Story and photos by Caryn B. Davis
Artists long have been charmed by Chester Center, a picturesque Connecticut village filled with 18th- and 19th-century buildings. My husband and I are no exception. We live and work in a house that was built ca. 1830 as a hotel. Housing merchants who came to buy from the local mills, the building started out as a four-story Greek Revival “temple house” with a full portico, 16 bedrooms, a livery stable, a billiard room, and a dance hall. After two fires and the passage of many years that brought changes to the building, one thing is the same: It’s still a community center. We’ve had bands play on our porch and balcony, we’ve hosted art and yoga classes, Rotary Christmas parties, and outdoor weddings—including our own last June.
My husband, Leif Nilsson, bought the house in 1997 and set about creating a home and gallery with the same vision and meticulous attention he pours into his paintings. One of his first projects was to reintroduce the staircase that had been removed when the downstairs became commercial space in the late 1930s. Using antebellum oak floorboards for the treads and a custom mahogany railing with turnings and goosenecks, he “put the spine back into the house.” The railings are by Richard G. Price, who specializes in historic restorations. Following the principles of feng shui, Leif positioned the staircase to face away from the front door so energy entering the house would not immediately rush up the stairs, leaving nothing for the ground floor.
The balcony that once served as the main entrance to the hotel had become unsafe. Once again, Price undertook the restoration with Leif, crafting the railings and turnings. Now when the town has gallery open ings, its tractor parade, or the Fourth of July road race, we can view the scene from above.
Downstairs, the first floor of the studio and gallery occupies what was once a dentist’s office. Leif tore out acoustic ceiling tiles and removed exam-room walls to create one large space. Here we exhibit his impressionist landscapes, garden scenes, and seascapes, as well as my photographs.
Years ago, Leif painted an interior scene of his studio, which showcased the glass doors from Italy and our cat Calisimo. “When I reconfigured the kitchen, I remembered that painting and its colors,” Leif says. “At the paint store I found a color called ‘Viking Yellow.’ I had to have it!”
He removed a wall, relocated the laundry room and moved the fridge, eliminated a closet and half bath, then added two sets of French doors with custom transom lights. I’ve added my own touches, including the cobalt-blue glass cabinet knobs and the blue vases displayed in the transoms.
One set of French doors opens to a small garden and patio that Leif laid brick by brick. The other set of doors opens up to the grill area. In the winter, we sit on the kitchen sofa with the lights off; with patio lights on, we can see the snow fall on the ledge behind the house. In summer the doors are always open.Published in: Old-House Interiors May/June 2012