When designer Louise Copeland first teamed up with client Elizabeth Brown, a senior vice president at Holly Hunt, it was for an apartment in buzzy Manhattan, but the Browns ended up purchasing a mid-19th century farmhouse in Germantown, New York instead. The alum of Stephen Gambrel’s eponymous design firm says she was already along for the ride at this point and while a Gothic Revival project didn’t feel like her wheelhouse architecturally, Copeland was excited for the challenge with this historic gem.
“The interesting thing about this house is that it’s almost 200 years old and the Browns are only the sixth owners in all that time,” says Copeland. “The man who built it in the 1830s was a ship captain and built a dock on the property, which is the highest point in the area to see all the ships coming in. Then a naturalist purchased it, followed by a director of horticulture, so everyone had the property for long periods of time, putting their own touches on the home and landscape.”
However, Copeland says that as old houses evolve they typically they get altered by each owner to better fit their individual needs. By the time the Browns got ahold of the place, many of the original elements of the house were gone and the layout didn’t make much sense anymore—the designer likened it to a rabbit warren. Needless to say, the clients’ original hopes to just redo the kitchen were scrapped by the end of the initial meeting with architect Chip Bohl in favor of doubling the size of the home to create the ultimate bucolic retreat. Now Copeland really had her work cut out for her.
First, Copeland had to strategize ways to bring this home into the 21st century without losing any more of its originality. Instead of removing the 1830’s front door that faces away from the road towards the river, she added a new front porch to face the road that mirrored the original and created a new entrance hall so the owners would have another option besides the mudroom to create a warmer welcome for guests.
“The kitchen was really small and dark, so we added a whole new side of the house that had a kitchen looking into the meadow and pool that is so beautiful with all of these water gardens surrounding it,” says Copeland. “We also added a proper primary bedroom above, because the existing rooms were all very small. It isn’t a grand bedroom because that wouldn’t fit with the spirit of the house, but it is cohesive and functional.”
When it came to determining “the spirit of the house,” Copeland says that she often can’t find the words to articulate the feeling she wants to evoke with projects. It’s all about making them contextual and looking more collected than designed with a mix of old and new. However, everything started falling into place when she kept stumbling upon incredible antiques from around the same period that the original home was built.
“As we learned about the history of the house and its previous owners, the design started to take shape in my mind, and as we went along, I wanted it to feel like each owner had left things over the years through the present day so that it didn’t feel too fussy,” she says. “We went heavy on early 19th-century antiques to match the age of the house. The dining room, for example, features nothing that was crafted after 1890.”
However, it was also important to Copeland that there was a mix of younger antiques and newer upholstery, plus an assortment of more contemporary Holly Hunt pieces to be comfortable for a young, modern family. The designer says she was fortunate to have such incredible clients who were not only willing to roll with the punches and try new things but who also had an impeccable sense of style themselves. The Browns are also collectors and once they purchased the Hudson Valley property, they began collecting works from the historic Hudson River School of Art that is no longer in operation. By the time the project was complete, the Browns had an incredible collection of local art that perfectly fit the aesthetic of the home, and there was a place for just about every piece.
“What I’m most proud of is the spirit that everything inside this home creates,” says Copeland. “It feels like it’s been there forever while having all the perks of modernity that we need today. The house is definitely quirky but we didn’t want to overcorrect, so it still feels plenty old.”
When it comes to the landscaping, that became a passion project of the Browns, who teamed up with Judy Murphy of Old Farm Nursery to create the lush, layered gardens. With one of the former owners being a naturalist and the other a horticulturalist and rosarian who worked with the New York and Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, there was an excellent foundation that, like the home itself, the owners preserved the intentionality and integrity of while bringing new life to the outdoor spaces to make them as dreamy as ever—complete with swoon-worthy original allées and chicken coops.
For a project that took place during the pandemic, openness and adaptability were the themes of the day, but Copeland says that this was actually to everyone’s advantage. Being forced to phase out work allowed for the discovery of more one-of-a-kind items, such as a 150-year-old reclaimed mantel found by Elizabeth that Copeland says was “so imperfectly perfect” that it completely changed the design and feel of the living room. There was more time to find the perfect antique and vintage items, young and old, to expound on the home’s roots and personality. While Copeland says her work technically took two years, this was a project nearly 200 years in the making, and that notion shines through in every single vignette of this home.
Lauren Wicks is a Birmingham-based writer covering design trends, must-have products, travel inspiration, and entertaining. She’s obsessed with globally inspired textiles, hosting dinner parties, and French cocktails.