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A Home That Makes Time Travellers of Its Inhabitants

By Kate Branch

In the dining room, a modern pendant lamp by Menu contrasts with the old hickory ceiling beams.
 
Matthew Williams
In the dining room, a modern pendant lamp by Menu contrasts with the old hickory ceiling beams.

On a summer afternoon in 2017, a couple on a weekend trip from Manhattan were getting their car serviced at an auto shop in Callicoon, N.Y., a small town in the Catskills. To pass the time, they decided to wander up a nearby hill. At its top, they happened upon an old fieldstone house with robin’s egg blue shutters, a covered porch and an ancient-looking sycamore shading its back lawn. They were so charmed by its storybook appeal that they knocked on the front door. And though it wasn’t officially on the market, its owner, whose family had lived in the home for generations, was in turn so charmed by the couple’s enthusiasm and personal connection to the area (the paternal grandfather and father of one of the visitors were both born nearby) that she sold them the property — the 1,500-square-foot house, together with a large wooden barn and four-and-a-half acres of rolling farmland — just a few months later.

Soon after, the new owners commissioned the Brooklyn-based design firm General Assembly — which is known for marrying older architectural styles to the present-day demands of its clients, and had experience renovating stone houses — to refurbish the three-bedroom residence. Two years later, they moved in — serendipitously, the same week New York City went into lockdown last March. When they began the project, it wasn’t entirely clear what this place would become for their growing family (the couple has a young daughter and is expecting a second child) but they knew they wanted it to be comfortable and modern, with one small caveat: The stone could not be touched.

Matthew WilliamsThe west facade of the stone house, with the wood barn behind; A window frame with a shelf made of blue stone sourced from a local quarry.
The west facade of the stone house, with the wood barn behind; A window frame with a shelf made of blue stone sourced from a local quarry.

“It was a great opportunity to take a house with such depth and history to it and remake it to suit a contemporary family,” says General Assembly’s founder, Sarah Zames. “Not only has this home been there for quite awhile,” adds her business partner, Colin Steif, “but it was built using materials and techniques that you don’t really see that much anymore, like the three-foot-thick stone walls.” Indeed, the house — constructed in the late 1700s during the Revolutionary War, and updated with a two-story addition in around 1877 — is the only one of its kind in the quiet town, and its walls were initially intended to keep the elements out — or, at certain times, in. “The stone keeps it cozy in the winter and cool in the summer,” says Zames. “But for us, most of the benefits are aesthetic — for instance, the way the deep walls shape the light and allow for really beautiful, dramatic spaces inside.

”To enter the home is to travel back in time, but without encountering any Old World inconveniences: it’s cozy, minimal and full of character. Steif and Zames reconfigured the first floor, which had previously been divided into several small rooms, as a mostly open-plan living area that includes an entryway, a kitchen and an informal, versatile space that the couple call “the everything room,” complete with a sitting area, wood-burning fireplace and children’s play corner. To showcase the beauty of the old walls, which were formerly covered in plaster, the designers stripped them and then let the newly exposed slate and burnished red shades inform much of the palette for the first floor: a moody mix of deep blues, dark greys and soft browns. The designers also added heated floors made from locally sourced hard white pine, a “humble material,” says Steif, and one often used in traditional buildings. They repurposed whole-trunk ceiling beams made from hickory, found inside a former blacksmith’s shop on the property, and used them throughout the house, choosing furniture that would complement them: for the kitchen, a pair of solid oak bar stools from the London-based design studio Another Country that were modelled after seats seen in smoking bars and cottages in 19th-century England; for the living room, a midcentury Danish oak lounger with velvet cushions designed by the Madrid-born artist Jaime Hayon; for the entryway, a simple Shaker-style bench and coat rack made by a woodworker who lives down the road. Then there’s the orb-shaped floor lamp with a white stone base — by the Brooklyn-based studio In Common With — that stands in the dining area, just as a torch or candleholder might have in a bygone era.

Matthew WilliamsIn the living room, a beech armchair by the Swedish designer David Ericsson and a maple stool by the Montréal-based furniture maker Loïc Bard offset the building’s original walls; Light from a second-floor window illuminates the staircase.
In the living room, a beech armchair by the Swedish designer David Ericsson and a maple stool by the Montréal-based furniture maker Loïc Bard offset the building’s original walls; Light from a second-floor window illuminates the staircase.

While the house is mostly finished in neutral hues, there are pockets of brighter colour that make the space feel subtly more modern. The first-floor main bedroom and bathroom, for instance, which together comprise the building’s original late 18th-century structure, are partially painted a salmon pink and decorated with lithographic prints of yellow billed magpies and blue jays from John James Audubon’s 1827 “The Birds of America,” along with miniature gilded statues of finches. (One of the homeowners is an amateur birder, and North American birds feature prominently throughout the space: another Audubon illustration, this one of two owls, hangs over the contemporary oak dining table and outside, beyond the living room’s north-facing glass side door, a bird feeder on a pear tree sways in the wind.) But perhaps the most vibrant room of all is the first-floor powder room, which is adorned in an earthy green floral-print wallpaper by Farrow & Ball that nods to the home’s natural surroundings.

Otherwise, there is very little in the way of prints or paintings. Instead, there are 20 windows — far more than are typical in stone houses of this era — that have been refinished in blue stone from a local quarry and offer views of the Catskill Mountains and the property’s many trees: red and sugar maples, a black cherry, a sweet birch, spruces, white pines and an ancient apple tree that, to the family’s delight, continues to bear delicious fruit. In the upstairs bathroom, which is covered in white tile of varying finishes by the Californian company Heath Ceramics, a window overlooking a neighboring homestead, owned by a family who has farmed there since the early 1800s, takes the place of a mirror above the sink. The designers and homeowners’ favourite view, however, is that of the pond on misty mornings, framed by the upper section of a Dutch door in the kitchen.

Though the renovation was meant to provide the couple, self-proclaimed die-hard New Yorkers, with a vacation home — a place to unwind and recharge outside of the city — they have spent more time there than anticipated. On the weekends, they shop at the farmers’ market in town and pick up supplies from their favourite country store and, occasionally, cider from a family-run press in the neighbouring town of Hankins. Every day at noon, a siren from Callicoon’s fire station sounds in the distance. “The noise echoes up from town and into the valley,” says one of the homeowners, gesturing toward the open Dutch doorway, through which two deer can be seen grazing. “It’s the only way to tell time up here.”