Once upon a time, the town of Greenwich, Connecticut, was the epitome of laid-back insouciance, a place where dapperly dressed-down neighbors might share their opinions on the latest Cheever novel over cocktails on the deck at sunset. In the years before and after World War II, the town—now synonymous with sprawling estates and manicured hedges—was mostly a collection of roomy, white-shingled 19th-century cottages and Victorians with covered porches that could be glimpsed from the street. It was quaint, in its own chic, literary way.
It was that ambience that Becky Birdwell, the former managing director of the Design Leadership Network, a trade group of architects and designers, was looking to capture when she and her partner of more than 15 years, Chris Lytle, an investor, found their own Greenwich spread with character to spare: a turn-of-the-century former ship captain’s home on an inlet off the Long Island Sound, in the doggedly discreet neighboring hamlet of Old Greenwich. There, the homes are slightly closer together, and the neighbors known for unpretentious bonhomie. Rocky beaches and a meandering nature preserve keep the forces of civilization at bay, making it the perfect setting to fulfill Birdwell’s ever-so-lightly retro fantasy. “I wanted to bring back the Greenwich of the 1930s,” she says. “Something elegant and a little sexy.”
Fronted by water on two sides, the five-bedroom house had great bones and unparalleled views, but needed a gut renovation. That didn’t faze Birdwell, who has spent her career around distinguished architects and designers; her list of like-minded collaborators was as vast as her imagination. Her first call was to the New York–based architect Joel Barkley, whose dreamy, artistic vision is enhanced by an obsession with quality and precision; her second was to the designers Bill Brockschmidt and Courtney Coleman, known for their deep historical references in a variety of traditional vernaculars as well as their fearlessness in reinterpreting those codes with unexpected brio. “We love that no one ever says, ‘Oh, that’s so Brockschmidt and Coleman’,” says Coleman, whose practice is split between offices in New York and New Orleans. “The idea is to go so deep with your clients that the house comes from inside them.”
While it’s not uncommon for a sophisticated homeowner to have a strong hand in creating their own residence, this particular project was an especially close collaboration, due to Birdwell’s depth of knowledge. From the reimagining of the interior structure (the floor plan was shifted to accommodate the couple, who have two dogs and a cat, as well as four grown children who frequently visit) and the exterior cladding (now painted black) to such pinpoint details as the Van Cronenburg hardware (“Like jewelry,” says Birdwell), every decision in the home was considered with academic intensity. Plenty of changes took place even after construction started (from beginning to end, it took more than three years), but instead of that being the burden it could have been in a more conventional client-designer relationship, it deepened the experience for everyone. “Chris would joke that Joel had to stop coming over for a drink because every time he did, we would start dreaming up something else to do and the house would get more expensive,” laughs Birdwell.
Having a daring client also meant that Brockschmidt and Coleman could explore one of their key passions: the frisson created by contrast. They were guided by Birdwell’s imagined aesthetic narrative: She wanted the house to look as though it had long belonged to a casual-but-stylish Greenwich clan in possession of old, good things; the sort of family that might get a kick out of seeing the younger generation jazz the place up. Such juxtapositions can be seen in every room. The dark-hued foyer, for example, leads to a light-flooded living room beyond, and the front door, with glass panes, is painted a glossy chartreuse. In the breakfast room, the mood is midcentury, with a red-painted aluminum 1950s pendant light fixture and a set of Saporiti dining chairs; on the wall hangs a large canvas by the Cuban artist Osvaldo Ferrer. The dining room, as well, blends traditional American antiques with unexpected features, including a pair of handblown light-blue glass lamps.
If there is a single room where all the sophisticated design codes come together, it is the living room, which perfectly conjures the atmosphere that Birdwell dreamed of. The weathered French oak flooring found throughout the house comes particularly alive here, contrasting vividly with an eye-catching sofa with 1950s contours. It’s upholstered in raw printed silk, a custom floral fabric adapted by Brockschmidt and Coleman from one originally used by Sister Parish and Albert Hadley. Birdwell had found a swatch of the textile years before, on a visit to the woman who designed it, Countess Tatiana Bobrinskoy of Zina Studio, who was then in her nineties. The designers worked and reworked the density of the pattern until the sky blue and snow-white blossoms now seem as though they might have blown inside from one of the graceful trees. “It makes me happy every time I look at it,” says Birdwell. “And isn’t that the only reason to go to all this trouble?”
This story originally appeared in the winter 2023 issue of Frederic. Click here to subscribe!