Step Inside a New Canaan Home With a Story to Tell

above left: Arched doorways are one of the special features of this home; a modern Lucite chandelier from France dominates the foyer. above right: Special vignettes like this painting by artist Giselle Landers and books on top of a silk-covered bench make the home sing.

PHOTOGRAPHER HULYA KOLABAS

“We bought the house for the back yard,” laughs owner Cat O’Neal, who is effortlessly arranging a gorgeous floral bouquet while simultaneously being interviewed. A stone’s throw from Philip Johnson’s iconic Glass House, O’Neal’s 1751 home is steeped in rich history. It was originally built as a center-chimney Colonial with a front door facing the street, until subsequent owners removed the chimney and created a central hall converting it to a Federal style home. Today, many authentic architectural details remain, including the sunburst panel above the front door, elegant moldings and paneling throughout.

Cat O’Neal at home in her living room.

As is the mindset of many antique homeowners, O’Neal, who moved in with her family in 2012, wanted to preserve the bones of the home yet create an element of delight and surprise. Mainstays like the 300-year-old wide-board pine floors and front-entryway Greek Revival period moldings were a good base, but O’Neal took the beauty of the house to the next level. She updated the kitchen, adding a new marble countertop and backsplash and refinished the floors, staining them gray. A new marble floor was installed in the entry as well as new tile and wallpaper in the butler’s pantry.

All of the bathrooms were redone, and window mullions were painted black before it was even a trend. “The first seven months were a labor of love,” admits O’Neal, who oversaw the entire project. When it came to the décor, the idea was to showcase all the possessions she had spent her life amassing, but also to mix and match antique treasures with modern finds. “Everything doesn’t have to be expensive or fancy. While I did buy a few pieces for this house, I used many things I inherited from my family or that I found on my extensive travels. My mom always told me to buy what you like, and not worry about where it will go. Somehow this worked for me, and everything came together,” she explains.

The living room is bright and airy and features an accent wall painted in a different color.

Though it’s true the back yard could easily be the subject of a separate magazine feature with its sprawling gardens, pool and pool house, what O’Neal has done with the home’s interior is a serendipitous surprise behind a classic architectural façade. Walking in, you are immediately immersed in a warm, inviting space chock-full of curios, fine art and antique porcelains from all corners of the globe. Usually, expansive collections like this belong to older folks who have spent decades traveling and acquiring, but the youthful O’Neal has managed what many of us cannot: to synergize dynasties, continents and art genres into an eclectic design scheme that is both interesting and aesthetically inspirational. “When I started decorating this house, I wanted it to be a mix of love, passion, history, travel and culture, all rolled into one,” she says.

Perhaps her own background influenced this concept. O’Neal hails from Arkansas and New Orleans, and, like many southerners, possesses that inherent “come on over anytime” hospitality. “There was always a party going on at my house growing up. My parents were big entertainers, so I started learning how to have a party when I was nine and my mom handed me a copy of Betty Crocker’s Party for Children,” she says.

left: An antique table with a marble top presents an interesting sketch found up in Paris. The oversized Japanese ginger jars underneath date back to World War II. middle: A view from the living room into the kitchen, which is filled with natural light. right: The larger of the framed artwork is a lithograph by Pierre Bonnard originally published by Ambroise Vollard, a famous French art dealer from the 1800s.

O’Neal recalls her youth experiencing the southern way of entertaining, characterized by charm and constant hosting. “I grew up in old-world-southern culture, where my parents had friends over constantly. We lived among a lot of antiques and were always using our silver sets and crystal, even for casual get-togethers,” she says. O’Neal has inherited this passion for hosting and is known for her spectacular parties and ability to create an incredible ambiance. It’s no wonder she is managing director and chief innovation officer of a business communications and production agency that works with some of the biggest Fortune 500 companies in the world. Hosting friends and family was a priority for what she wanted in a home and how she wanted to live in it. While she’d always envisioned herself in a big white house at the end of a long driveway, when she saw this antique gem that sits close to the street, she knew it was meant to be: “I really fell in love with this home’s Old-World vibe and interesting spaces that told a story, and I knew I could tell my own story here.”

The updated kitchen is painted in soothing gray tones and is the main gathering place for the family.

O’Neal designed and sourced the home’s artwork and furnishings herself, although she collaborated with other designers over the years. Her friend Anjali Pollack, of Anjali Pollack Designs, has been a fixture in her life since O’Neal lived in New York, and was consulted on color, paper and fabric. Christine Keane, owner of Found Design in New Canaan, has been a great source for styling and finding a variety of vintage pieces.

O’Neal’s fingerprints are in every room of the home, starting with the kitchen. This hive of activity is painted a peaceful Bedford Gray and opens onto a circular dining area with traditional windows arched at the top to maximize views of the garden and old stone walls. A custom round concrete table fits the space perfectly and is surrounded by a set of curved-back dining chairs purchased from an antique store in France. Over the table, O’Neal suspended six glass Juliska pendants of varying styles and heights to create the feel of a lighting installation. A plinth currently features a barnacle-encrusted vessel sourced from Bali, and to keep us guessing she changes out whatever art object is on display. Her collection of Roger Muhl French landscape paintings is sprinkled around this room and other areas of the home.

right: A custom round table and a set of curved back dining chairs sourced from France fit this cozy nook perfectly.

In the adjacent living room, O’Neal made an impact by painting one accent wall a taupey cocoa and the other three a pale oak, a trick she learned when Oprah magazine photographed her first apartment in New York. “I came home during the shoot, and they had painted one of my walls aubergine! I ended up keeping it because it added so much drama to the room,” she says. In addition, two paintings of very different styles hang on opposing walls and make a striking impression. One is a modern saturated chalk and watercolor, and the other is a mauve and periwinkle oil painting by French Master Gabriel Godard, another of O’Neal’s favorite artists. A contemporary Lucite console displays a horse sculpture from Bliss Studios, a lithograph of Cat’s mother and a chunky piece of coral, creating a stylish vignette in one corner. Other items of interest include a spectacular Moroccan mirror, a metal sculpture by an artist from the Netherlands and a pair of armchairs covered in a cream-and-tangerine French silk fabric that was the inspiration for the room’s design. A tortoise-shell coffee table, brown velvet sofa and a hand-loomed sisal rug offer guests a comfortable place to sit, and a built-in bookcase showcasing all white books and accessories neutralizes this colorful space.

left: A black lacquered étagère purchased from New York’s Mecox Gardens sets the stage for O’Neal’s extensive Blue Willow collection. middle: A carriage clock bought in London sits above a bar cart. right: Chippendale chairs with lion’s-paw feet steal the show in the dining room.

The foyer is a designer’s dream, with lilac grasscloth covering an accent wall and a beautiful Swedish clock anchoring the space. An antique table with a marble top presents an interesting sketch picked up in Paris, and a floral vase with handles was a flea market find. Five oversized Japanese ginger jars sit underneath the table that were “buried somewhere in Japan during World War II and later recovered,” notes O’Neal. A pair of Walnut Os de Mouton armchairs covered in linen and backed in velvet flank either side of the powder room that has just been re-zhuzhed with a stunning Gracie chinoiserie wallpaper. A modern Lucite chandelier from the ’50s that O’Neal found in Paris shines down on a pair of whitewashed chairs covered in a luxe purple velvet. Walking down the hallway, the owner’s spirited design juxtaposition is also at play. A yellow and black modern painting by Robert Flack hangs over an English demilune table inches away from an oil painting of an English aristocrat from the 1800s. Worlds collide here, and it has a powerful effect.

An oversized Japanese oil painting bought at auction hangs over a saffron-colored velvet sofa.
left: A Roger Muhl painting and Eiffel Tower lithograph by Chagall occupy a corner with an antique secretary. middle: A corner of the formal library mixes English antiques, vintage paintings and modern accessories for an eclectic vibe. right: Pops of turquoise on the back of custom bookshelves elevate this formal space.

The dining room is another star of the home. Chippendale chairs with lion’s-paw feet and a carriage clock bought in London steal the show. An antique bar cart sits underneath a French barometer, and a black lacquered open étagère purchased from New York’s Mecox Gardens sets the stage for O’Neal’s extensive Blue Willow pottery collection. “When I lived in London, I started my blue-and-white obsession, and it hasn’t stopped,” she says. A Japanese gold-leaf screen acquired at auction is framed by a pair of geometric modern alabaster sconces.

Even small areas that might go unnoticed in most homes make a splash. The butler’s pantry features Cowtan & Tout Treasure Flower grasscloth and lacquered blue-gray cabinets. The ceiling is papered in gold leaf and punctuated by a sunburst Circa flush-mount light fixture. Moroccan candleholders and an assortment of silver trays and bowls, family heirlooms, accessorize the bar. An equestrian orange-and-black lithograph by Andre Brasilier was bought at New York’s Adelson Galleries.

left: The dramatic foyer is accented by a pair of Walnut Os de Mouton chairs and a modern Lucite chandelier. right: Barnacle, a British short-hair cat who answers to his nickname “Barney,” surveys the neighborhood from the front door.

The library is most reminiscent of antiquity. Your eye is immediately drawn to an oversized Japanese oil painting bought at auction that hangs over a saffron-colored velvet sofa. A set of fabulous Louis XVI bench stools covered in maroon border either side of the original stone fireplace. Two bergères covered in a chocolate leather offer party seating, and another Muhl painting and an Eiffel Tower lithograph by Chagall occupy a corner where an antique secretary resides. A marble coffee table boasts large picture books, a signed sculpture, and a collection of old tortoise snuff boxes and card cases collected from European adventures. An impressive marble bust of Caesar sits under an ancient oil painting of Christ. The surprise in this room comes in the pops of turquoise, both in the paint on the back of the custom bookshelves, in pillows and in the lining of a mink throw blanket, made from one of O’Neal’s mother’s coats.

While the home is immaculately furnished, the narrative is far from over. “I constantly change things out and am adding new chapters all the time. I really love that I have a home where I can combine and share all my life experiences, while also keeping my door open 24/7 for anyone to drop by.” As I walk out the door, she gifts me the pretty flower arrangement, and I can’t help but think hers is the best story of all.

left: A colorful painting hangs over an antique bench in the entry. middle: This whimsical floral vase was a flea market find. right: Gracie hand-painted chinoiserie wallpaper makes a statement in the powder room.

 

 

 

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