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A Home in the Country

Martha Stewart Living, April 2008

About 110 miles northeast of New York City, where the Connecticut River meets Long Island Sound, city residents experience a wonderful time warp and get to live each season twice: Spring and summer arrive later than in Manhattan, and fall and winter come earlier. In this verdant rural region, the flowering trees seem to bloom all at once -- dogwoods, vibernums, and crab apples. "It all really pops and comes alive in the first week of May," says antiques dealer Angus Wilkie, who has owned a foursquare early-19th-century cottage on four acres for 18 years. His partner, Len Morgan, an architect, adds, "We really look forward to and enjoy our 'second spring' in Connecticut."

The two own Cove Landing, a New York City shop that sells rarefied and intriguing items such as an Anglo Chinese writing chest, a Flemish carved ebony mirror, tortoiseshell scissors, and a whalebone letter opener. And their weekend home is just as varied, a mix of classic American style and offbeat European sophistication. The two-story, four-bedroom house, built around 1820, appears simple and straightforward from the street, its front yard edged with crisp hedges, its walkways lined with lavender. But even the approach is deceptive. It has been carefully calibrated by Morgan. A visitor driving toward the property travels underneath a three-story L-shaped barn, parks in a gravel-filled courtyard, and passes through an airy summer-house before finally reaching the main house.

Inside, the surprises continue. "The house is a good representation of what we sell," Wilkie says. In the living room, floats from fishing nets contrast with lightning rods from Maine and tinsel pictures of flowers and fruit. In the dining room hangs a collection of gouaches of Mount Vesuvius. A guest room is given over to Biedermeier furnishings. (Wilkie wrote one of the first authoritative books on the subject.) "Finding a new, unusual object is like learning a word," he says. "People say that when they come to our house, they discover so many unusual things."

Wilkie, who worked at Christie's for 10 years, has an appreciation for structure and planning, and he knew the minute he saw the house that it was ideal. "Its bones are very good," he says. "One owner before us had the house for about 60 years. There were nice old wooden-plank floors that we waxed and a fantastic old kitchen sink. In the beginning, the rule was to leave well enough alone."

That laissez-faire approach paid one immediate dividend. At the last minute, the home's previous owner removed a mural depicting Connecticut village greens, leaving the living room walls covered with glue remnants, lines, and scuff marks. Where others might have seen chaos, Wilkie saw art: "a pretty, mottled pattern. It looks like someone's gone to great effort to achieve that trompe l'oeil effect."

"The house tells you what to do or not to do," Morgan adds. "It might have been tempting to rip out the pantry or combine it with the kitchen. But after living in a place for a while, it's possible to see that a pantry could be very convenient." The pantry was given an upgrade, however. Its walls were covered with white paint, and the oak countertops were coated with varnish. In the kitchen, the cabinets, the window frames, and the staircase now pop in a bright, gleaming red. "Red delivers a big, punchy zing," Morgan says. "It picks up architectural details perfectly."

After nearly two decades, project by project, the property has achieved a sense of calm that comes from everything being in its place. "It's very comfortable to be here," Wilkie says. "It's a very lived-in house." Recently, Mother Nature asserted herself into their well-ordered lives. A storm knocked over a small shed containing a water cistern, and a new home project was born. As usual, the two are considering every possibility before proceeding. "It could become a lookout tower," Wilkie says, "or a pavilion, or a greenhouse." Says Morgan, "It will be yet another little event."

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