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French Drama

An historic backcountry home sets the stage for a couple enamored with antiques and the arts

Randy and Laurie Atcheson in their living room at Willow Brook. The look is elegant, but comfort is also important as their Shih Tzus, Amazing Grace and Steinway, perched on a cloverleaf tufted ottoman, can attest to.

By William Taufic

He is a concert pianist, a courtly Southerner who came north to make his name at Juilliard and Carnegie Hall, and did. She is a thoroughly modern woman, an accomplished decorator and retailer whose passion for French antiques has furnished both her life and her home. And Randall and Laurie Atcheson’s home, called Willow Brook after the stream coursing dramatically through the property, is a hidden and historic treasure, set atop a high hill and surrounded by lofting trees that give the cloistered feel of a walled garden. “The whole place has wonderful vibes,” says Randall, who goes by Randy. “When you walk across the bridge, there’s a peaceful feeling that comes over you.”

“I told the realtor, just find me something with a living room big enough for a piano and I’ll be happy,” Laurie says. “Randy was away playing a concert. We pulled up here, it was a beautiful summer day, and it was green and lush. We were halfway over the bridge, and I said to our broker, ‘I don’t think we better go any further. I just know this is perfect, and I don’t know if we’re going to be able to do it.’ But somehow, magically, it all worked out. It was meant to be, another artist coming here to live.”

In over a century, Willow Brook (also known as the Colonel J. Alden Twachtman Lodge) has had only three owners, all artists. John Henry Twachtman, the Impressionist painter and leading light of the Cos Cob School, was the first to fall sway to the property’s idyllic charms — when he saw it in 1889, he exclaimed, “This is it!” The following year he bought the land and painted, famously and exquisitely, Horseneck Brook, the pool and the waterfall. “After we signed the contracts on the house, Randy took me to New York for a date,” says Laurie. “We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he stood me in front of the Twachtman painting of our waterfall. How many people can do that?”

After John Henry Twachtman’s death in 1902, the property passed to his eldest son, Colonel J. Alden Twachtman, who in 1911 designed and built the Adirondack-style hunting lodge that, structurally, remains largely unchanged today. J. Alden, who attained the rank of colonel during World War I, was a top architect who had worked for the two pre-eminent firms of the Gilded Age: McKim Mead & White and Carrère & Hastings. Between the 1920s and the 1940s he designed numerous houses in Greenwich, most notably the mansions lining Fox Run and Vineyard lanes. He was also a talented illustrator and muralist (one survives in the Frick Collection mansion on Fifth Avenue). He or his father may once have built a studio on the property, as evidenced by a small square stone foundation near the house. There is also a folly of sorts, a miniature moss-covered stone castle, and a burying ground at the foot of an ancient maple. Just three headstones remain: a stone wafer time has worn smooth, part of the headstone for one Rufus Schofield, and a sad simple marker for Eric Christian Twachtman, who lived from May 1890 to September 1891.

When George and Kay Eddy bought the house in 1970, “It was in terrible shape, very run down,” George recalls. “But the creek and the waterfall and the woods were beautiful, and the fact that the owner’s father had been a great painter appealed to Kay,” an artist and co-owner of the well-remembered gallery The Elements. The Eddys extended the house to add another bathroom and a studio, built a kitchen, put in a large north window and made other needed improvements.

Although the interior of Willow Brook now boasts an antique-filled grandeur that might surprise its original owner, the Atchesons did not make any major architectural changes when they became the third owners in 1996. They painted the exterior — the once-brown house is now a cool taupe with white accents — and repointed a few of the flagstone paths that wind up and down the hill. Randy did, however, insist that the four-by-four wooden posts along the front of the house be replaced with creamy white columns, which transformed a humble front porch into a gracious ante-bellum verandah.

“It was so rustic,” Laurie sighs, recalling her initial impression of the house. “I thought, we’ve got all this fancy French furniture, what’s going to happen? So we’ll just be unconventional and go with the fieldstone fireplace and a lot of gilt. Well,” she says with a smile, “we did hear that Twachtman had a big gilt bed.”

The kitchen needed redoing — what thirty-year-old kitchen doesn’t? — and the ceramic tile of the seventies has given way to a chic and compact workspace with granite countertops. The kitchen opens onto Randy’s bookshelf-lined office, where he manages his concert career from a desk covered with a crazy quilt of Post-its instead of a computer. “I’m a very visual person,” he says, “and I write postcards. That’s my e-mail: I write at least fifty postcards on a trip.”

The closet off the kitchen became a stylish wet bar filled with glittering stemware and a large crystal chandelier. “It’s way too big for the bar,” says Laurie, “but I thought, what the heck, and it works.” It’s also directly opposite the front door and imparts a dash of light and sparkle on entering the house. “And who would put a priest in a bathroom?” she says of the portrait of the forbidding figure who rules the powder room. “But that’s a Randy touch. What can I say? He used to have Toscanini’s bust in there.”

 “Most everything in here came from France except the piano,” says Randy. “We both had English furniture when we married, and we had two of everything, of course: two sofas, two dining room tables. So everything is French now because of Laurie’s antiques business but also because we love it.”

Several of the doors throughout the house, the massive stone urns out front and the carved moldings in the living room were imported by Twachtman from Europe and reflect the Medieval-inspired Arts and Crafts sensibility of the era. The fireplace, which rises impressively to the top of the living room’s cathedral ceiling, shares center stage with Randy’s concert grand, nine gleaming ebony feet of 1918 Steinway. All prewar pianos come with stories, and Randy bought his from a woman in Salem, Massachusetts, who had been a witch. “She had had a born-again experience,” he says, “and so I played ‘Amazing Grace’ when I was there trying it out. She took $500 off the price! She said she just felt good that I was also a born-again Christian, and it was going to a good home. She had originally bought it from a minister for whom it had been an ordination present, so it’s come full circle.

“It’s very much a Southern thing, a mark of civility,” he comments, “that you have a piano in the living room. I feel uncomfortable in a house without one. Not that I want to sit down and play it; I just like knowing it’s there.”

Randy grew up in Clanton, Alabama, which he describes as “right dead in the middle of the state” and home to the delectable Chilton County peaches. (Friends traveling through have a standing order to ship him a batch.) The youngest son of a Baptist minister, he was a true prodigy, proficient at both piano and organ by the time he was twelve; at sixteen he was the organist for the First Baptist Church of Birmingham, by no means a small congregation. At nineteen he was off to Juilliard, where he became the first and only student in the school’s history to pursue — and receive — simultaneous degrees in piano and organ performance.

“I just snuck around and did all the credits,” he says blithely, “and then they had to acknowledge it at the end. But that meant I had to play two juries [concerts judged by the staff], and it was a nightmare to play one. There were a couple of times where they held them in one afternoon, but I just had to go with it.”

Although everything appears to be in the perfect place, right down to the leather-bound guest book and the vase of roses on the piano, Laurie claims her house is still a work in progress. A self-admitted perfectionist, she’s always tweaking the placement of the odd end table or silk-upholstered side chair, usually depending on what’s just come into her shop or what’s just sold.

“Where are those lampshades?” Randy asks as we tour the room. Laurie murmurs something and he bursts out laughing. “This is the story of this house,” he says. “What happened to that, did we sell it? It was here yesterday.”

“That’s my business,” Laurie says calmly. “Everything’s fluid.”

Laurie’s antiques business, whimsically named Louis • Louis, was on Greenwich Avenue for six years, and she currently maintains a showroom at the Antique & Artisan Center in Stamford. (Prior to Louis • Louis, she owned the Children’s Shop for fifteen years before selling it to Susie Hilfiger.) “Randy and I both love France, Paris especially,” she says, “and we both love antiques, and the next thing we knew we had this business. Randy has a very good eye, and he’s more daring than I am.” The sitting room at the back of the house is in “Randy Red” — “I always have to have a red room,” he says — with red-and-white patterned sofas, landscape paintings lining the walls and tables forested with photographs, including those taken at the White House and at the American Embassy in Paris, where Randy plays an annual concert.

“I like pastels, actually,” Laurie says indulgently of the bold scarlet walls, “and I got my way in the bedroom.” The bedroom is at the front of the house, facing sunsets over the famous waterfall, and French doors open to the veranda. The airy space is done up in delicate silver and peach Chinese floral wallpaper, more elegant French furniture and Impressionist paintings, and acres of white bed linens and pillows. The mysterious pronouncement Tide turns at lowest ebb as well as high is painted over the bedroom door, another Twachtman touch the Atchesons have preserved.

When days are warm and the French doors are open, the couple falls asleep to the liquid murmurings of the brook. “I am so attached to the sound of running water,” says Randy, “and I just love looking out at the pool.” He often repairs to the Steinway to play a lullaby to his wife of sixteen years. On one recent night, however, the selection was Chopin’s Scherzo in B flat minor, a barn-burner of a piece that’s about as restful as “The Anvil Chorus.” “I had a concert in Mississippi the next week,” he says, unperturbed, “and I had to practice.” He laughs and adds, “I figure when I get older I’ll play quieter and slower.”

In another untraditional move that worked out handsomely, the Atchesons turned the second floor loft over the bedroom into a dining room, removing part of a wall to open the space to the living room below. “It’s a unique idea,” says Laurie, “and when Randy first proposed it I had to think about it for a day or so. But we weren’t using the room, and it’s large, so why not?” Their parties evoke the Hollywood glamour of All About Eve, with guests sitting on the stairs and singing around the piano, and Laurie, humorously, tells the caterers to “send people with good knees.” “We also tell guests to drink only as much as they can tolerate,” Randy quips, “so they can do the stairs.”

Here, as everywhere else in Willow Brook, are antiques with an intriguing provenance. What looks like an eighteenth-century walnut table, classical in form and patinated with age, is revealed when its sections are unfolded to be a forte- piano (albeit an unstrung one) built in 1790 that Laurie found on one of their four annual buying trips to France. This haunting piece belonged to Andrea Chénier (1762–1794), the pre-Romantic poet who died on the guillotine three days before the Reign of Terror ended, and whose brief life and tragic end inspired Umberto Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier and, possibly, Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.

“I take my music seriously but not myself,” says Randy, who has recorded sixteen albums, performed on five continents from Rio to Jerusalem to the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, and plays Carnegie Hall every other year. His 2006 Carnegie concert ran the audience-pleasing gamut from Chopin (tied with Bach for his favorite composer) to Cole Porter to Andrew Lloyd Webber and finished with a patriotic medley. His ninth Carnegie Hall concert is scheduled for November 20, 2008. “The first time I walked into the Green Room — they have all these pictures of the great artists who performed there — I remember thinking, I’m not worthy to be here,” he says. “And then I realized all those guys were dead. And I thought, well, somebody’s got to do this, and I may as well rise to the occasion. But I did think, if I ever get through this, if I never play another note, I will feel like I’ve climbed Mount Everest. And I woke up the next morning ready to do it all over again.”

Inspired by its stained glass window and peaked ceiling, the Atchesons turned the loft over the garage into a charming, and characteristically untraditional, combination chapel and music studio. Randy often gives small recitals before dinner parties here — on the harpsichord he built from a kit as a teenager, on his childhood baby grand shipped up from Alabama or on his “newest toy,” a computerized organ that can replicate the sounds of Bach’s organ in Leipzig or the organ at St. Sulpice in Paris where he proposed to Laurie on bended knee in the organ loft. “I had it all done in French nomenclature,” he says, gesturing to the ranks of stops, “and they got my goat — they sent the instruction manual in French, and I don’t read French that well.”

The tiny chapel, with its piously uncomfortable cathedral chairs and antique stone plaques delineating the Stations of the Cross, has been the site of three baptisms, a wedding, a memorial service and three pet funerals. The prie- dieu in front of the altar rail is eighteenth-century Aubusson.

“This whole place, it was nothing you could ever describe or plan,” Randy reflects. “But it just has so much character, and we have used every inch of it.