From Finance to Farming

The journey from urban professionals to stewards of a storied farm

From tobacco farm to art house heritage to gentleman’s farm, this storied property holds pieces of puzzles, secret gardens and relics of each era of its ownership. We take a closer look at the heart and soul that restored this fabled estate with one of the owners, Rick Distel, as Susan Vanech sits with the gentleman of the farm for an exclusive interview.

SUSAN: Rick, you and Kevin lived in NYC, worked 80-hour work weeks and craved a city escape. We all understand that need, but why Hedgelawn Farm?

Rick: We were looking to purchase a property with enough land for our city dog to run and play. Looking at homes and land wIth a local agent, we were standing on the other side of Steep Rock valley at a property that was looking back toward the Hedgelawn Farm barn across the way perched atop the hill and we said to her, pointing in the distance, “That’s the house we really want.” It wasn’t for sale. Six hours later the broker called to say let’s see it tomorrow. So we met there and I remember it clearly because it was the 4th of July, 2007. We stood at the riding ring looking up at the trees with the sun streaming through the clouds like a big movie moment. We just knew it was ours. It was not for sale but we wrote an offer and bought it that day.

SUSAN: What was the first improvement you made on the property to begin to call it home.

RICK: The pool was the first thing we built, so that our pup had a proper place to swim. He loved the ponds but we didn’t love taking him back to the city after a dip in the pond!

SUSAN: Ponds are better suited for the fish, I suppose.

RICK: And there are millions of them! And an ancient snapping turtle which makes an annual trip each year from the smaller pond to the larger pond. Even turtles love having a summer home! The first year the pool was there, he managed to try it out himself. He must have been puzzled at the shorter journey – but he was safely removed from the pool and set on his course to the large pond.

SUSAN: A migratory layover! While we are thinking about the land and the history and all of mother nature’s glory, would you as a city boy now consider yourself a farmer?

RICK: Ha, well, after working 80-hour work weeks in the city we thought it would be a good idea to be farmers on the weekends! We planted hundreds of berry bushes and dozens of fruit trees and had the farm certified as organic. Local restaurants and markets benefited from what we produced – even the Mayflower Inn was a customer. At a certain point we stopped selling and began donating to food banks and eventually realized we are not farmers after all! Bless those that are – it is tireless work, and to do it under the strict regulations of organic certification make it even more intense which some may find counterintuitive. We continue to maintain the organic certification for the next stewards of the property.


Puzzle Pieces & Pressure Points

SUSAN: You and Kevin, who came to the world of design and construction via Wall Street, completely rebuilt each structure. I am sure there were some challenges along the way.

RICK: There were some pressure points for sure.

SUSAN: What was the largest challenge for you and Kevin?

RICK: After we rebuilt the small cottage we took on what was the original farmhouse. At some point in more recent years the antique farmhouse was awkwardly connected to a more contemporary barn-style structure to create a great room. We needed to solve for the transition between the original house and the barn structure with consideration of the functional parts and the relationship to nature. While the work was being done and as we were living through the construction (much to builder Ed Cady’s dismay) and literally living in the barn portion with only tarps and plywood as walls, we realized when the tarps came down that the connector between these two very different architectural spaces needed to be a simple glass connector to specifically make the transition NOT in an appropriate farmhouse manner. And then we sort of created space in the center of the entryway to house functional components like closets, pantry and laundry, without taking up valuable exterior wall space.

SUSAN: You mimicked that same concept in the now Barn House by putting the utilitarian components in the center as well – the kitchen and that magical staircase. How did that staircase come to fruition?

RICK: The design of the barn almost defeated us. There were hours upon hours spent trying to solve how to turn a tobacco barn that became an art studio into a fully modern home. The largest challenge was how to get from one floor to the next without sacrificing livable space, without compromising the splendor of the views from all corners of the home. Research and wonder and finding inspiration through mc escher’s paintings, we knew we needed to use the center of the space. We didn’t know at the time it would be a spiral until we encountered the italian architect Francesco Librizzi. We shared our constraints with this Italian designer extraordinaire, the Artistic Director of esteemed FontanaArte, and he said “let’s exploit that box and create a free standing cage and build the staircase there.” And he did it. He made it feel like origami with floating stairs.

SUSAN: The stairs in both the Barn House and the now Guest House are both art pieces. Throughout each of the residences I see a multitude of poetic juxtapositions: the modern gas fueled eco-friendly fireplace set upon the original 1700’s stone hearth, the antique guest house and barn structure joined by the glass box, all of the original posts and beams of the original barn deconstructed and reconstructed in their exact locations now with walls of windows between them. Eyes are the windows to the soul, they say, and your windows offer the eyes a spectacular view of the soul of Hedgelawn Farm. How did you design the layout for the placement of the windows?

RICK: There was no point creating a beautiful home on this hill without an abundance of windows to take it all in. From here you can see all the way across the Shepaug River valley. So Kevin set out to make sure that this building was recreated in a way that maximized the number of windows. It is basically a glass penthouse, plucked from atop a Manhattan skyscraper and placed on this precious and important hilltop. But in some cases – like the guest bedrooms on the eastern side of the home, we had to work within the post and beam structure created back in the 1800s. By creating a patchwork of windows placed exactly where they fit inside the framework of the structure. It creates a postcard-like snapshot each offering a slightly different elegant and beautiful view.

SUSAN: Can we talk about those doors? The big brass set?

RICK: Ah, another massive feat inspired by a hallmark of mid century interior design and a vision that Kevin conceived and executed with Forms and Surfaces. Truly iconic. Those doors are cast bronze. It required a ton of engineering to be certain the barn framing was prepared for the significant weight and span and an entire team to install.

SUSAN: What is one detail that was low cost or no additional cost, but meaningful to you that you retained from one of the original structures?

RICK: We felt it was important to retain as much of the history and integrity of each of the structures as possible. The cupola from the tobacco barn now sits in a wooded portion of the property as a little relic and likely has become a fox den. The weathervane from the original barn was moved to the guest house. Well into what is now Steep Rock, 100’s of years ago, there was an old railroad and the workers building the tracks would camp on the property and we have unearthed relics including crude forks, metal bowls, tools, pieces of farm equipment, horseshoes, glass bottles. All now folly in the gardens placed on walls close to where we originally unearthed them.

One very special detail is found in the barn house. The NW corner of the barn housed the Whitney’s 1960’s kitchen. All pink. In that corner was also a doorway to the patio leading to the Wadia oval shaped pool we put in as the first mark of our family’s fingerprint on the estate.

When we deconstructed the framing and removed the pink kitchen we saw brush strokes of the pink paint still on the corner antique post. I insisted we keep it to pay homage to what was there. That detail is super important to me.”

SUSAN: When did you know your work was done?

RICK: When the staircase in the barn house was completed. When the Italians left the scene. That was the realization of the completion of the very last puzzle piece. Kevin had turned circles into squares and churned ideas into realities.

SUSAN: Earlier you mentioned the next stewards of the farm. What is left for them to do to make their mark on the land?

RICK: There is still more that can be done…the next steward can bring their own dreams to fruition. The riding ring overlooking the pond could accommodate another structure looking west across steep rock or looking back at the barn on the farm. The entire property can be a multigenerational family compound offering exquisite wedding and celebration venues. Some have played with the idea of a tennis pavilion. Also untapped is the five bay garage barn and three additional bays at the end for farm equipment. It could be an artists studio with a loft or a car collectors showroom. Endless options. Could build an agricultural barn. Bring on the livestock! But that’s for the next stewards.

Susan Vanech is the founder of Coastal Compass, residential real estate investor and agent representative of homes with unique stories.

Susan Vanech, Real Estate Strategist

Team SVP


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