At Home on the Water

A strip of land on the cove caught the eye of a designer who then built the house of her dreams



Tim Lee

The house Michelle Perri built for her redefined family is an exercise in geometry. Overlooking Old Greenwich Cove, it showcases a contemporary layout that makes the most of a space-challenged site. Every interior inch has been used, providing ample room for two adults, two teenagers, a two-and-a-half-year-old and the family dog.

A shingled exterior and a porch glider to one side of the front entrance evoke the small-town ambience of Old Greenwich, but step through the door and all is space, light and water views. A collection of seashells artfully displayed throughout the house pays homage to its owner’s passion for the sea and to her determination to start all over again.

In 1992, Michelle’s husband Tommy died in a tragic plane crash. Their daughter Katherine was a toddler and Michelle was pregnant with daughter Nicole. Four years later, as a single mother, she was shown a house in Old Greenwich and fell in love with the location. Her new house on the site was completed in 1999.

Today the girls are teenagers and Michelle is married to Mickey Kydes, a former professional soccer player who runs the town soccer programs for Westport and Greenwich. Their son Christian leads his parents and sisters in a lively chase, but the house has proved to be resilient: It is unfazed by toddler exuberance.

Michelle and her partner in Greenwich Design Group, Sondra Peterson, collaborated on the interiors, working with architect Lou Salamone and landscape architect Piers Simon. Self-taught, Michelle honed her skills working for her father’s building management and construction firm. “The first time I smelled sawdust as a kid,” she says, “I knew I needed to be in this arena.”

It soon became clear that renovation of the existing house would not work. So, reclusing herself for a weekend in a friend’s cabin, Sondra set to work and came back with sketches that Michelle says, “I knew immediately — were exactly right. Our skills complement each other, and we shared the same vision of what the house could be.”

Growing up on a farm in Iowa nurtured Sondra’s talent for solving problems. “On a farm you have to figure out how to do what you need to do,” she says, adding that she comes from an “incredibly mechanical” family. “I think my interest in playing with space and proportion was influenced by exposure to my mom’s creativity.”

With two hundred and thirty-five feet of frontage on the cove, the house offers an ever-changing panoramic view of sea, sky, natural light and color. From wherever she sits in the house, Michelle says, “the perspective is unique.”

The first floor is an enormous space, partitioned by furniture into a formal living room, dining room and family room, with apostrophes at either end, one a library, the other a kitchen. An enclosed porch is in a wing off the kitchen. Matching stone fireplaces on opposite sides of the long room tie the expanse into a harmonious whole, as do dark-stained walnut flooring, tambour detailing, onyx countertops and a color palette of apple green on the walls and burgundy, rose-pink, pale blue and acid green in the furnishings.

The curve of the staircase that leads to the second floor is another key design element. It allowed for the creation of a reverse C-shaped wall in the powder room and a C curve for the full length of the wall of shelves in the library. On the second floor, the same curve lends interest to a bathroom wall.

The round, hand-carved dining table, graceful on its tambour-style pedestal base, immediately catches your eye as you walk in the front door. Cleverly, Sondra had the doors to the patio placed on either side of the picture window to avoid interrupting the view. “This way, the walking pattern to the outdoors curves around the table,” Michelle says. The table doubles as a cocktail table, yet can expand to seat fourteen for dinner. “We love to entertain,” she adds, “whether it’s a casual brunch or a more formal dinner party.”

While a carpet defines the family area, Michelle chose not to use one in the dining space. “We wanted to feature the random-plank floors,” she says, “to let the furniture seem to float on the dark walnut.”

A gently curved walnut buffet, whose legs conceal electrical wiring for television and lamps, divides dining room from family room. Its green onyx surface inspired the downstairs color scheme. “Watching TV on the family room side, you don’t see the dining table at all,” Michelle says. Built-in storage for china, glassware and silver is on the opposite side of the buffet.

A second island, which can serve as an additional buffet, separates the family room from the kitchen area. On the family room side, bar stools are the focal point while a Lacanche cooktop ordered from France — its lava stone surround tinted to match the onyx Michelle “had to have no matter what” — dominates the other side. And just beyond is a diner-style booth with bench seating for informal family meals and a small kitchen where vibrant amber-yellow cabinetry ventilated with panels made of stainless steel rods conceals appliances. An antique stone medallion sprouts trompe l’oeil ivy creating the illusion of a garden just beyond the farmhouse-style copper sink.

“We wanted a very Provençal look and a burst of color,” Michelle says, adding that the small space works well for her. “I’m more gardener than gourmet chef,” she admits, “but we eat dinner at home every night during the week.”

Michelle jokes that Sondra’s girlhood on the farm is responsible for what is clearly a barnyard theme. “Les Coqs” strut on the rug in the kitchen; hens cluck on countertops; dining area walls have been done in a “chickenwire” motif, and egg-shaped knobs decorate cabinet doors. The real catalyst, however, was another French import: a pair of 1940s ceramic rooster lamps found by Michelle’s mom on a trip to Paris.

Back to the foyer where a loveseat nestles into the curved wall; an antique sewing table hints at serious craftsmanship soon to be discovered upstairs, and red coral draws the eye. Centered over an antique mahogany breakfront, the third mirror on the main floor reflects both vibrant coral and the triple set of wall sconces that lead up the main staircase.

The ornate walnut coffered ceiling is more visible from the second floor landing, even more so from the third floor studio reachable by a spiral staircase. Sondra seems to take the climb in stride; to Michelle, who is on the masters’ swim team at the Greenwich YW and also an avid kayaker, trips up and down hardly count as exercise.

“I love that my business area is totally separate from the rest of the house,” she says, “and when I look up from the computer, there’s that wonderful water view.”

One story below, in the master bedroom suite (bedroom, his and hers bathrooms and one enormous walk-in closet), apple green gives way to a more relaxing seafoam green canvas. In the adjacent bathroom, between the onyx-surfaced, tambour-fronted mahogany vanity and glass-front corner shower, a curl-up-and-relax sofa tempts one to toss the schedule and indulge in a decadent novel. From the claw-foot bathtub, positioned by a picture window, you can see across the cove to Riverside and beyond.

A cutout high in the wall between bedroom and bath connects the two spaces. Concealed behind a wall panel in the bedroom, a mini-refrigerator — for strawberries and Champagne perhaps — brings a touch of luxury.

Down the hall, a guest bedroom with an African motif doubles as an upstairs family room. Its “partner bed” sleeps two and hides a trundle pullout for more flexibility. The ostrich eggs on display are real, along with other pieces of tribal art found on a trip to Africa. The white rug’s nubby texture welcomes bare feet. “We used a piece of the same rugging to make a cushion for a bench near the hot tub on the porch,” Sondra says. The room’s faux-painted white armoire reminds Michelle that she’s hoping to get back to doing more crafts. “I used to do a lot of faux-painting; it’s one way I take after my mom who is an artist,” she says, leading the way to one of her favorite rooms in the house: the sewing room, tucked around the corner from stacked washer and dryer.

The room is an artistic diorama. Whimsical wire racks holding spools of thread look like minisculptures on the wall, as do an oversize pair of scissors and glove forms. A button rug found in a catalog adds color and a sense of humor, and the antique dress form in one corner touchs base with the past.

But Michelle’s needle expertise is real. Sondra points out that Michelle’s seamstress skills prompted the green and cream-striped drapes that frame the picture window near the spiral staircase and similar ones in the girls’ study. “She had the idea of making curtains from towels,” Sondra says, “turning the vertical stripe horizontal which made all the difference.” Michelle points out that they used shower curtain hooks for a bit of fun. “The thing about rules,” she says, “is you have to know them so you can decide which ones to break.”

The girls’ bedrooms are as different as their personalities. Fourteen-year-old Nicole’s room is a vision in bright pink, purple and orange. DIVA in glitzy oversize script on one wall says it all. Her older sister Katherine’s room makes a quieter statement, with rich, navy blue walls and furniture. On the bed, a navy pinstripe spread sets off pillows of crème silk covered with mother-of-pearl buttons. “The girls’ rooms are remarkably clutter-free,” explains Michelle, “because they share an adjacent study, which has ample storage.”

Christian’s room is a different story. Along with toys here, there and everywhere, soccer reigns supreme. GOOOOAAAL CHRISTIAN KYDES #10 hangs over a bed that has soccer-ball feet. Other soccer balls wait to be kicked into freestanding soccer goals. Storage is locker-room style. A scoreboard is on the wall. A nod to the all-powerful referee? Black and white striped curtains with inserts made of soccer netting? “Okay, his dad was a professional athlete,” Michelle says, laughing. “No pressure, really.”

It’s late afternoon, and Michelle’s downstairs in the family room where logs crackle in the fireplace and brown tweed easy chairs offer timeless comfort. Christian’s toys spill from a green canvas bag, but his mom doesn’t mind. “I chose the bag because the color works with the rug,” she says.

Outside, seagulls swoop, cattails bend with the breeze, and miniwaves ripple the turquoise water. “Living in this house,” Michelle says, “feels like being on vacation.”

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