Then and Now
Old needn't mean old-fashioned, as Richard W. Gold and Brian Segel prove in their appealing timeless treatment of an 18th century Ulster County stone farmhouse.
Then and Now
An Ulster County couple respects the past but lives in the present in a Dutch Colonial stone house
by Jorge S. Arango • Photographs by Randall Perry
Le Corbusier famously said, “A house is a machine for living in.”
It was the 1920s, and he was championing the modernist International Style. The movement was a revolt against everything Le Corbusier considered antiquated in architecture — from Gothic to Baroque to Arts and Crafts. But of course, houses have always been machines for living in. What had changed was simply the way people lived.
And that is exactly Richard W. Gold’s point. Gold, a 47-year-old interior designer, shares a 1772 Dutch Colonial stone house in Kripplebush, Ulster County, with his partner, Brian Segel, 50 (who directs the New York office of a community development fund). “We live in 2005 now,” Gold observes. “We have TVs and toilets and other conveniences they didn’t have.” The original inhabitants may have lived by candlelight and decorated the place with sturdy tables and Windsor chairs. And certainly the house was a machine that served their 18th-century farming lifestyle. But, says Gold, he and Segel were never fans of slavish restoration.
Besides, he adds, it just isn’t that interesting. “I think it would be very boring to have a Colonial house filled with only Colonial furniture and historic colors. It’s not very challenging. As long as you respect the architecture and integrity of the house, I find it more interesting to mix things up.”
Which is not to say that they’re contemplating a total gut. (Historical purists can exhale
now.) As it happens, Gold has a great reverence for old stone houses that reaches back to his childhood. His mother used to take the adolescent designer-to-be on the stone house tours in nearby Hurley, so early on he developed a fantasy of one day living in just such a structure. When he and Segel went house hunting in 1995, they looked almost exclusively at stone houses, settling on this one mainly because it was in move-in condition and on five acres of land with a pond and swimming pool.
Though the provenance of the house is uncertain, Gold says it is attributed to the Van Aken family, who were local farmers in the late 1700s. Gold believes the Van Akens had the house for several generations before it passed into the hands of a Polish Jewish family for the first half of the 20th century. It was renovated in the 1970s by one Clover Drinkwater, who raised the roof and added dormers and a heating system. (They know this because Drinkwater called them after seeing her old abode featured as a “Haven” in the Escapes section of the New York Times.)
More renovations took place in 1983, when former owners removed a wall and the ceiling in the entry hall, exposing the staircase and creating, says Gold, “a light well.” Renovations like these — making upstairs spaces airier and bringing in more natural light — were felicitous because they were more in harmony with contemporary living but didn’t destroy the building’s character. Many an old house has met with a far bleaker fate, Gold points out.
Nevertheless, some alterations were less fortunate. “In the 1983 renovation,” Gold explains, “the owners added fireplaces in the living room and master bedroom and didn’t install proper flues.” More seriously, they installed French doors in the master bedroom without putting in lintels for support, and when the lintels of some of the downstairs windows rotted out, they just filled them in with stone. “Our stonemason told us we have another 20 years before they cave in,” says Gold, laughing nervously.
When they bought the house, Gold and Segel’s first tasks were to repoint the front walls, redo the roof, and put in a new pool liner. They also replaced just about anything electric — from the boiler to the pool filtration system. Inside, Gold painted the entry hall in two shades of white to harmonize all the public spaces. The main floor library became the master bedroom because of its magnificent view of the pond. In terms of color, this room stayed pretty neutral too, though Gold kept his options open by commissioning local weaver Gregory Newham to make a custom rug with 12 colors in it. Gold’s personal tastes lean toward “eclectic traditional,” something immediately apparent in the bedroom furniture: a reproduction four-poster Shaker bed, a French country armoire, and an Asian cane-and-bentwood chair.
Most visitors enter through the dining room on the lower level, down a step from the driveway. This is probably the space that is most reminiscent of the home’s origins. The ceiling is low, with exposed beams. There is a fieldstone cooking fireplace with cupboards built into either side. The woodwork here is painted barn red. It’s not a traditional color, Gold points out, but also not too removed from something succeeding generations of English settlers to the area might have liked. A pine farm table, a forged iron chandelier, and simple ladder-back chairs with rush seats add to a feeling of period rusticity. This is also where most guests first discover the thickness of the walls; the windows are set in stone housings almost two feet deep.
Gold introduced more color in the upstairs guest rooms — one is butter yellow, another traditional boy blue — and furnished them with pieces from each of the men’s families. (The headboards in the blue room were Gold’s as a child.) The living room got a wash of Palladian blue, Hitchcock chairs, a brocade-upholstered wing chair, and tea and tray tables. It is the most formal room in the house, which is one reason Gold feels it’s due for a makeover. “We strive very hard not to be those nasty uncles who don’t let the kids touch anything,” he says.
Children, in fact, were one reason for buying the place. “It’s a great property for our friends’ kids,” says Gold, “because you don’t have to worry about what they’re doing.”
That’s partly due to the couple’s hard work on the gardens, which were overgrown with poison ivy and milkweed when they first set eyes on them. In clearing the land, Segel and Gold discovered hundreds of day lilies, iris beds that had probably been there for 75 years, and an espaliered tree in the back courtyard that they were originally told was an ornamental Bradford pear. Six years after pruning it back and nursing it, however, it bore edible fruit.
Gold and Segel built stone walls and paths (often using stone unearthed from foundations of extinct barns on the property), weeded and thinned the perennial border (a 1980s addition that had been sorely neglected), and added a shade garden to one side of the house and a small boxwood garden in front. Of the boxwood garden, says Gold, “We wanted to counter the cottage-garden feel, but since this is a random fieldstone house instead of a cut-stone manor, we leave the boxwood a little loose — like the house.” The landscaping is unpretentious yet sensational enough to be on the annual Marbletown garden tour.
Segel and Gold continue to upgrade and update. They’ll have to address the lintel situation, naturally, and re-point the other sides of the house. And that living room? Restoration purists, look out. “The house doesn’t have a family room,” says Gold. “So I want to push back the fireplace in there, add a flat-screen TV, and an L-shaped ’50s sofa.” ■