we need: a place for ourselves, room for the grandchildren, and a lovely, open public space for entertaining.”
Husband and wife credit each other with the details that make the reborn house work so well. Bob, who is familiar with the evolution of smart house equipment from his work as a developer, had the house wired with the most up-to-the-minute system to control all its functions — multimedia, security, HVAC — at touchscreen terminals installed in strategic locations throughout the house.
Parker sums up the project as a combination of a modest yet charming and classic Carpenter Gothic house, with interiors that take full advantage of the sweet spot: location.