Connecticut: The Anti-Hamptons?

"And then one day in 1976, Billy Baldwin and I were out looking for houses for sale in Connecticut, something we did a lot together, and I saw this wonderful old stone house.  It had such a dignity about it.  The place was built in 1770 as a tavern n the old Albany Post Road.  The house came with six acres, and I bought the adjacent apple orchard, or what was left of it.  Twenty-one acres in all.  I moved in a few months later."  – The late fashion designer Bill Blass

Of all the places we visited in the US this past month – Boston, NY, Cape Cod, the Hamptons, North Carolina, Miami and the Keys – there was one destination that really beguiled us. It stood out because it wasn't flashy like Miami, it wasn't embroidered in money like the Hamptons, it wasn't a confusing (but intriguing) dichotomy of New Wealth and Old Eccentrics like Key West, and it wasn't an intense competition of real estate, careers and restaurant reservations like New York. It was understated. Subdued. Quietly beautiful. In fact, it didn't even announce itself at the border. The only indication that we'd entered the state was a small sign saying "GARDENS THIS WAY". (Which won me over right away.)

It was the state known as The Nutmeg State: Connecticut.  (Top image of Linden Hill Farm; see below for more details.)

Ever since the New Rich started saturating the Hamptons with their fast cars and flashy cash, many New Yorkers have started venturing north to Connecticut for their rural idylls. Curiously, the place was named 'The Richest State' in 2008, but you'd never know it driving through. There are few signs of the Bugatti Veyrons, Bentleys, haute couture resort wardrobes and Hérmes Kellys that cruise around East Hampton. There are far fewer monstrous houses, high-rise fences and legions of landscapers than there are in Beverly Hills or Palm Beach. (People here prefer to do the gardening themselves). And there are almost no branded high-rise buildings like there are in New York, LA or Miami. In fact, in this state, the word 'wealth' seems to be a profanity. You would no more show your signs of financial success than you would your dirty underwear. As one local told me: "The crux of Connecticut's style is simplicity." One could almost add "discretion" to that as well.

If you love gardens, architecture and country life, as we do, you'll adore Connecticut. If you haven't been to the Hamptons before, then do go, but perhaps save a few days for Connecticut, too. It will win you over with its engaging, low-key way of life.

Here are some of our snapshots of this beautifully understated place.

"Well I actually do have a country house in Connecticut with a population of 3,000. I spend a lot of time there – I write up there. So I kind of have the best of both worlds and I love going up there." – Candace Bushnell

"I was raised in Connecticut. And I honestly wasn't aware that my dad was a celebrity until I moved to Los Angeles a year ago." – Bryce Dallas Howard (on her father Ron Howard)

"I'm a nice, happily married wife and mom and I live in Connecticut." – Christine Baranski


The home of interior designer Debra Blair, Linden Hill Farm (above and below) is named after an enviable allee of Linden trees that defines the driveway. The garden was originally designed by Clive Lodge (who worked for Oscar de la Renta on de la Renta's nearby garden) and as such, it's quite formal. Set around a magnificently restored Georgian Revival house, the garden features breathtaking magnolia trees, a formal carriage drive and forecourt lined with espaliered fruit trees, a walled, medieval-style potager filled with herbs, and various smaller gardens situated around the property. 

I loved Linden Hill Farm. Both the house and garden were simple, elegant and in keeping with the architecture (and aesthetic philosophy) of Connecticut. Even the garages were gorgeous. Many thanks to Debra Blair for allowing so many of us to wander through her beautiful home.


New Preston, Connecticut, is perhaps best known for being the home of the late fashion designer Bill Blass. Blass retired to New Preston after selling his company, and it was here he lived out his years in bliss nurturing his garden, entertaining friends and keeping company with his beloved dogs. We searched out Mr Blass's home (with a bit of help from Google maps), and were as entranced with this quiet corner of Connecticut as he was. It's not a large town – in fact, it's little more than a cluster of antique and garden shops and beautiful New England houses spread around a pretty waterfall and lake – but it's one of the most idyllic hamlets in the state. Perhaps even the entire country.

New Preston's popularity is due to a dedicated group of architect and garden lovers, who stumbled across the village in the late 1980s and 1999s and began preserving the traditional rural New England architecture dotted around the lake and surrounding hills, many of them well preserved 18th and 19th century homes built in the Georgian, Greek Revival, Italianate, and Shingle styles.

One of the first stores to attract New Yorkers was a tiny bookstore specialising in antique gardening books and horticultural prints. Antique shops and other upscale retail establishments rapidly followed, and many of New Preston's historic commercial structures underwent renovation.

Today, the diminutive village of New Preston and nearby Litchfield county are much-loved weekend retreats for hundreds of low-key Manhattan celebrities, many of whom have homes in the area. Current inhabitants of the area include Vanity Fair's editor Graydon Carter, comedian Joan Rivers, actress Christine Baranski,  Oscar de la Renta and his wife Annette, and and Diane von Furstenberg and her husband Barry Diller (see below). The legendary artist and magazine art director Alexander Liberman and his wife Tatiana used to have a country house here too. 


This is DVF's and Barry Diller's Connecticut home, Cloudwalk Farm (below). (Images via Francois Halard and InStyle magazine.)

DVF's farm is actually located in New Milford, a short drive from New Preston, in an area that's almost as heavily populated by fashion people. DVF bought the 100-acre, 160-year-old property, which has five buildings on it, just before her 27th birthday for $200,000. She decided to move her children here in 1977 after Calvin Klein's daughter was kidnapped. "I wanted a place where they could be free," she explained. Since then, she has added parcels of land as well as a neighbouring farm. She now has just under 200 acres, on which she has a studio for herself and her second husband, Barry Diller.  There are also chickens, a vegetable garden and 120 apple trees. DVF paid off her mortgage on December 31 1999, as a "millennium present to myself". She and Diller now spend much of their time here, hiking the Appalachian trail and pottering in the garden. (Info courtesy of the Financial Times.) 


Libraries seemed to be a passion for people of this corner of Connecticut. Here are some images of Bill Blass' house in New Preston (above and below). Bill Blass' dignified library and living areas were inspired by the library of architect Sir John Sloane in London, which is now a museum. "I'm always fascinated by the libraries of people's houses," said Blass in an interview with CNN.

Blass' home wasn't always so pared back. It became more and more so after Blass decided to declutter his life and sell (or give away) many of his antiques. In the last years of his life, the grand old home was so spartan that it had a kind of puritanical beauty. The walls were white, the windows and floors were mostly bare, the upholstery consisted of simple white cotton slipcovers and everything else had a handsome, but toned-down, monochromatic palette. Most of the furniture consisted of simple antique country pieces such as an American schoolmaster's desk. ''Rooms have to have a certain discipline to be livable, '' he once said. (Images via Bill Blass' biography and Habitually Chic.)


Someone else who lives in the same patch of Connecticut landscape is Australian author Annie Kelly, who is married to the architectural photographer Tim Street-Porter (ex-husband of Janet Street-Porter). Kelly and Street-Porter have collaborated on a number of books, but this one is my favourite. That's their home on the cover. I bought a copy at the The Privet House store  – another great Connecticut place to browse on a gloriously sunny spring weekend.


And for those who missed my recent post on Bunny Williams' Connecticut home and garden, here are some more vistas. Would post more details but still feeling a little jetlagged after arriving home yesterday so may need to go and have a nanna nap! 

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