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.
The carved mantel and beams hint at the home’s history, while an enchanting fabric from Georges Le Manach (available through Claremont) used on the windows adds the perfect dash of pattern.
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.”
The dining room wallpaper has a 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.”
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. 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.”
At one end of the living room, a painted table and chairs create a Swedish-inspired design moment to frame the beach view. “It just feels right here,” Sallie says of the Swedish style.
Pistachio-hued cabinets and limed-oak floors make for a pretty palette in the kitchen.
Architect: Tim Hook, Moran Hook Architecture, 37 W. 39th St., Suite 1001, New York, NY 10018; 212/229 2950, moranhook.com.
Interior design: 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.