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Town meets Country

Rich and Laura Novak have found the impossible — an oasis of luxury and comfort,quiet and solitude, right in the heart of downtown Greenwich

Hulya Kolabas

Rich and Laura Novak had done “big” and they’d done “backcountry”; the couple raised their family in a 10,000-square-foot expanded barn at “Buttercup,” a thirty-seven-acre farm in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. After both grown daughters moved to Brooklyn, the couple eventually followed north and two years ago began looking for something smaller, less rural, closer to people and shopping, and within an easy commute of New York City.

Laura is soft-spoken, bookish and stylish, with an easy smile. A retired healthcare executive, Rich is outgoing, chatty, youthful and athletic. Together, they are casual, warm and welcoming and wanted to find a home that would complement their style, both philosophically and materially.

Working their way north from Manhattan, the Novaks spent two days looking at condos and townhouses in Westchester and Greenwich without seeing anything that suited them. Some units had dining rooms but no guest room; others had no dining room but guest rooms tricked out with things they would never use, like Jacuzzis and bars. “We just couldn’t get it straight with our lifestyle,” Rich recalls.

At the end of their second day in Greenwich, the Novaks found themselves outside 36 Church Street, half a block from East Putnam Avenue and the downtown.

A year earlier, Anthony Amicucci had bought the .14-acre lot with its dilapidated 1880 Victorian house. His intention was to build a two-unit townhouse. His construction company, In-Town Properties of Greenwich, had developed Arbor Rose, a high-end condominium development on East Elm Street, five years earlier, and that had been a success. The Church Street site sat squeezed between another crumbling old house and a six-story condominium complex on a piece of land so narrow — 35 by 130 feet — it seemed better suited to a bowling alley than a luxury condo.

But Amicucci saw a far grander possibility. He envisioned a “showcase” house — a stand-alone brick structure, 5,500 square feet with soaring ceilings and enough fine molding and stonework to qualify it as a mini-mansion — in his words, “a single-family townhome similar to what you might expect to find in New York City or Boston or Georgetown.”

Several top realtors with whom he shared his vision thought he was crazy. For one thing, it would be the first single-family home built in downtown Greenwich in nearly eighty years. For another, the lot dictated a long, narrow structure only 22 feet wide by 85 feet long. What’s more, Amicucci’s upscale dream house may have sounded plausible on a tree-lined road in north Greenwich but hardly for a heavily trafficked street across from an Italian restaurant and an auto-repair garage.

The contractor knew otherwise. “Empty nesters are tired of maintaining eight- and ten- and twelve-thousand-square-foot homes,” he says. “They have other houses, they travel. They want something that’s a little smaller but jewel-box quality. They want all the amenities they’ve been used to, and they want to be close to things.”

In February 2006, as Amicucci’s crew was wrapping up work on the exterior, Rich and Laura toured the three-story home. Although the interior was only 65 percent finished, it was already on the market.

“I walked in where the front door would eventually be, into the foyer and the living room, and it just felt right to me,” Laura remembers. “I really don’t know why. I didn’t even see the bedrooms, but I liked the way the house was sitting on the lot, and the architecture of the hall was so impressive — most of the moldings were up and it had a historical feeling, like an old brownstone.” At the end of the tour of the first floor, Laura turned to Rich and said, “We’ve got to buy it.”

Upscaled, Downtown
The rise of new, big, luxury condominiums and townhouses on streets like Elm, Church and Millbank is redefining what it means to live in-town, and who lives there, and how. Driving the apparent trend are builders like Amicucci — contractors looking for high-priced projects in a market focused almost solely on those positioned well above the current real estate fray. But behind them are Baby Boomers (who appear to be backseat-driving many movements in the culture) looking to downscale from significant country homes without sacrificing too many pieces of art, furniture, gadgets or upper-creature comforts.

“This project meant a big change in downtown Greenwich — a jump over the hurdle of where real estate has been going the last four years, which is toward suburban city life,” says Barbara Zaccagnini, an agent at William Raveis Real Estate on East Putnam who co-listed the property with fellow Raveis agent Ira Fenig. “Before this, people were coming downtown to look at condos but saying there wasn’t enough wall space for their art or rooms for their furniture.”

At the same time, there are others who simply want the convenience of being close to restaurants, offices and shops without fighting the traffic wars every day. “People who live in North Greenwich say it can take half an hour to drive downtown in the morning,” Amicucci points out.  “It’s like commuting to Greenwich while living in Greenwich.”

By the time the Novaks closed on the townhome at the end of 2006, Laura, with the help of Tom Delcambre, an interior designer whose work has appeared in House Beautiful and Real Simple, among other publications, had taken the interior back down to 50 percent completed in order to make it less formal and more casual. They took out tilework, changed the color and finish of the custom kitchen cabinets, and replaced ornate mantels with eighteenth-century finds. They also added gaslight fixtures and extensive brick and granite to the exterior. 

Those upgrades added 25 percent to the multimillion dollar price tag, making the building the most expensive in-town, single-family residence. Meanwhile, Rich had bought the lot next door to add a buffer of greenery and space at the entrance.

Moving from a 10,000-square-foot barn in the country to a house one room wide in the heart of a suburban downtown sounds impossible, but it was facilitated by a number of factors. One was the Novaks’ attitude. “That was the house for the country, and this is the house for town,” Laura says of the transition. “I think we were ready in our heads for this long before we moved in.” Rich echoes his wife: “We love it here: We’re so close to everything. We walk to our favorite restaurants. We frequently go into the city and in nice weather walk to the train station. Everything’s easy — our lives are easy.”

Compensating for the site’s restrictions, Ridgefield architect Nick Arpaia positioned the main entrance in the center of the house, facing the open, undeveloped lot next door instead of the street. That helped counter any sense of spatial restriction inside. “You walk in the front door and have a straight shot from front to back,” he says. “Then you go from one room to another, eliminating hallways and visually opening the interior up to the side yard.”

Delcambre turned the limited width of the house to the Novaks’ advantage. “It wasn’t a limitation,” he says.  “It allowed us to keep a consistent color scheme throughout the house. When you view the house end to end, all the rooms flow together with color and texture.” Where not covered in custom carpets from Mark Inc. Fine Carpets in Greenwich, a wholesaler to designers and architects, the flooring is four-and-a-half-inch white oak that was bleached, then rubbed with wax.

“I think this house speaks more of them than the Chapel Hill barn,” adds Delcambre, who also designed the Novaks’ earlier home. “It suits their style, which is sophisticated and understated but also comfortable, and it reflects the eighteenth-century style, which Laura and I both like.” Transferring the contents of the barn to the townhome was also easy. “Whatever we couldn’t move to Greenwich, we replaced,” he says. “That was our point of departure in designing this house.” The furniture that did make the move expresses the couple’s naturalness and down-home roots.

Public and Private
Since the house runs from front to back,  the primary public space on the main level nearest the street is the living room. A bank of tall French doors overlooks a shallow balcony and Church Street, giving it the feel of an Upper East Side townhouse. Rich refers to the living room as the “Park Avenue Room.” Here, as elsewhere on the first floor, the extended glass doors and windows and eleven-and-a-half-foot-high ceilings exaggerate the sense of space while the seven-piece crown moldings frame the volume and give all the rooms scale.

To one side of the room, pocket glass doors open into a room paneled with dark wood. This, ostensibly, is the library —there are a few books on the shelves — but it’s mostly the sports memorabilia room, and Rich’s refuge. “Sports mean a lot to me,” he says. “That’s why I like the library.” A star quarterback in high school in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, he attended the University of Maryland on a football scholarship and now collects antique football helmets, trophies and baseball bats, which are displayed around the room along with school yearbooks and photographs of him and his teammates.

To the right of the living room, the hall stretches to include an elevator, decorated to resemble an intimate boudoir, and a slightly Bohemian powder room. The walls are covered in corrugated cardboard — a treatment Tom had seen in a house in New Orleans — then sprayed with silver enamel and sealed with a mini wax stain.

The kitchen and formal dining room complete the first floor. “It was going to be a lot fussier,” Laura says of the original kitchen. “We took off all the fussiness and made it warmer.” Tall shutters on the kitchen windows block views of the condo complex hard to the East. Beyond the dining room, French doors open onto a two-tier, walled-in, 700-square-foot granite patio, with a fieldstone fireplace and several seating and dining areas.

Lewis Fusco, a landscape architect in Pound Ridge, New York, used the site and the urban context to achieve these ends. “The property flows up, and the patio follows the natural grade of the property,” he says. “The strong granite wall was a natural echo of existing Old World stonewalls found at the rear of the property, as well as throughout more rural sections of Greenwich. Fusco planted a variety of deciduous trees, including an Aristocrat pear, Japanese dogwood and Weeping Snow Fountain cherry, which will ultimately provide a leafy canopy over the patio.

Given that the patio is not only within shouting (or honking) distance of downtown, but is also hemmed in by large buildings, it’s remarkable how private and country-like the outdoor space feels. It is secluded enough for reading and bird watching, yet big enough for large-scale entertaining, which the Novaks enjoy.

That’s a quality longtime downtown Greenwich residents have already experienced. Shortly after moving in, Rich would park himself on the stonewall in front of the house and greet passersby. “That’s how we got to know the neighbors,” Laura says. Those who’ve known them for many years, or for a matter of months, echo long-time friend Delcambre, who says of the couple, “When you’re with them, it’s as if you’re their best friend.”

Two early passersby were Elsebe Prestegaard, the owner of Elsebe, the woman’s clothing store on East Putnam, and Vinca Kristiansen, who works for her. “One day I saw them outside talking to Rich,” Laura recalls. “The next thing I knew, he’d brought them inside for a tour of the house.”

The two women have since become good friends of the couple, as have Luca Gabriel and his family, who own Luca’s restaurant across the street, and David Peabody, who runs Peabody’s Garage further up Church Street.

Back inside, on the upper level of the townhome, greater privacy and intimacy reign. The library downstairs strongly expresses Rich’s style, but the master bedroom expresses Laura’s. With its fireplace and coffered ceiling, it is a mixture of the elegant, the new and the funky. There’s an antique cupboard from the couple’s North Carolina barn, a life-size paper wedding dress Tom made, and a flat-screen TV.

A long interior hall leads to dressing rooms with separate baths joined by a steam shower for two. Between a guest bedroom and twin bathrooms is Laura’s study, a replica of her study in Chapel Hill, with floor-to-ceiling bookcases, designed by Delcambre, notched around an antique daybed.

One other area is worth mentioning. Guests may enter grandly through the front door but the Novaks come in by way of the garage to the ground level, which has a small entry hall with radiant-heated marble floor, a bathroom and a spacious media room, with an electronic 120-inch drop-down movie screen and upholstered chaise lounge chairs.

There’s also a wine closet to which Laura has consigned the “art” her husband likes: photographs of the Vesuvio Bakery in SoHo and the Galatoire Restaurant in New Orleans; posters for John Courage Pale Ale and Courvoisier. They didn’t make the cut for wall space in the house proper. “It’s a running joke between Laura and me,” Rich says.

“I like to take guests to the wine cellar and share it with them.”

If a subdued lushness and calming spirit seem to pervade the townhome, they’re as much the result of the building’s character and design as they are of the Novaks’ personal style. They are truly at home.