Building on the Past

The front porch and entrance wing of Sheri and Rami Wertheim’s spacious Westport home are warm and inviting. They exude the lived-in aura of a place that someone has called home for 200 years. Stately pillars line the porch; inside, the wide-plank oak floors appear to have the patina that comes with age, the ceilings are authentically low, and the décor is pure nineteenth century. It comes as something of a surprise to learn that this authentic-looking section of this stately Greek Revival house was added a mere decade ago.

The year was 1996, and the Long Island native and her Israeli-born husband had outgrown their Nassau County home. But they couldn’t find what they wanted in New York or New Jersey, so like many now ex-New Yorkers, they pointed their compass a bit to the north and the east. “The first time we came to Westport to look, we knew it was right,” recalls Sheri. She feels lucky to have found a Realtor who understood her love of nature and need for substantial property. Just weeks into the house-hunting process, Sheri received an excited phone call: “The house is a little small, but the property is great,” the agent said. When Sheri came to look at it, she saw not only the house that was standing there, but also a larger, grander one, and she and her husband closed on it six months later.

Growing up in a 1950s split-level, Sheri drove past grand mansions and stared at them longingly. “I’ve always loved big, old homes,” she says. “They speak to my soul. My whole life, I’ve had a fantasy of one day living in something like that. I knew I wanted a period home. I love the timelessness of the design and the quality of bygone eras. Even if your eye isn’t trained to detect it, it’s a difference you can feel.”

Before moving to Westport, Sheri was primarily a stay-at-home mom while Rami commuted to Manhattan for work. She had a flair for home design, and a few friends hired her to redo their homes in the contemporary casual style of the day. But in the months before moving to town, Sheri sensed her style was about to undergo a radical transformation.

“I knew the house had to be expanded,” she says, “but I also knew it was important to keep it authentic. I have great appreciation for the old style.” Her first step: visiting the local library, where she researched the period and the styles that went along with it. She found a then little-known local architect named Judith Larson. “We clicked from the get-go,” says Sheri. “She’s actually the one who came up with the idea of Greek Revival. She showed me pictures, and I knew it was perfect.”

At the same time, Sheri decided to formally study home design and enrolled at the prestigious School of Interior Design in New York. This gave her the knowledge and confidence to work closely on the renovation. “We knocked the house down to studs,” says Sheri, who took pains to keep the New England country-house style, right down to the custom woodwork and paneling and Benjamin Moore historic colors. “Everything in this house is authentic to the Colonial period and is quintessentially Greek Revival,” she says with well-deserved pride.

A House Becomes a Home
This kind of renovation is not a project for the faint of heart. It was done in two phases over eighteen months, with the family living there the entire time. In stage one, the back section of the house was redone — first the foundation, next the remodeling — then the process was repeated with the front of the house. The second phase was the addition of the front wing, wrap-around porch, entrance, and three-car garage, replacing an old garage and a former mule barn. Sadly, records have been lost, but research suggests the four-acre half-wooded property was once a thriving onion farm.

Because this house was significantly larger than the Wertheims’ previous one, Sheri knew she was going to need more furniture — a lot of furniture. She knew she wanted to go “old world,” and she had long admired French art and antiques. What better, more authentic way to learn about them than from the source: knowledgeable antiques dealers in the South of France? So with not a plan but a dream, Sheri and Rami took off for Provence and the ultimate shopping trip.

It may have been the fact the couple went alone and left their daughters at home. It could have been the magic of the bucolic L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. Or it might possibly have been the fact that this little town is the antiques mecca in the South of France. Whatever the source, Sheri landed irrevocably in love with eighteenth- and nineteenth-century French art and antiques. “You don’t see materials, or workmanship, like this anymore,” she explains. “Pieces from this era just move me.” Over the past ten years, they have transformed her home into a warm and cozy homage to the past.

The Value of Education
Sheri took to heart the instruction of various French dealers, her design teachers, and her mother (who advised her never to buy cheap) and created the home she always dreamed of. Some of the lessons cannot really be taught, as there is such a thing as natural good taste, but many can. When starting from scratch, for instance, Sheri says she has learned to ask herself, “What is this room being used for?” Form will follow function. She now plans from big to small, from architectural structure to major furniture to details. First, she says, one must consider the “hardscape”: the room itself, as well as the details like windows, moldings and doors. Once the overall look and feel of a room are determined, one can choose the built-in cabinetry and large pieces. The last step is to tie it together with flooring and rugs, smaller furniture, fabrics, color, curtains, and decorative items, like pillows, art, and objets d’art.

“Regardless of who does the decorating,” Sheri emphasizes, “remember that loving something is more valuable than the price tag. An object should be visually and viscerally pleasing. After all, you’re the one who has to live with it.”

At the same time, education and expert advice helps. Books and magazines about great homes can teach you a lot. “Be honest: How interested are you? How much do you want to learn? And how much time do you have to do this? This is a very time-consuming process, and you either love it or you don’t,” she says.

House Tour
Just beyond the front addition lies the living room/billiards room, which wasn’t touched in the renovation and is a successful mix of different styles and periods. The walls and eight-foot ceilings are original, as is the screened-in porch that the room opens onto. The centerpiece of the living room is an eye-catching wood-and-metal coffee table. “It’s not antique, but it’s based on an antique design,” Sheri explains. “I love the weight and scale and materials. It weighs a ton. But look at that design! It just speaks to me.”

Positioned around it are a circa 1930 sofa and four early-twentieth-century chairs picked up at one of Paris’s legendary flea markets. Seeing their potential, rather than their humbled state, Sheri fell in love with one pair for its distinctive curlicue arms, had both chairs shipped home and immediately re-covered with rich period French-cut velvet from Old World Weavers in New York. But she kept the original nail heads, a signature of the time during which the chairs were designed.

The screened-in porch is all original and is Rami’s favorite place to sit and read the newspaper or smoke a cigar. On warm summer nights, it provides a charming setting for parties. Sheri enjoys the memories of camp it evokes, right down to the creaky screen door. 

Down the hall, in the old dining room, the fireplace was crumbling when the Wertheims moved in, and the builder advised them to tear it out. “I sure hope he was right,” says Sheri with a hint of regret — she was fond of its rusticity. Now dominating the room is a stunning, high-gloss oval table of African wood, which the designer refers to as her “first foray into buying something decent.” She re-covered the matching chairs, upholstery being a great way to achieve a distinct look, she points out. Underfoot is a black and gold Chinese wool rug from the 1930s. Hanging above it is a lovely chinoiserie-style, probably late-nineteenth-century Viennese, chandelier. There’s also an eighteenth-century serpentine-front buffet topped with French marble. “Where do you see workmanship like this anymore?” she asks wistfully, tracing its curved doors with her fingers. 

Follow the Turkish limestone floor from the dining room, through the hall to the kitchen, a homey mix of old and new, some imported, which serves as proof that disparate elements can be blended to great effect. Custom cabinetry in stained and glazed maple is contemporary with an antique appearance. Counters are Uba Tuba granite — “one of the most forgiving,” says Sheri of her real, working kitchen. But comfortably coexisting with sleek, stainless appliances are a long, antique English farmhouse table and chairs from France and a well-worn Persian rug uncovered in a flea market in Jaffa, Israel. “This is not a ‘froufrou’ house,” says its owner. “This is a lived-in house.”

The long hall reflects her love of Asian art, which, she feels, can work with almost any period of European antiques. “Most pieces I pick up because I love them and later find a place for them.” The table that sits in the hall was a different story; she knew exactly where it was going. The nineteenth-century Chinese table with carved edges was acquired locally and immediately set in its place. When she bought it, she had already envisioned placing a few exquisite decorative items on it. True to form, she found the perfect Chinese bowl on London’s Portobello Road, added a simple iron Japanese teapot, and she finished off the arrangement with a small silk topiary. Then she commissioned a New York artist to paint a mural on the wall — but not before researching it exhaustively. She pored over books on antique Chinese art and studied old homes, which frequently featured hand-painted outdoor scenes on the walls. At the head of the hall is one of her favorite pieces, plucked from a booth at a Paris flea market: an unusual eighteenth-century walnut chair with gold velvet. “I liked the shape, the color, and the material. I’m not even sure how old it is,” she admits without a hint of an apology; this is a love story, after all.

The center hall at the top of the stairs is original to the home. The décor on this floor is connected with the ground floor in subtle ways, giving the distinct sense of unity. Small, old, mostly Persian (and some Turkish) rugs adorn wood floors on both levels. “I like continuity from room to room,” explains Sheri. That is why the entire house is done in a palette of golds, reds and greens, all old-world colors, with touches of blue and lavender.

Before the master suite is found a small sitting room, with one of the house’s four fireplaces. “I actually sit here,” Sheri says. “Sometimes I read or get dressed here. In the winter, I like to light a fire and have a massage here.” The pieces in this room have their own stories, notably the tall cement planter with painted flowers in the corner. It was part of a display, but not for sale, at an art gallery.

Sheri saw it and talked the owner into selling it to her. Does she ever get emotionally attached to pieces? “Not emotionally attached,” she says, “just aesthetically.”

The celadon green bedroom is dominated by a contemporary cherry king-size sleigh bed. Over it hangs a gorgeous painting, Femme dans Interior Chinois, by Jia Juan Li, an artist living in Paris. An Empire dresser with the original marble top, an nineteenth-century mahogany tallboy, an eighteenth-century Provençal walnut armoire and a nineteenth-century wood-and-leather desk complete the decor.

For Sheri, the different woods used in the furniture do not matter. “Wood is wood. They have to get along,” she says. The upstairs bath, with its Jacuzzi and separate shower, has a mural of a Provencal village. Even the WC sports a hand-painted très Provençal sunflower scene.
Enjoying a cup of Chai in the kitchen, Sheri concludes, “In one regard this is a very old home, but in another, it’s a new house. It doesn’t have any of the problems of an older home, yet it feels old. To this day, when I drive up, I feel calm, serene and pleased. This is the home I have always wanted.”     

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