Written by Lisa Cregan
Photographs by John Bessler
Produced by Jenny Bradley
Although there have been a couple of centuries’ worth of alterations and additions to designer Sallie Giordano’s Oyster Bay cottage since George Washington slept here back in 1790, one thing has stayed the same—it’s still irresistible to visitors. In warm weather, the shallow cove is dotted with the boats of friends and neighbors who wade ashore to the cottage on the edge of Long Island, arms full of kids and provender. In wintertime, they congregate just as merrily around the house’s blazing hearths in pursuit of the happiness old George fought so hard to preserve.
“We think Washington probably stayed in what is now our library because that was the most special room in the house back then,” Sallie says. “The place was built in 1651, and it’s been added on to many, many times. When we first saw it, the front door opened directly into the back of a stairway.”
But the house had no shortage of charm, so the designer and her husband, Mark, purchased it four years ago, determined to remake it as a weekend retreat from apartment life in Manhattan for themselves and their daughters Leta, 14, and Allegra, 11.
Along with architect Tim Hook, Sallie quickly got to work rethinking the floor plan. They closed off odd doorways to create wall space in the six upstairs bedrooms, updated the bathrooms, designed period-appropriate mantels for the five fireplaces, and moved the front door away from that intrusive staircase. Visitors arriving on the threshold now see straight through the house to the inviting waters of Oyster Bay Cove.
Once work got under way, the ancient beams that ornament the living room, dining room, and bar area were a happy discovery. “The ceilings are tall for a house built in the 1600s,” Sallie says, “but in the 1940s or ’50s someone actually lowered them! So we broke through the plaster and found the old, original beams. They make the rooms so much more interesting.”
When the time came to choose the color palette and furnishings, Sallie says her goal was to create a “soft” look that wouldn’t compete with the stunning water views framed in almost every window. “This place is all about the setting,” she says. “When you walk through, your eye is constantly drawn outside.”
To achieve her soft look, Sallie began by replacing the mishmash of downstairs flooring with chalky limed-oak floors from France. Sallie says what she loves most about her new floors is their imperfections. “They’re full of dings and knots, so they connect with the old beams above them.”
Living room walls are glazed in a multi-layer gray plaster finish that looks as if it’s been in place since the presidential sleepover. “It resembles old plaster that’s been painted many, many times,” the designer explains. “I wanted the walls to feel like they’ve been this way forever.” The dining room wallpaper has a similar caught-out-of-time appeal. “It’s very pale and old-fashioned,” says Sallie. “I think of this room as more of an impression than anything else. When you walk away, the only thing you remember is the warm light.”
Actually, everything here is about conjuring warmth and memories. Sallie, who for the past 15 years has helmed the New York branch of her mother’s legendary Palm Beach design firm, Leta Austin Foster & Associates, used curtains from her grandmother’s house in two of the guest rooms. And when it came to choosing fabric for the living room sofas, she reached for another family touchstone—a bolt of happy blue-and-white fabric that she acquired long ago from her mother. “I saw it and immediately thought, I’ll build the room around that,” says Sallie. She notes that blue and white create a “classic summer palette.”
She says the embroidered gingham bed curtains in the master bedroom are another classic Leta Austin Foster touch. “My mother taught me how to take something formal—like a canopy bed—and make it feel luxurious and casual at the same time. I’ve learned so much from her. For example, she always says a whole house should flow. It should have one personality, and each room should reflect a different aspect of that personality.”
Sallie quotes a friend’s description of the cottage as an “idealized version of a grandmother’s home”—a grandmother with a faint Swedish accent, that is. “Yes, the house is full of Swedish antiques,” laughs Sallie of the white-painted tables and chairs and the crystal chandeliers scattered throughout. “So much of Swedish design was meant to accept and accentuate coastal views. It just feels right here.”
Ultimately, though, Sallie’s aspirations for her home have nothing to do with its style or provenance. “I know Washington slept here and all that, but we don’t take our house’s history too seriously. What this place is really all about is creating sweet memories for our children.”
Architect: Tim Hook, Moran Hook Architecture, 37 W. 39th St., Suite 1001, New York, NY 10018; 212/229-2950, moranhook.com.
Interior designer: Sallie Giordano, Leta Austin Foster &Assoc. Inc., 410 E. 57th St., Suite 2C, New York, NY 10022; 212/421-5918, and 64 Via Mizner, Palm Beach, FL 33480; 561/655-5489, letaaustinfoster.com.