It all started with an antique clock and a trip to New York’s Hudson Valley to get it repaired. What followed was an unplanned detour. And there it was: an 1850s Italianate house, built from a design by Richard Upjohn, the British-born 19th-century architect who brought the Gothic Revival style to America, with a magnificent view straight through the front door to the Hudson River.
As they toured the property, the future homeowner, a descendant of William Randolph Hearst, and her husband learned that the house was in terrible disrepair. Over its century and a half of existence, it had been added onto, sustained a major fire, and been stripped of most of its original detail. “And then all of a sudden they were buying a burned-out, gutted house on the Hudson River,” recalls a family member, Gillian Hearst. “I was surprised.”
The homeowner admits she still isn’t sure why she and her husband took on such a massive endeavor. “Foolishness, maybe,” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t think it through, perhaps. I knew it was going to be trouble. But that view of the river was just so fantastic.”
The easiest thing would have been to delegate the whole project to others. But as it turns out, she had a vision—one that encompassed everything from a rethinking of the architecture of the space to the decoration of its rooms and the acquisition and placement of art and objects. “She is a true collector and connoisseur,” says Thomas F. Knapp, an art consultant and longtime friend who helped her with the project, along with a former high-school classmate, the California-based ED A-List decorator Suzanne Tucker. “She was very hands-on through the whole process,” he says.
Indeed, the owner spearheaded the four-year renovation, transforming the home’s sprawling layout into a more manageable one. “I took it from 13 to five bedrooms, which made more sense,” she says, “and combined several rooms to make a living room that we use every day. I didn’t want rooms you never use, and I wanted it to be so comfortable that people could come inside in shorts or a bathing suit and not feel, ‘Oh my god, everything is so precious.’”
She flew to London to find furniture and architectural elements, including mantels, that felt in keeping with the style of the home. “Even the marble pilasters in the foyer came from London,” she says, “although most people assume they must be original.” That space leads into a dramatic entry hall with a new double staircase that frames the view of the Hudson; the expansive room also serves as a dining hall for seated dinners for 50. Nearby, the new kitchen is spacious—big enough to accommodate her extended family during visits as well as catering crews for parties—and the modern white space is accented with Viking appliances in a custom Hermès orange. “The kitchen is so unexpected,” Gillian says, “and just kind of fabulous too.”
One could easily mistake the dramatic vaulted and beamed ceiling in the Tower Room, on the home’s upper level, as a historic element of the original Italianate design. “That ceiling was originally open and had barn beams painted red,” the owner notes. “I had it arched to make it look more refined.” She also jokes that she “decided to go all Olana” in decorating the 20-foot-tall room, which she furnished with 19th-century Syrian chairs and Minton majolica planters in an homage to Frederic Edwin Church’s legendary Middle Eastern–meets-Victorian manse nearby in the Hudson Valley.
When she had taken the decor as far as she could on her own, she called Tucker for help with the finishing touches; the designer added the foyer’s pale-blue damask wallpaper and the copper silk draperies in the atmospheric Mahogany Room, where vitrines display ancient Greek pottery that once belonged to William Randolph Hearst. “I took my cues from the existing architecture and also the owner’s taste and furniture collection,” Tucker says. “She loves beautiful textiles.”
Perhaps the biggest statement of all is in the dining room, which the owner reconfigured and sheathed in a vintage wallcovering depicting the monuments of Paris. Like the initial visit to the clockmaker, the find was serendipitous: “I stumbled onto it at a little store in Tarrytown,” the owner says. “It was incredible. They had the whole set. I said, ‘Well, do I have a place for this.’”
This story originally appeared in the October 2019 30th Anniversary Collector’s Edition of ELLE Decor.
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