The House That Rossiter Built
By Nichole Dupont
“What’s funny about the house is that you could drive down that road and not even know that it’s there,” says longtime builder/contractor Sean Woodward, who’s been working in Washington, Connecticut for some 30 years now. “The house” he is referring to is the Vaillant house, after the family who owned it for more than a century and who are all descendants of decoration artist Louis David Vaillant. More than three years ago, the remaining Vaillants gathered their votes and decided that it was time to sell the 8-bedroom, three-season Italian villa, one of the first homes in the area designed by famed architect and almost-native son Ehrick Rossiter.
“It was left in such serious disrepair it was like walking into Grey Gardens,” says listing agent Stacey Matthews of the Matthews Group. “A disaster. But a gorgeous disaster. It has this amazing magical quality that’s just not typical New England.”
Woodward says despite the neglected condition of the house and grounds — “They’re artists, it happens a lot with artists” — he saw the property as the gem of Litchfield County and drew up a plan to renovate the impressive Italianate beauty while keeping the integrity of the era. Of course, no investor was biting at his plans, chased away by the overwhelming to-do list of necessary repairs. Woodward managed to convince one couple, Suzanne and Douglas Day (he helped them design and construct an addition for a farmhouse) who were in the market to buy, but that didn’t go well either.
“We didn’t even get out of the car,” says Suzanne, laughing. “We specifically wanted ‘move-in’ condition and this house was definitely not that. It needed some love for sure. But [Sean’s] enthusiasm was contagious to us. He was very familiar with the house and he really helped us to see this vision.”
The vision is lovely, to say the least. Woodward took careful steps to make sure that Rossiter’s signature was not erased in the renovation process. In fact, the builder may have even added some of the famed architect’s flourishes back into the 1910 house during the two-year process in which most of the interior was stripped down to the studs.
Dining room, before
“It was like a time capsule to walk through the house,” Woodward recalls. “What was strange is that it was the most modest in town that Rossiter did. It was very plain and had very little crown molding, which was surprising to me. I used a lot of ideas from his other houses to create some of the details in this house.”
Dining room, after
While the footprint of the original structure was not altered much, the Days settled on a more open floor plan on the first floor and to turn the eight bedrooms into five upstairs. There is geothermal heat running throughout the near 6,700-square-foot villa and original fireplaces throughout, as well as original doors, hardware and even a dumbwaiter. The décor, much of it done by Philip Gorrivan (who helped the Days do an overhaul of a NYC apartment), while modern and vibrant, is still very authentic, so much so that it would be very possible for the ghost of Vaillant, or even Rossiter himself, to wander the rooms and not feel out of place. They would, however, be surprised, if not delighted by the full scale, bricked-in wine cellar and media room that has replaced the dirt floor crawl space of the house’s underbelly.
“I think now you get the full scale of the house,” Day says. “It does look like it matches up now. It’s grander, probably closer to when it was first built.”
Of course, the Days love the Italian beauty they’ve called home for the past three years, especially, says Suzanne, the “well-wishers who were brought to tears when they found out the house was finally getting renovated.”
“But, my husband and I like projects. And we’re ok with that.”
The Days are on the hunt for their next project (which, no doubt, Woodward will be a part of) and in the meantime have just put the Vaillant house on the market for a hearty $7.9 million.
“This is the best house in Litchfield County. Period. It’s a pleasure to show,” Matthews says with some irony, remembering three years back. Woodward, naturally, is a bit more philosophical about the impending sale.
“I think it’s built into us. I have some clients whose entire life is cathartic and they buy it, live in it and sell it. And others treat it like an old shoe that they just can’t throw away.”