Matthew White’s La Dolce Vita in Columbia County
You don’t normally hear people talk about Hillsdale, NY, and Venice, Italy, in the same breath, but Matthew White has never been interested in what’s normal. An interior designer whose whose work is classical, eclectic, and widely published ( Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, House Beautiful, Metropolitan Home), White has a passion for historic architecture, which explains his devotion to both Venice and Hillsdale, where he and his life life partner, Thomas Schumacher, built an Italian-style villa (left) as their weekend house a few years ago. “I didn’t really know much about Hillsdale at first,” says White, whose firm, White Webb, works mostly in New York and California. “We had friends in Columbia County, but we really fell in love with a piece of land with fantastic views. When I started to pay attention, I discovered that Hillsdale has amazing historic buildings. My fantasy is to restore every one of them. I am always interested in making things more beautiful.”
White has jumped into civic life the way few weekenders ever do. He is a member of the Hillsdale Hamlet Committee and the Hillsdale Historic Preservation Committee. At one of the first meetings he attended, he saw drawings for a proposed veterans’ memorial on Route 23, and he thought it needed some tweaking. He came up with an alternative design (right) and brought it to the local veterans group, which embraced White and his concept. “They’re the greatest guys in the world,” says White, who was a professional ballet dancer before becoming a designer. “When you mix someone like me with veterans, you know something special is going on.”
Special is White’s speciality. He and Schumacher (president of the Disney Theatrical Group who brought The Lion King et al. to Broadway) live as well as any Italian noblemen, and they are both self-made success stories. White has humble roots, growing up in a trailer park in Amarillo, Texas, which he details in his eloquent coffee table book, Italy of My Dreams (Pointed Leaf Press; $65), which is both an enthusiastic history lesson about classical architecture and Italian style as well as a poignant memoir. “I can still picture the neon and metal sign that announced our home,” he writes about his youth in the introduction to his book. “It was huge and had letters cleverly angled, topsy-turvy style, to suggest the ever-present rolling dried weeds of the panhandle. Tumbleweed Trailer Park.” The book includes chapters on the Italian-style houses he and Schumacher have shared in Pasadena, CA, and New York City, as well as the construction of their fantastical Hillsdale country house (above and below), which was designed in collaboration with green architect Dennis Wedlick, who has an office in Hudson.
“We didn’t dream of a cabin with a stone fireplace or a farmhouse filled with folk art, nor did we want a picturesque barn refitted for modern living,” he writes. “Those are wonderful notions but they aren’t right for us. Our dream was to build a country villa inspired by Rome and Palladio—a place that would recall the ancient houses of Italy but be constructed with an eye for conservation and life today.” While guests gasp at the palazzo’s jaw-dropping splendor (the three guest rooms are named Florence, Rome and Venice), they’re also impressed that it is heated and cooled by a sustainable geo-thermal system and that solar panels on the roof heat the hot water. The furnishings (right) are relatively low key so that the surroundings and views are the real focal points. “Given the various colors of the forest, from verdant greens to reds and golds, I decided to keep the rooms fairly neutral,” he writes. “Any color in the living room itself comes from our tapestries, paintings and antiques.”
Though it will be at least a century before the house can ever be on an Hillsdale Historic House Tour, White and Schumacher will open it up for a patron’s party as they did last year as a thank you to all their neighbors who are organizing and supporting the 2010 Hillsdale Historic House Tour on July 31. “We’re closing down an entire street for the tour!” he says enthusiastically. “I’ve been amazed how many people here share my passion for preserving and beautifying the town. There is a great sense of community.” Even as he becomes more enmeshed in Hillsdale, he is always thinking of Venice, too. “I was elected president of Save Venice USA this year,” he says. “I feel very fortunate to be involved with two very different but unique historic places.”