Despite its romantic name, Rose Cottage seemed like something out of a horror movie. Neglected, deserted, and hidden away on 60 wildly overgrown acres in Bullville, Orange County, the stone house was unlikely to appeal to the faint-of-heart.
“It looked like a haunted house,” recalls Guy Clark, the Manhattan-based interior designer who first came across it five years ago. “There were trees engulfing it, vines were growing through the windows and into the attic, the front porch was falling off, and nothing worked.” And then there were the squatters: squirrels had chewed the windowsills, bats had invaded the attic, and 17 big snakes had set up camp in the cellar.
In other words, it was perfect — just the creative challenge Clark and his partner, fashion designer Harrison Morgan, were looking for. Clark, accustomed to gutting and redesigning Park Avenue apartments, was undaunted by the prospect of rescuing an 1847 stone eyebrow colonial teetering on the brink of ruin. When he was 12 years old, the Nyack native helped his mother renovate an old Vermont farmhouse. “We did all the work ourselves,” Clark says. Morgan, whose parents had a penchant for fixing up old homes in Atlanta, was also up to the task. And although the couple say their apartment in the city is “hyper modern,” Clark lets a space dictate what needs to be done. “I call him the House Whisperer,” Morgan says.
The house had certainly seen better days. It was built for a farmer named Seth Green, who was so proud of his new possession that he had his name carved into the stone on an exterior wall. (His builder, C. Wilkison, incised his own name, too, and in larger letters.) In the 1990s, it was owned by an eccentric singer named Carolina Manchester Casperson, who added a studio and a guest house, both featuring hand-forged hardware, antique glass, and timber salvaged from old barns. Surprisingly, she tore out half the heating system in the main house in an apparent effort to live like a 19th-century farmer. (“She had a Versailles-like fantasy,” suggests Morgan, referring to Marie Antoinette’s fondness for pretending to live like a peasant.) Subsequent owners included the British designer Laura Ashley, and famed makeup artist Kevyn Aucoin.
interior decoration needs to be done.
“I call him the House Whisperer,” says Morgan
By the time Clark and Morgan assumed ownership, the property presented a formidable “to-do” list. For starters, they had to clear the home of dirt, debris and wildlife. They ripped vines off the house, then replaced the roof (the old tin one was rusting), and added new plumbing and electrical wiring. They also rebuilt the fireplaces, re-pointed the stones (both inside and out), and resurrected the porch.
Some of the home’s finer features were worth saving, including the stenciled chestnut floor in the kitchen and the marble-and-slate fireplace surround in the living room. Other touches, like the hot pink Jacuzzi in an upstairs bath and the mauve Laura Ashley wallpaper in the master bedroom, were gone in a flash.
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Light was definitely a problem, as the house was quite dark. The kitchen, with its wood paneling, stone walls and small windows, was particularly gloomy. The solution? Wallpaper. “I wallpapered over most of the paneling with a historical wallpaper by Schumacher,” Clark explains. “The off-white background really added light to the room.” In the dining room, they applied nine coats of linen-white paint to the angled and paneled deep-set windows. Now, light bounces off the wood and into the room just as the builder intended. Clark and Morgan also installed skylights in the third-floor bedrooms, flooding the spaces with sunlight.
In the basement, site of the original kitchen, they covered the dirt floor with cement and painted the stone walls and ceiling white, creating an exercise room as well as a warehouse for the sweaters Morgan designs. On the second floor, they replaced a wall that had been removed by a previous owner to make a small sitting room off the charming guest bedroom. Because they liked the look of the stone walls, they left them unplastered.
In the living room, Clark chose a busy wallpaper pattern to camouflage the fact that the space used to be two separate rooms, each with its own style of windows, doors and trim. “It’s beautiful,” says Clark of the blue and white paper, “but it also distracts the eye from looking at the room’s architectural flaws.”
Clark explains. “I do it hoping to save
the house, to give it life again.”
The décor, which incorporates furniture from local antiques shops and auction houses, is eclectic. An old-fashioned tub discovered in a Kingston salvage yard occupies the master bath. Clark also contributed his own designs, converting a round table into a giant lazy-Susan coffee table, for example, and creating a chandelier for the living room. Modern paintings by Hunt Slonem mingle with landscapes by Hendrik Dirk Kruseman van Elten, a Dutch painter who depicted scenes from the Hudson Valley in the late 1800s. Beautiful old clocks abound, though none are actually ticking, because Clark hates the sound. Morgan, dismissing the need for working timepieces in a place where the present seems far, far away, explains that “time stands still here anyway.”
The relatively new outbuildings required much less work. “We did put new kitchens in both of them and painted the trim with a dark stain to match the aged cedar outside,” notes Clark. He and Morgan often use the studio for their design work. The guest house, once the furniture is removed to clear a dance floor, is perfect for parties. (The summer before last, they invited 180 people to celebrate the main house’s 160th birthday.)
The landscaping was chaotic. Years of neglect had obscured carriage trails and the once-thriving apple orchard. “We are constantly finding more apple trees in the woods,” says Clark. The biggest fans of those trees are probably the two Gypsy Vanner horses that happily romp across the property’s pastures. The small draft horses, originally bred by European gypsies to pull their caravans, come running at the prospect of a piece of fruit.
Though designing big-city apartments is the mainstay of Clark’s livelihood, he prefers working on old houses. “They have so much more soul,” he explains. “I do it hoping to save the house, to give it life again.”
As far as Rose Cottage goes, he and Morgan have indeed given it new life. They did it, says Clark, by channelling their respective talents and enthusiasms. Whether it’s designing clothes, furniture or interiors, it’s all part of the same process, he says. “All these things are just outlets for our creative energy.”
Keep reading to view some exclusive designer tips from Guy Clark
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A few design tips from Guy Clark
- A vintage table cut down to coffee-table height looks good in a room with antique furniture. Find an inexpensive one at a flea market or auction. If it’s a pedestal table, you may even be able to turn the cut-off section into a one-of-a-kind, quirky lamp.
- Divide a large bedroom into a sleeping area and a separate sitting room to make more inviting living spaces.
- Mix styles, especially in older houses, so that rooms don’t look “staged.” Any home that has been in a family for generations would have pieces from many periods.
- Stencils were often used to dress up floors back in the days when rugs were costly and scarce. Use them today to add interest, even on old, scarred floorboards.
- Begin decorating interiors using the colors that are present in a rug or carpet. Pick one color in the rug for walls, and others (or contrasting shades) for the fabrics in the room.
- If your house has a dark exterior, use light-colored paint for the windows and trim to make it brighter and more friendly looking.
For other easy ideas — including more from Guy Clark — check out our article “Design Tips From the Pros,” or visit Clark’s Web site at www.decoratorguy.com.