There is what you can see in a house when you visit or look at pictures—the furniture and fabric and wall coverings and the like. But there are also decoration’s invisible powers—the way a room works or makes you feel when you are inside it. Rita is a master of both.
In many ways, I am a far from ideal decorating client. I don’t have a substantial budget; my husband, Jacob Weisberg, and I each accumulate things that sometimes don’t go well together; and I rearrange constantly, not always for the better. Even looking at these pictures, I can hear Rita wishing I had styled them differently, removed some (several) offending objects. She is clear and direct about what she thinks, but also open-minded and pleased that I bring my own interests
flowers and gardens and craft—into the house. She has been patient, and we have made changes bit by bit over the years, when time and money would allow, sometimes revisiting and upgrading a room before even tackling another. It’s now been over 15 years of tweaking, and renovating, diving into decorating and retreating from it.
My husband and I bought this modest 18th-century Dutch Colonial house in the Hudson Valley in 1995, so that I could make a garden. The house is a higgledy-piggledy one, having begun its life in the late 1700s as a one-room inn on the old Albany Post Road that ran from New York City to Albany. There were rooms tacked on to it in the 1920s and some later ye olde style modernizations in the 1950s and ’60s. The house had been owned by Dallas Pratt, an heir to the Standard Oil fortune and cofounder of the American Museum in Britain, a decorative arts collection, in Bath, England. It was by far the most modest of his many houses, and perhaps his favorite, although he visited most years only in October, when the weather cooled and the leaves turned. By the time we arrived, the house was an odd mix of some good Early American–period details along with bathrooms outfitted with plastic shower stalls atop shag carpet, sinks built into the bedrooms and enclosed behind paneled doors that looked like a cross between a confessional and a telephone booth, and an attached garage that had been transformed into a dead ringer for the set from The Brady Bunch.
Except for some restoration and a kitchen renovation with the hugely talented architect Jim Joseph (AD, February 2014), who is an expert in old houses, we did very little for nearly a decade other than get on with our lives and enjoy the place and its quirks.
Finally, in 2005, we got around to trying to really sort things out with Jim and our friend Dave Merandy, a local carpenter-craftsman who eventually became mayor of the neighboring town while still being a dedicated, aesthetically minded builder. Before Rita came on the scene, we had already decided to move the kitchen into the Brady Bunch room, add a large sitting room giving onto a screened-in porch, and a new primary bedroom above it. Rita began by working through the spaces architecturally with Jim. She finessed the plan to have two guest bedrooms share an enlarged adjoining bathroom for a sense of privacy for visitors, by maintaining a shared tiny hallway and keeping the bath and toilet in separate rooms on either side of it. In the sitting room we were building, she found an old fireplace mantel compatible with the wall molding Jim designed, making the room feel as if it had been there all along. The windows in that room had to be set back rather deeply from the wall, and so she suggested old mirror paneling angled alongside them to throw the lost light back into the room. And in an awkward leftover space between the kitchen and sitting room, she devised a flower-arranging room for me, reusing an old soapstone sink that Dave had found at an antiques fair for the original kitchen remodel.