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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 headon 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.

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