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Living the American Dream

by Ronda Carman

For some people, the seduction of a weekend country home with open fields, horses,
formal gardens and a swimming pool with guests lounging nearby is so alluring that
nothing can stand in the way of realizing the dream. Not even a wreck of a house,
decimated land or 3,000 Christmas trees. Such was the case when Darren Henault and
his partner Michael Bassett, discovered a 200-year-old farmhouse on 50 acres in rural
Millbrook, New York, 90 miles north of New York City.

Undaunted by the massive undertaking and demanding work, Darren and Michael
took the plunge. “It was only the third house we viewed and it cost twice what we
agreed we’d spend. But it had good bones and integrity,” recalls Darren, an interior
designer and founder of the eponymous design firm based in New York City, “By 5
p.m. that very day it was ours. ”

“We knew we were being impulsive and foolish but we just didn’t care. The thought
of escaping city life each weekend and riding through thousands of protected acres
with The Hunt made the challenges seem minor,” adds Michael, a corporate attorney.

As is often the case, most dreams, no matter how captivating, eventually meet head-
on with reality. Working with landscape designer Janice Parker, the three forged
ahead devising both a long term and immediate master plan for transforming the
former Christmas tree farm. The final plan included gardens, an orchard, a
guesthouse, a barn, paddocks and a riding ring.

Old irrigation ditches slashing through the grounds were rerouted, thirty acres were
bulldozed and reshaped, and 3,000 Christmas trees were given away or moved to
more suitable locations. Twenty acres of woods were cleaned up and trees were
properly pruned.

Making use of abundant resources, several hundred of the evergreens became living
walls surrounding the pool and gardens, keeping out unwanted guests. “At any
given time we have families of wild turkey roaming around, not to mention, herds of
deer grazing, coyotes and even a black bear,” Darren quips, “The ‘wall of trees’ offers
privacy and tackles the ‘wildlife’ issue.”

Flowering lilac bushes were planed off of the kitchen to obscure the fields that were
being cleared. “The thought of looking at nothing but a wreck for years was out of
the question. We made a point of only looking out of certain windows for a while,”
laughs Michael.
Obsessed with 19th and 20th Century English and French gardens, Tony Bielaczyc,
garden editor at Martha Stewart Living, and his partner Kevin King were called in to
help the couple execute a cutting garden that would provide flowers for the house
seven months of the year. “We thought it would be cheaper than buying flowers each
week. Huh!” Darren ironically exclaims.

Wanting to create a welcoming first impression, 5,000 daffodil bulbs and sugar
maples and were planted on both sides of the road leading up to the house. “It’s so
beautiful to see the path of trees driving up after a week in the city. Alas, it’s an allée
we’ll most likely never fully enjoy,” laments Michael. In addition to the trees and
daffodils, an orchard of fifty flowering trees, including apple, pear and cherry now
take pride of place in the once “wrecked” east field.

Wanting to be good stewards of the land, and understanding the fundamental


importance of having bees in the gardens, a local beekeeper was hired to install two
hives. “It’s our intention to increase this by an additional two hives each year.  
Hopefully this coming year we’ll have our own honey,” Darren notes with
excitement.

Giving equal dedication to the house, local builder Schuyler Woods was hired to
undertake the much needed restoration and renovation. Under Schuyler’s watchful
eye the house was completely gutted and doubled in size. Walls were removed in
order to give the rooms a more modern scale. Making every effort to keep the house
intact, all of the old hardware was saved and painstakingly restored.

Wood floors were saved, and new floors were matched in the addition. Great
importance was given to the integrity and history of the house. This included keeping
windows in the old section of the house for their charm and rebuilding all six
fireplaces. Three were kept as wood burning fires and the other three became gas
fires. “I don’t want guests burning down my house,” Darren laughs.

A 1970s guesthouse awaiting demolition will soon be replaced on the existing


footprint. In keeping with the simplicity of the farmhouse it will appear to be a barn
from the street, but in fact will have three bedrooms, three and a half baths and a
great room, all facing the pool area. “Hopefully some day when we’re long gone one
of our little girls will keep the main house for her family and the other will use the
pool guest house with hers.”

What began as a three-year project now looks to be a ten-year project. “ We could


have purchased something that required less work, but instead we bought a property
that we will spend the rest our lives making our own. Apparently one blade of grass
at a time,” Darren notes with an optimist smile.