A Shore Thing

On this wispy thread of land, which skirts its way between a tidal cove and a yawning Long Island Sound, before widening into a peninsula shaped like a tomahawk, sits a house with many lives. Its first life was that of a casino, a spot for gathering (and dancing) but apparently not for gambling, built by Henry J. Lucas, an early land developer based in Mount Vernon, New York. He’d come to this area, then known as Sound Beach, by stage coach on weekends to take in the view and enjoy the point. The adjacent residential community he created is today known as Lucas Point.

Built some time in the 1890s, the house, originally known as the Greenwich Cove Casino, is situated on the skinniest part of the axe handle, just a few hundred yards away from the boundary of the estate of J. Kennedy Tod, for whom Greenwich Point is also named. Tod had parceled together his 147-acre manor from separate lots between 1880 and 1885, some 200 years after it was subdivided following its sale by the Indians. He named it Innis Arden, Gaelic for the “high meadows” common in his native Scotland. On his land, Tod constructed his crown jewel, a nine-hole, links-style golf course, one of the first in the country.

 

In 1899 Tod, Lucas and about sixty other chums formed the Innis Arden Golf Club, a private haven limited to 100 members. They re-purposed Lucas’s casino into a clubhouse of sorts; its most striking feature was the stone pillars and foundation fashioned of sizable boulders indigenous to the area. Photos from the period show gaggles of men gathered on that front porch, sporting top hats, a horse-drawn carriage in the background just steps from the beach. In the large central room, also known as the ballroom, they most likely sipped cocktails as a roaring fire burned in the large fireplace.

By 1900, an article in the May/June issue of Connecticut Magazine reported that the Innis Arden Golf Club held the record for the value of its links in the real estate market. “If cut into plots it is estimated that the links would net the owner half a million dollars,” said the story, before moving on to list the features of the club house, such as “bath, lockers, and lounging rooms,” as well as “boat docks on the Cove side and bathing houses along the Sound shore, where the beach is one of the best to be had anywhere.”

Sometime after 1904, upon arriving late for his usual Saturday game, Tod allegedly found all of his caddies already engaged by other golfing parties and imperiously closed the gates for good, forcing the golf club to move to another location. The building transitioned into a private residence.

Under the ownership of only three or four families in its entire lifespan, it underwent a series of hodge-podge improvements, renovations and additions—a carport, a yellow paint job, a garage, a swimming pool enclosed in glass—between the 1950s and the 1970s. For many years, though, it remained in the hands of a family with three daughters whose parties were legendary. (It is believed the indoor pool was added during this era).

A New Era
In April 2005, Donna Bass, a resident of nearby Riverside and a regular at Tod’s Point, received a call from Mairead O’Sullivan, the broker she had asked to keep her apprised of listings she and her husband might like. Mairead reported that the house they had gazed at from afar—one that residents of Old Greenwich who frequent Tod’s Point know well, by virtue of its visibility from the beach and its proximity to the road—was at last on the market. Donna hung up with the broker, immediately phoned her husband Michael and said, “Leave work right now.”

That was a Thursday, and by the following Monday, they had made an offer. And by July fourth, they had closed. “We love the energy of Tod’s Point,” says Donna. “We spent every weekend there when we lived in Riverside.”

Newspeople by day (Michael is a journalist turned media executive for NBC; Donna is a producer of NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams), inveterate sunset worshippers by nightfall, they fell in love not only with the site, but also with the history of the place. “I didn’t want to move unless I could have a sunset,” says Michael, who grew up in a West-facing house in the Berkshires. “In Greenwich we never thought we’d find one. And now, we literally see it from every room except the powder room. We start our day with the sunrise and end it with the sunset.”

Though they knew the house needed a significant update, they also wanted to preserve as much of the original detail as possible. “For us, the front porch was the key,” says Michael, adding that several builders they interviewed prior to beginning construction suggested tearing the house down. “But we wanted to protect history—the history of golfers in that front room, and the fun they had.”

They hired architect Ed Parker of Old Greenwich-based Alisberg Parker Architects, a South Carolinian who’d amassed a resume of experience working with old stone houses, and whose portfolio encompassed the shingle-styled silhouettes of Nantucket and Westerly, Rhode Island, that the Basses favored. “Ed loved the stone as much as we did,” says Donna, adding that other architects had encouraged them to consider a more contemporary looking flat-stacking technique—in which the mortar is not visible to the eye—to replace the plump stones. “But we had fallen in love with the round boulders.”

Parker immediately responded to the challenge, sketching well into the wee hours of the morning before the Basses had even closed on the house. When he presented those sketches, they knew they were in sync.

With some necessary reinforcements and adjustments, the architect managed to salvage the front porch, with its trademark stone piers and foundation, and the old ballroom with its large fireplace, incorporating much of the redesign into the original footprint. He designed an octagonal stair turret like a lighthouse that aligns with the driftway and affords enviable views in all directions (even the closet in the master bedroom has a view through a window). Fitted with a built-in bench, the turret facilitates air circulation and bathes the spaces below in natural light.

“The infrastructure was in very bad shape,” says Michael. “You could roll a marble across the floor where there was a huge dip. And the electrical wiring was like cups and string.” Undaunted, Parker decided to locate all the mechanicals on the main floor in the center of the house where the old staircase had been. He encased them in cinderblock, which did double duty as a support for the overall structure, and then reassembled the stone walls around the cinderblock. As a result, one of the original exterior stone walls now serves as an interior wall in the dining room, giving the space the feel of a candlelit catacomb.

Among Parker’s other nods to the building’s history were his decisions to retain the original ceiling beams of the ballroom, which were stripped, saved, refinished in a transparent coating, and reinstalled in the family room, and the original glass-paneled French doors which were shored up and used in the dining room and the sun-filled guest room. To evoke its beachy environs, he chose wood shingles—weathered to that perfect pitch of Cape Cod paleness—for the exterior and a shingle roof. The leaders and gutters are copper, and the entire half-acre lot is enclosed in a privet hedge.

“We were on a tight budget,” says Parker. “But the client was very good at spending money where it was needed, so they ended up with something that fits their personality, but where nothing is over-the-top or too high-end.”

The Plan Comes Together
Bringing the two-dimensional scheme to three-dimensional life, however, was no easy task. Following the closing in early July of 2005, nearly ten months rolled by, consumed by appearances before zoning and coastal commissions to vet plans and obtain permits.

By the time demolition could begin in April of ’06, the couple had hired Jeff Jutras of JefLyn Construction in Ridgefield. Having worked with Parker on other projects, Jutras had solid experience in brick and stone houses.

It was during the demolition, a job Jutras says required a delicate touch, that the Basses’ preservation plans hit some speed bumps. Jutras dug several test holes around the footprint to determine the condition of the foundation, and discovered that the house sat on boulders submerged in the equivalent of quicksand. Then, during the removal of the roof, some of the stone piers of the porch collapsed.

“The sand wasn’t sturdy enough to hold the new structure,” says Jutras. His solution was to drive pilings down into the bedrock, mount the pilings with steel-reinforced footings, and then pour the concrete foundation around the footings. Steel beams were then cantilevered off the pilings to support the porch and roof above. In addition, because much of the mortar between the stones in the piers had worn away, the piers were dissembled, and then replaced with steel columns that were encased in the original stones.

“In the event of a hurricane, this house is Noah’s ark,” says Donna, referring to the stringent requirements of the post-Hurricane Andrew coastal building code that influenced the renovation. “There are seventy-two joists in the family room.”

Jutras, who studied architecture for four years before turning to construction, worked with approximately twenty different subcontractors over the course of the project. “It was a lot of fun because there were so many roof lines,” he says. That roof features a gable near its apex, where Parker designed the silhouette of a fish, carved by hand, that riffs not only on the clients’ surname but also on a weather vane affixed to the roof of Michael’s parents’ home in the Berkshires. (The fish makes another appearance, along with a detail of waves, in the kitchen millwork, flanking the sink and the oven.)

When it came to hooking up the utilities, Jutras’s biggest challenge was tidal variation. He studied tidal charts to determine the optimal timing for excavation of an underwater sewer pipe that had deteriorated. “Because the house is so close to the beach, we had to mark out the lowest of the low tides so that we didn’t expose the sewer pipe to the water,” he says, explaining that there were mornings that the team was on-site at 6:30 a.m., digging by hand and sending the plumber down into the hole to make the hook-up. Decayed sewer pipe, collapsing piers, and pilings driven into bedrock aside, the Basses were able to move into their new home, one that measures approximately 5,300 square feet, in July of 2007.

“It’s like being on vacation every day,” says Michael. “There’s a sense of peace when you walk in the house and wake up in the morning to a burning orange sun that comes up over the gleaming water.” The couple, who have three young children, say they spend much of their summer evenings sitting out on the back porch overlooking the cove. “We appreciate it every day,” he says.

“We’re still pinching ourselves,” says Donna. “And we’ve seen a lot of sunrises and sunsets, but none gives us chills like these do. And nobody wears shoes until the end of November.” One can only imagine what the cocktail-sipping members of Innis Arden Golf Club would have thought of that.

 

 

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