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Christmas in a New England Clapboard

A Connecticut family rings in the season with greens galore, a light-laden tree, and two eager boys on Santa watch

Written by Amy Elbert
  • John Bessler

    Frank Sinatra crooning “Jingle Bells” is the cue (as if any child needs one) that Christmas morning has arrived at Lisa and Eric Hilderbrand’s home in Silvermine, Connecticut. While Sinatra’s swinging version of this holiday classic might seem out of place in a home that dates to the 1770s, it’s a family tradition that Lisa could never give up.

    “Christmas was a major production in our house, masterminded by my father,” recalls Lisa, who grew up in Dallas. “When my sister and I were little, we would wake up well before dawn. I can remember the crackle of the sound of the needle hitting the record, followed by jingling bells and Frank singing. It is so mellow and cool. That is Christmas morning.”

    “Our white New England farmhouse is made for Christmas. When we landscaped the house, we put in eight big conical hollies, and the first thing I thought was how they’d look lit up for Christmas,” Lisa says.

    The house was hardly dressed in holiday finery when Eric and Lisa bought the property in 2004. A local builder was ready to tear it down for a housing development when the Hilderbrands stepped in. As an interior designer, antiques dealer, and former rug specialist at Christie’s, Lisa brought plenty of expertise to the table. “I definitely made the decorating decisions, but Eric had some real kernels of wisdom,” Lisa says. One of his suggestions was ensuring that the biggest room of the house—added in the 1920s as a ballroom—would be where the family lived. 

    The 7,200-square-foot clapboard home sits along the Silvermine River, a historic area settled by Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

    Photography: John Bessler  
    Produced by Karin Lidbeck-Brent

    Interior design: Lisa Hilderbrand, Welhil Interiors, 11 River Road, Norwalk, CT 06850; 203/847-3870, welhil.com.

  • John Bessler

    Spectacular Tree

    “We didn’t want it to be a formal, unapproachable room, so we decided to make it casual with lots of comfortable seating, a TV over the fireplace, a big bar table,” Lisa says of the large space. Behind the sofa is a games table where the family works puzzles and plays everything from Scrabble to “a mean game of Go Fish.”

    The grand proportions of the 20x40-foot room demanded large furnishings, so Lisa filled it with a nearly grand-size piano (“It’s bigger than a baby grand,” she says), an 18th-century chest-on-chest, a Regency library table, a 9-foot-long leather sofa, and high-back wing chairs.“I was thrilled to have a room that would accommodate furniture of that scale,” Lisa says.

    Although Lisa’s father passed away a few years ago, his practice of choosing the biggest, fullest tree and ladening it with decorations and strings of lights is another joyful tradition Lisa continues with Eric and their two sons, Robert, 5, and Patrick, 3.

    “Our tree is always two feet taller than our ceiling height, which is 11 feet. I’m serious,” Lisa says, laughing. “We cut the top and bottom off so we have the fullest tree possible.” Then there is the ritual of stringing yards and yards of lights, using Lisa’s dad’s technique of weaving strands deep into the branches. 

    At Christmastime, the Steinway piano, the antique Persian rug, and the custom walnut coffee table are all overshadowed by the Hilderbrands’ spectacular Christmas tree.

    Wall and trim paint (“Huntington Beige” #HC-21): Benjamin Moore, benjaminmoore.com.
    Ceiling paint (“Lime White” #1): Farrow & Ball, farrow-ball.com.
    Drapery (“Indian Flower”/Indigo on Red #JP 1012, by Jasper): Michael S Smith Inc., michaelsmithinc.com.
    Art on wall opposite piano (American School, early 20th century) Christie’s, christies.com.
    Light over art (“Advent Picture Light” #A14): House of  Troy, houseoftroy.com
    Library table under art (William IV): antique.
    Lamps on table: vintage.
    Sofa (“Lancaster”); sofa fabric (“Brompton Leather”/Cocoa): Restoration Hardware, rh.com.
    Throw on sofa: antique Suzani. 
    Pillow at either end of sofa (vintage ikat); beige-patterned pillows on sofa (antique Turkish); blue-patterned pillow (vintage ikat): Lotus Gallery, lotusasianart.com.
    Hide pillow (“Sprigbok Pillow” #16789): Rinfret Home & Garden, rinfrethomeandgarden.com.
    Coffee table: custom.
    Area rug: antique Heriz.
    Upholstered club chair: Christie’s, christies.com.
    Wing chair (vintage); pillow on chair (vintage carpet pillow): Hamptons Antique Galleries, hamptonsantiquegalleries.com.
    Chair fabric (“Mission Cloth”/Quail #92508/06): Rogers & Goffigon, 203/532-8068.
    Throw: owner’s collection.
    Table beside wing chair (mahogany cellarette): Antique & Artisan Center, stamfordantiques.com.
    Bench: antique.
    Fabric (African Kuba cloth): vintage

  • John Bessler

    Ornament Detail

    A gracious Christmas tree allows for an abundance of sparkling ornaments, like this colorful butterfly. 

  • John Bessler

    Antique Table

    To keep things youthful, Lisa mixes in new and 20th-century furnishings throughout the house. An antique library table anchors one end of the 20x40-foot room, while a coffee table was custom-made and given an impervious finish. “That table gets hot pizza boxes, cold beer bottles, Play-Doh, and sticky fingers. It needed a tough finish.” 

    Library table under art (William IV): antique.
    Lamp on table: vintage.
    Art (American School, early 20th century) Christie’s, christies.com.
    Chair at right (Empire tub chair): The Antique & Artisan Center, stamfordantiques.com.
    Chair fabric; ottoman fabric: discontinued.
    Ottomans at left (antique English quarter-round ottomans): Christie’s, christies.com.  

  • John Bessler

    Spacious Living Room

    Anchoring the room is a late-19th-century Heriz rug that Lisa bought at a Christie’s auction. “I started my career working as an assistant in the antique rug department at Christie’s, so to be in the sale room raising my paddle to buy a rug for my house was pretty special.”

  • John Bessler

    Welcoming Entrance

    Walnut double doors were added to create a front entry, which the house previously lacked. 

    Pair of lanterns (antique copper coach lanterns): Hamptons Antique Galleries, hamptonsantiquegalleries.com.
    Urn planters: Marvin Gardens, marvingardensusa.com.
    Doors: bought at auction.
    Door hardware: discontinued. For similar (“Cody Full Handleset”/Unlacquered Brass #6403.150): Baldwin, baldwinhardware.com

  • John Bessler

    Foyer & Fireplace

    A wooden industrial mold that was made into a mirror and a mid-20th-century octagonal center table mingle with 18th-century antiques. “I like the modern additions. They add youth,” Lisa says.

    Wall paint (“Revere Pewter” #HC-172): Benjamin Moore, benjaminmoore.com.
    Center hall table: owner’s collection.
    Area rug under center table (antique Heriz): Grogan & Co, groganco.com.
    Blue wing chair (George III-style): Hamptons Antique Galleries, hamptonsantiquegalleries.com.
    Wing-chair fabric (“Velours Monchalet”/Slate #TB-2030/04): Rose Tarlow-Melrose House, rosetarlow.com.
    Geometric pillow on wing chair (“Montbard Velvet”/Moss #404132, by Travers): Zimmer + Rohde, zimmer-rohde.com.
    Table beside wing chair (Neoclassical): Hiden Galleries, hidengalleries.com.
    Floor lamp (Bagues bamboo-form brass floor lamp): Dovecote, dovecote-westport.com.
    Chairs flanking fireplace: owner’s collection.
    Chair fabric (silk): discontinued.
    Pillows on chairs (Sensuede in Mustard #15278-258); drapery (silk, discontinued): Duralee, duralee.com.
    Mirror above fireplace (vintage industrial wooden mold mounted as mirror): Hamptons Antique Galleries, hamptonsantiquegalleries.com.
    Area rug in front of fireplace (antique Bidjar): Christie’s, christies.com.
    Fire fender: Lovers Lane Antique Market, loverslaneantiques.com.

  • John Bessler

    Updated Kitchen

    Like most historic homes, the three-level structure had been added onto over the decades, creating a rambling and less-than-modern floor plan. The Hilderbrands added a main staircase, opened up rooms, added doorways, and moved walls to create better flow, and they revamped the kitchen, bathrooms, and HVAC system.

    “Everything in the kitchen is new. We expanded it 8 feet and gutted the whole thing,” Lisa says. New yellow-pine floors were laid (the original floor was buried under three layers of peeling linoleum), and Lisa stained them in a checkerboard design. 

    Lisa and Eric Hilderbrand make breakfast for sons Robert (right) and Patrick, who shares a bite with Rudy, a rough-coat Jack Russell terrier. Holiday greenery covers a pot rack made from old floor joists. 

    Table (antique walnut): Christie’s, christies.com.
    Chairs: custom.
    Chair-seat fabric (“Gainsborough Velvet”/Fern #42869): Schumacher, fschumacher.com.
    Dinnerware (“Willow-Blue,” by Johnson Brothers, discontinued): Replacements Ltd., replacements.com.
    Cabinetry: custom.
    Countertop (butcher block): John Boos, johnboos.com.
    Faucet on island (“Modern Architectural Side Lever Stainless Steel Pro Pull-Down” #R7521): Rohl, rohlhome.com.
    Hanging lantern (“Mottisfont Lantern” #CL0240.B): Vaughan, vaughandesigns.com.
    Range (60-inch Garland restaurant stove): vintage.
    Refrigerator: Whirlpool, whirlpool.com.
    Ceiling paint (“Navajo White” #OC-95): Benjamin Moore. benjaminmoore.com.

  • John Bessler

    Cozy Dining Room

    The Hilderbrands salvaged as much as they could throughout the project, including most of the original windows, moldings, and hand-hewn ceiling beams. Nearly all of the wide-plank floors—a mix of chestnut, pine, and oak—had been painted many times, but they were stripped and polished to a rustic luster. 

    The dining room was added in the early 1800s and has original wood-paneled walls and ceiling beams. “It is dark, but I decided to embrace that,” Lisa says. “That’s really what I love—rich, warm, cozy rooms.”

    Drapery (“Tussah” #32173, silk): Duralee, duralee.com.
    Drapery trim (“2-inch Desert Linen Border”/Wine #977-42631-10); braid (“1.75-inch Canopy Braid”/Natural #977-41657-01, by Lori Weitzner): Samuel & Sons, samuelandsons.com.
    Fire screen (vintage); andirons (antique): Leonce Antiques, leonceantiques.com.
    Art above mantel (English school, 19th century): Brunk Auctions, brunkauctions.com.
    Sconces (antique): C.M. Leonard Antiques, Harbor View Center For Antiques, harborviewantiques.com.
    Sisal rug (“Broadway” ): Merida, meridameridian.com.
    Dining table (Regency-style, mahogany); chandelier (Empire style): antique.
    Host chair (Flemish): Christie’s, christies.com.
    Host-chair fabric (“Tracks,” discontinued): Rose Tarlow-Melrose House, rosetarlow.com.
    Dining side chairs (antique Flemish): John Rosselli Antiques, johnrosselliantiques.com.
    Chair-seat fabric: discontinued. 
    Chair-back fabric (leather): vintage.

  • John Bessler

    Table Details

    Antique Fitzhugh china sets a festive table. 

    Dinnerware (“Fitzhugh”/Green, Antique Chinese Export Porcelain): Christie’s, christies.com.
    Gold-rimmed glassware; wine glasses: vintage.
    Flatware (“Burgundy”): Reed & Barton, reedandbarton.com.
    Placemats; napkins: owner’s collection.

  • John Bessler

    Antique Hutch

    An antique hutch holds family heirlooms. The sisal rug is from Merida. 

    Sisal rug (“Broadway”): Merida, meridameridian.com.
    Dining side chairs (antique Flemish): John Rosselli Antiques, johnrosselliantiques.com.
    Chair-seat fabric: discontinued.
    Chair-back fabric (leather): vintage.
    Dinnerware  (“Fitzhugh”/Green, Antique Chinese Export Porcelain): Christie’s, christies.com.
    Silver pieces; torchiere: owner’s collection.
    Hutch (antique, Scottish mahogany): Hamptons Antique Galleries, hamptonsantiquegalleries.com.

  • John Bessler

    Library With Character

    The library is likely the oldest section of the house, dating to the 1770s. There, Lisa took to the ceilings with a crowbar, ripping out plaster and exposing original beams. 

    An antique Tabriz carpet from J&D Oriental Rugs embraces the house’s oldest room. Drywall was torn out to expose original wood beams, posts, and a brick fireplace with an iron crane in the firebox. “It must have been used for cooking at one time,” Lisa says.

    Wall and cabinet paint (“Farrow’s Cream” #67): Farrow & Ball, farrow-ball.com.
    Ceiling paint (“Elephant Tusk” #OC-8): Benjamin Moore, benjaminmoore.com.
    Lights over bookcases (“Frame Maker’s 24-inch Picture Light” #SL2703): Circa Lighting, circalighting.com.
    Sofa: custom.
    Sofa fabric (“River Velvet”/Fern #T1010-02): Templeton Fabrics, templetonfabrics.com.
    Leopard-print pillow: vintage.
    Beige flamestitch pillow (“Holland Flamestitch”/Porcela #2004005.1, velvet): Lee Jofa, leejofa.com.
    Blue-patterned pillow (Flemish verdure tapestry): antique.
    Lamps on end tables (vintage marbleized tole lamps): John Pope Antiques, johnpopeantiques.com.
    Wooden chair with white seat cushion (antique Biedermeier): Lovers Lane Antique Market, loverslaneantiques.com.
    Chair-seat fabric: vintage ivory suede.
    Brass floor lamp; round coffee table (large African Cameroon table): vintage.
    Upholstered chair by bookcase (George III-style): Harbor View Center For Antiques, harborviewantiques.com.
    Chair fabric, front (tiny wale corduroy): Banksville Designer Fabrics, banksvilledesignerfabrics.com.
    Leather chair-back fabric (“Palma”/Butterscotch #J101-02, by Jasper): Michael S Smith Inc., michaelsmithinc.com
    Barrel table beside chair (Southeast Asian lacquered drum): Kevin Perry Antiques, 941/504-5765.
    Floor lamp (“Jeffrey”): Ballard Designs, ballarddesigns.com
    Area rug (antique Tabriz): J&D Oriental Rugs, jdorientalrugs.com.
    Wooden chair (Napoleon III): The Antique & Artisan Center, stamfordantiques.com
    Bench in front of fireplace (George III): Lovers Lane Antique Market, loverslaneantiques.com.

  • John Bessler

    Outdoor Pavilion

    One of the Hilderbrands’ favorite spaces is the original outdoor pavilion with brick floors next to the living room. To make the room functional for more of the year, the Hilderbrands added a fireplace made with large stones that Lisa handpicked so they would look original to the house. “We use that room almost year-round, especially in the fall when we roast marshmallows.”

    Paint: Benjamin Moore, benjaminmoore.com.
    Fireplace stone (fieldstone and bluestone): O&G Industries, 800/822-4953.
    Small wooden chairs: antique.
    Chairs (“Paxton Yorkshire Armchair”/Weathered Black #32068): Grandin Road, grandinroad.com.
    Hanging pendant: vintage.

  • John Bessler

    Festive Stairway

    A garland winds up the new stair rail. Mantels and stair railings are decked with garlands of fresh-cut greens, holly branches, giant pinecones, and pheasant feathers.

    Lisa’s mother generally comes from Texas for the holidays, sharing in the celebration that’s so intertwined with the family. “Christmas and my father are inseparable in my mind,” Lisa says. “I feel close to him when I listen to Christmas carols and decorate the house. The torch has been passed, and I carefully walk the line between storybook and fanaticism. I can only imagine how he would laugh at how our Christmas decorating obsession has put us in Traditional Home for all to see!” 

    Commode (Louis XVI): Christie’s, christies.com.
    Lamp (mercury glass): The Antique & Artisan Center, stamfordantiques.com.
    Parquetry box (antique Japanese): Hamptons Antique Galleries, hamptonsantiquegalleries.com.
    Flower holders (Near Eastern-style brass vessels); tiger statue (antique cloisonné tiger): John Pope Antiques, johnpopeantiques.com.
    Chair (William IV): Hiden Galleries, hidengalleries.com.
    Chair-seat fabric: discontinued.
    Pillow (silk, by Bergamo Fabrics): Donghia, donghia.com.
    Pillow trim (“1.9-inch Le Duc Border”/Antique Gold #977-33860-854): Samuel & Sons, samuelandsons.com.

  • John Bessler

    Blue Bedroom

    Lisa built the headboard in this bedroom to incorporate the pair of antique carved Indian columns she purchased on eBay. An antique Spanish iron and brass x-bench sits at the foot of the bed, while on the bed, a wool plaid blanket and a fur throw add warmth on cold nights. 

  • John Bessler

    And to All a Good Night

    Eric reads the boys a Christmas story.