Giving Soul to A Spec House in Austerlitz
A brand new house is a blessing and a burden, a tabula rasa that comes without the history, quirks and charm that are the hallmarks of memorable country houses. Over the past seven years, James Oates and William Li have transformed a modest, spanking-new timber-peg, three-bedroom house on an unpaved road in the Austerlitz woods into a stylish and personal weekend Shangri-La. “Division of labor is the key to a successful weekend house,” opines Li, who is the publisher of Condé Nast Portfolio. Li, who had executive jobs at the now defunct House & Garden and HomeStyle magazines, thinks like an editor. “I am in charge of making things pretty and tasty,” he says. His partner takes charge of landscaping and other construction-oriented chores. “I’m like my grandfather who was a great putterer,” says Oates, who runs an interactive design agency called Hudson Union, which is based in Brooklyn. “I like to have projects. I like to be busy. I do the manual work, and William makes me lunch.”
The couple, who wed in 2003 (and became domestic partners with the blessing of the State of Vermont) closed on the Austerlitz house on September 11, 2001, which underscored how much they consider their house a refuge. They had been weekending and puttering in Kinderhook for the previous four years. “We had an adorable cottage that was a renovated chicken coop,” says Li. But it felt cramped because they had a constant stream of weekend guests. “I said to Jim, Life’s too short. Let’s get a bigger house.”
They knew the second they saw the barn-red house that they’d found home. “It was love at first sight,” says Li. Adds Oates: “We ran around the house we were just so excited.” Everything about the house was right—the massive stone fireplace, the double height living room, the first-floor master bedroom, and the two upstairs guest rooms. The builder had not bothered with any landscaping, which has allowed Oates to putter purposefully for the past seven years. “I deer-fenced ten acres myself,” he says. “That was a major. It took nearly three years.” He didn’t build the swimming pool himself, but the design they came up with could not be more copacetic to the site. A rugged stone walls separates the pool from the patio, making it seem natural to the land, providing a ledge of extra seating for large parties.
Li took charge of the interior. “A lot of the furniture came from Meissner’s Auction in New Lebanon,” he says. Most of the fabrics came from high-end designer showrooms, because Li had connections from his shelter magazine days. An design editor friend, Jason Kontos, offered advice on things like the dramatic living room curtains made from Kelly Wearstler fabric. “You’re really not supposed to use upholstery fabric for curtains, but we didn’t care.”
The couple loves to buy art and they nonchalantly mix paintings and prints from cutting edge New York City galleries with framed posters and personal photographs. The house doesn’t have a style per se, but it does have a gemütlichkeit aura. “I’m not sure what feng shui is,” says Li, who grew up in New York’s Chinatown, “but this house has good feng shui. My mom loved it. She said never sell it. I don’t think we ever could.”
The cheerful, cozy living room mixes fine and funky. The barrel chairs cost $10 each at Meissner’s Auction in New Lebanon, and Li had them reupholstered in a zigzag fabric by Alan Campbell. The Tibetan rug, like all the carpets in the house, is from Odegard, where Li once worked. The Brunschwig & Fils sofa is covered in linen velvet. .
The deer heads outside the guest rooms are from Meissner’s.
The guest rooms are variations on a theme; each one has a rocking chair and eclectic furnishings. The structural beams are used as shelves to hold books, pictures, mirrors, and to display collections of McCoy pottery that Oates has had since college.
The massive stone fireplace and open plan sold them on the house. The Chinoiserie ottoman is by Schumacher.
A candle chandelier hangs over the dining table; Li had the shield-back chairs from Meissner’s reupholstered in a 1950s Schumacher print with a Japanese motif.
Working with Callanders Nursery in Chatham, the couple built a pool with a stone wall that separates it from the terrace and helps keep the landscape looking natural.
When they bought the house, the pool area was all woods,and Oates clearned much of the land himself; a bed of lush hydgangea is used as a cutting garden.