An 18th-Century Historic Home in Litchfield Gets an Update

July 2015

As an interior designer in New York, Alexandra Champalimaud has worked on the ornate Art Deco lobby at the Waldorf Astoria, and designed chandeliers for the Pierre hotel.

Her own home, in contrast, is simple: a white clapboard house in Litchfield, Conn., built in the 18th century by one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, Oliver Wolcott.

“It’s got such a big soul. And we’re just carrying that with us,” said Ms. Champalimaud on a summer afternoon at the 20-acre property.

The seven-bedroom Georgian Colonial is steps from the center of picturesque Litchfield, a New England town about 100 miles from New York City. Ms. Champalimaud’s husband, financier Bruce Schnitzer, bought the home in 1978 for $116,000 and began restoring it, a seemingly never-ending project that Ms. Champalimaud has enthusiastically embraced since the two were married in the garden 20 years ago.

Ms. Champalimaud, who declined to give her age (“I’m timeless,” she quipped, “like a good piece of furniture”), said the biggest challenge has been creating a comfortable home while maintaining the authenticity of the structure, a National Historic Landmark. Wherever possible, they’ve used period techniques and materials. But in the décor, Ms. Champalimaud has mixed antique and contemporary pieces, including fabrics, rugs and bedspreads she designed.

“We’re not a museum,” said Ms. Champalimaud, whose Manhattan firm is known for its hotels, and the under-construction East 74th Street is its first residential condominium. “There’s a slightly more contemporary feel layered over all the things, because we have to live here.”

The house was built in the 1750s by Gov. Wolcott, an early governor of Connecticut who hosted the likes of George Washington at the home, according to the Litchfield Historical Society. A number of Gov. Wolcott’s letters are framed on the walls, along with historic photos of the house.

The home’s original exterior clapboards, oak floorboards and hardware are largely intact. But when Mr. Schnitzer bought the property “it was in desperate, desperate need of restoration,” said Ms. Champalimaud, in round glasses and a flowing orange blouse. As she moved around the kitchen, a jumble of nine-week-old English Field Spaniel puppies nipped playfully at her gold flats.

Mr. Schnitzer conducted an analysis of the many layers of paint on the walls, found the original colors and used the same type of paint to recreate those hues, such as a brilliant blue in an upstairs bedroom. They also replaced some Victorian-era dormer windows that had been added with windows more in keeping with the original ones.

Ms. Champalimaud said it is difficult to estimate the amount of money they’ve spent restoring and maintaining the home, calling it “a labor of love,” but also “an enormous expense that just needs to be done and forgotten about.”

According to Ms. Champalimaud, Gov. Wolcott traveled extensively, bringing back items he found in his travels. It is in that spirit that she has filled the home not just with Early American furniture, but also pieces from different countries and time periods. “I don’t want a dour, Puritanical, perfect place, because he wasn’t like that either,” she said. Plus, too many 18th-century furnishings can be overpowering, she added.

In the dining room, an Early American mirror mingles with candlesticks from England, Italian sconces and silver from Ms. Champalimaud’s native Portugal. In the library, an oversize portrait of Gov. Wolcott is offset by a geometrically patterned carpet of Ms. Champalimaud’s design and an Oriental rug.

The couple’s restoration wasn’t limited to the house. When Mr. Schnitzer bought the property, a thicket of poison ivy and weeds surrounded the house. As he cleared it away, he found apple, lilac and quince trees. Using early photographs of the house, he recreated herbaceous borders that had once been on the property.

The lawn was sloped at an angle; the couple flattened it to create various sitting and dining areas. Ms. Champalimaud designed a swimming pool, creating a mosaic using porcelain and ceramic shards found on the property. They renovated a 19th-century carriage house, turning it into Ms. Champalimaud’s office. They added a chicken coop, whose inhabitants now supply eggs for their meals.

Ms. Champalimaud lives primarily in an apartment in Chelsea, but spends most weekends in Litchfield or at another home in nearby Kent. When in the country, she loves hosting family and friends for meals, taking the dogs for long walks, gardening and fly-fishing.

She spends less time at the Litchfield home in the winter, when the challenges to living in an old home are more evident. It is difficult to heat; large roaring fires are a must. The house requires continuous maintenance and repair, and the kitchen, added in the mid-1800s, is “a nightmare to cook in,” Ms. Champalimaud said. Most of the bathrooms in the home have claw-foot tubs rather than modern-style showers. But for Ms. Champalimaud, that is part of the charm.

“Nothing here is supposed to be glamorous,” she said. “It’s just smart, practical ways of trying to function.”

WSJ July 15 Article Image