In 2007, when interior designer Markham Roberts and his partner, antiques and art dealer James Sansum, bought a defunct 19th-century dairy farm as a weekend retreat, they figured they knew what they were in for. Between them, the couple possesses many decades of historical knowledge, both aesthetic and practical. A restoration project, no matter how ambitious, can contain only so many surprises. Sansum had first glimpsed the property while driving through New York’s Hudson Valley, and fallen headlong for the elegant white-clapboard, three-story house with graceful slate mansard roof and a wide wraparound porch, overlooking six acres of verdant pastures. Built in 1876 for a gentleman farmer, it is a stellar exemplar of the Second Empire style so popular in America during the Centennial, when Francophilia was all the rage.
Time had not been kind to the place. The grand rooms, with their high ceilings and tall windows, were in terrible shape, and bore conspicuous reminders of the three previous owners, including “crazy-hideous 1970s rugs and wallpapers,” Roberts recalls. Taking care of that would be the easy part, he thought; presumably, whatever major challenges lay in store would be of the invisible, structural variety. Then they moved in. It was early June, all blue skies and fair weather. Roberts and Sansum had long kept a storage space full of treasures they couldn’t fit into their Manhattan apartment; emptying it out at long last was immensely satisfying. On their first evening, after a day spent moving their old finds into spacious new living quarters, they brought their cocktails out onto the lawn. Before they could toast their good fortune, however, the air darkened and started to roar with the soft, rapid whirring of bats. “Hundreds of them! Thousands!” Roberts recalls. “It was like something out of Scooby Doo!”
That summer, a team of bat-removal experts in hazmat suits created funnels for the bats to escape through without returning, gently ridding the attic beneath that eye-catching mansard roof of an exceptionally massive bat colony. It was a fitting start to an ambitious restoration that’s now 15 years in the making—and remains ongoing. “It’s been daunting at times,” Roberts says, “but we took it slowly, and have never regretted it.” Along the way, they’ve created a deeply intimate living space, one that touches on the macabre and speaks to the era of the house, mansard roof and all—a far cry from the polished, pulled-together decor that Roberts is known for.
Central to their unhurried pace is a budget that wouldn’t allow for fixing everything all at once, forcing them to progress in fits and starts, and relax into the unexpected pleasure of operating without time constraints. “I love what I do. But when I get home after a long day, the last thing I want is to make more decisions,” Roberts says. “Just like it’s easier to give emotional advice to a friend than to yourself, it’s easier to make a client’s design decisions than it is to make my own. For my own space, it’s so nice to have the luxury of time.”
With 18 rooms and five fireplaces, the house offers endless opportunities for arranging their vast store of paintings, objets, and fabrics into unexpected pairings and layers. The result is an irresistibly dark, textured moodiness in which lush Gilded Age mainstays—fabric walls and lampshades, tufted upholstery, fringed table skirts, antique bibelots galore—are refreshed with bare wood floors, white walls, natural textures, and a mix of old and new artworks.
Certain moments felt meant to be, as if fate had a hand in the decor: In the 1980s, while working for Mark Hampton as a fledgling designer, Roberts had pounced on the chance to buy fifty yards of Clarence House fabric that was being decommissioned. For the next 20 years it sat in storage. By the time he got around to doing his own study, he knew this was where the fabric belonged. He backed it with paper and used it to cover the walls; “there was exactly enough material to make it work perfectly,” he says.
Bit by bit, room by room, the couple eased into making the Hudson Valley their primary residence. Over the years, they’ve bought up the surrounding land, and now possess 55 acres. They even turned the falling-down carriage house into a studio, where Roberts can scheme and draft his work designs in peace, far from the clamor of ringing phones. “We’ve done everything we can that doesn’t require moving out,” Roberts says.
These days, Roberts limits his nonstop decision-making in the city to one or two days a week, freeing him to spend the bulk of his evenings exactly as he likes: snuggled on the sofa with Sansum and their Schnoodle, Harriet. The house has continued to throw the occasional challenge their way—there was a problem with bees, and another with squirrels—but nothing else, not yet at least, to rival the shock of that dark whirring swooping swarm of bats.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE FALL 2022 ISSUE OF FREDERIC. CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE!