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French Accent

How one man's château became a Stamford couple's elegant home

Photograph by Hulya Kolabas

At the end of a long, gravel driveway, flanked by an allée of mature linden trees, sits an elegant, limestone-clad house. Its stately façade, beautiful windows and fittings and carefully groomed landscape evoke the French countryside, even though its address places it firmly in the far reaches of North Stamford. While many new houses are designed to replicate structures of another era, this one commands its site like a centuries-old château. It obviously has a story begging to be told.

It begins with the original owner, a wildly successful entrepreneur, who had spent years and a small fortune building this exquisitely appointed manor on the footprint of several outbuildings that were once part of a large and legendary twentieth-century estate. He wanted the appropriate surroundings for his collection of fine antiques. Through a designer friend—another French gentleman of aristocratic background and tastes—he imported authentic period materials and fixtures from all corners of France: limestone facing from the quarry that supplied Versailles; 400-year-old oak beams; reclaimed antique tiles and wood parquetry dating from the eighteenth century. The place would be his forever house; he spared no expense.

But, just as it neared completion, he had a compelling change of heart. After a lifetime of bachelorhood, he had fallen in love with a woman whose feelings aligned with his. There was just one problem with this happy occurrence: She had no interest in his lavish new home.

Choosing romance over real estate, the owner put the property up for sale, at a price set to recoup the cost of its unique and expensive details. When no buyers appeared after months on the market, the seller’s expectations gradually relaxed to a point at which the current owners had the curiosity to take a peek.

Catherine de Lotbinière first saw the place in the company of her daughter and never got beyond the driveway. “It was certainly beautiful,” she remembers, “but I couldn’t look inside. I knew it was impossible, so why look?”

She and her husband, Alain, had been house hunting for a while, as he had recently joined a neurosurgery practice in Westchester. But when she described it to Alain, he still wanted to take a look. The allée of trees reminded him of the approach to his ancestral country home in Quebec. He also understood the very French floor plan: bedrooms on the ground floor, opening to the gardens, and gallery and public rooms above, accessed by a sweeping staircase.

But at this juncture the price was still unthinkable, so Alain asked the real estate agent to arrange a meeting with the owner—a very rare practice in such transactions.

“We had looked at a number of houses, and none of them had the kind of character and feeling we were looking for,” says Alain. “They were large, but they were not to our taste.” He could see the potential of this Stamford property, though, and was willing to try a personal negotiation. After a long chat—in French—seller and buyer struck a deal.

“I couldn’t believe it!” notes Catherine, who by the couple’s admission is the practical counterpoint to her husband’s more impulsive inclinations. Nonetheless she immediately began to apply her own very French sensibilities and artist’s eye to the task of decorating.

Because the original owner had never actually moved in, the walls were a blank canvas of white primer, waiting for the right colors and furnishings to bring the house to life. A few realignments of the structure’s bones were also in order.

The original kitchen, handsomely appointed with an enormous copper and enamel La Cornue range, and a monolithic limestone farmhouse-style sink, also had oak cabinets with rustic appeal but minimal function. The drawers were so heavy that Catherine could not open and close them by herself. “They had to go,” she recalls.

She replaced the medieval cabinetry with a sleek walnut kitchen, custom-made for the space by Smallbone. Other design changes included adding room for storage in both entry
halls and removing an awkwardly placed foyer powder room, transforming the space into walk-in storage. “This house had the same drawback as any French château,” says Alain. “No closets.”

In the library, Catherine installed built-in bookshelves, designing the carved detailing herself. To conceal the radiators, she enlisted the services of an ironworker from Bridgeport, who created a custom grill pattern that disguises the room’s heat source on one side of the room and a stereo on the other. An Italian Fortuny pendant lamp, taken from the couple’s previous home in New Haven, artfully illuminates this elegant and very comfortable space. In their many furnishing expeditions to antique shops and auctions, the couple found a companion Fortuny fixture for the adjoining dining room, outfitted in newly acquired Art Deco pieces.

Interspersed with family antiques, some of them dating to the eighteenth century, Alain and Catherine have assembled an eclectic mix of furnishings with the authentic feel of a classic country home: rooms and groupings brought together over generations of careful collecting. Wonderful pieces of centuries-old art—painted silk panels from the palaces of St. Petersburg, and a fragment of a larger tapestry that once belonged to the king of Poland—hang comfortably in proximity to very modern paintings and photography that Catherine has acquired.

An accomplished gilder, Catherine also restored some of the de Lotbinieres’ finds, including a beautiful mirror (seen to the right) from the early nineteenth-century Empire era that now hangs in the master bedroom.

Because there is so much handiwork throughout—including the individually handmade window and door hardware, and knobs and latches from the Remy Garnier workshops in Paris—the spaces have a warmth that cannot be duplicated with furnishings and accessories of the industrial age. Reproduction “old” does not provide the same feeling.

Enhancing its beauty, the home exudes comfort and a quality that often eludes such impressive properties: charm.

“Details make the spirit,” notes Catherine, “because they give the soul to the house.”

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