A Garden for All Seasons

On 15 acres in rural Connecticut, designer Alexandra Champalimaud resurrects a historic property, bringing it new life as the outdoor-living space of her dreams

A 'Thundercloud' flowering plum tree arches over the gate to Alexandra Champalimaud's poolhouse. Click on icon for information on products in this story.
A 'Thundercloud' flowering plum tree arches over the gate to Alexandra Champalimaud's poolhouse. Click on icon for information on products in this story.

Green typically reigns supreme in garden idylls, but today the subtle burgundy hues of barberry bushes and the shadowy violet of hyacinths may take the crown. We’re walking through the grounds of interior designer Alexandra Champalimaud’s home in Litchfield, Connecticut, during one of her favorite times of the year: the fleeting days between spring’s end and the full swing of summer, before clusters of bluebells and delicate Aruncus give way to the showstopping blooms of July. Says Champalimaud, “It’s a feast for the eyes.”

A Garden for All Seasons
The designer at the entrance to her garden with her dog Lucinda. 

And this globally renowned designer knows just how to fashion such a feast, having worked on some of the world’s most luxurious hotels—London’s Dorchester and New York’s Waldorf-Astoria among them. Along with her obvious affinity for interiors, Champalimaud nurtures a deep connection to the outdoors, which she traces to her childhood in Lisbon, Portugal. “My parents were known for throwing what we called 'sardine parties' on our farm underneath huge pine trees. You could see the Atlantic Ocean from the property, and the evenings often ended with fireworks. I would be gathering fallen pine nuts or bottle-feeding a pig. There were horses, cows, chickens, and rabbits … raspberry and strawberry patches. These were beautiful surroundings that set me up well for life.”

A Garden for All Seasons
To the side of the garage lies an espaliered apple tree and a stone well that is original to the property.
A Garden for All Seasons
Graceful stalks of Cimicifuga racemosa burst upward against the inky exterior of the poolhouse.

Her love of history and the decorative arts (she studied at the Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva Foundation in Lisbon) finds full expression in her and husband Bruce Schnitzer’s country home, now a National Historic Landmark, and originally built in 1753 by Oliver Wolcott Sr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Champalimaud and Schnitzer have been actively involved in the preservation of Litchfield since joining the community decades ago—one large project being right in their own backyard. “The land, as we found it, was a mix of an old farmyard and orchard from the 18th century—a complete mess of poison ivy and maple saplings,” she recalls. As the overgrown vegetation was peeled away, the designer “came upon a few ornamental shrubs, scattered mint, and rhubarb—the toughest of plants!—and indentations suggesting Victorian perennial beds.” Champalimaud used the fading blueprints as a guide to re-create the spirit of a historic garden. “I wanted to reinforce what was there before without overdoing it. I wanted it to remain serene,” she says. Regional traditions also informed the garden’s architecture—in true New England fashion, her grounds (apart from the pool area) lack fences and walls, a custom dating back to the Puritan resistance to class and exclusion.

The garden advances west from the back of the L-shaped main house, spreading to a poolhouse just north that serves as guest quarters, and an egg-shaped perennial bed to the south. The main sprawl of the property—a sloping 15 acres—unfolds in panoramic style right out the back door. Three stone steps lead down to the second level, the setting for a handsome watering well that is original to the property. Another set of steps leads further down to the third elevation, home to double-border perennial beds. The borders end at a horseshoe-shaped expanse of lilac and other shrubs surrounding an 18th-century sandstone sculpture that Champalimaud and her husband purchased together to mark their 10th wedding anniversary. (Other anniversary gifts include a weeping beech tree that separates the main house from the pool area.)

A Garden for All Seasons
A stone-topped table by the poolhouse is surrounded by chairs with cushions in a fabric from Champalimaud's Comptoirs Collection for Holland & Sherry.
A Garden for All Seasons
A simple bench is the focus of a meditative vignette south of the main house.


The garden is the site of numerous celebrations. “We’ve married three children on this property,” Champalimaud says. The most recent ceremony, last summer, was that of their eldest daughter, Annabel Schnitzer Noth, whose reception included an evening cocktail hour beneath an enormous black-and-white-striped tent, followed by dinner and dancing in the westward meadow. Champalimaud recalls the sunset procession led by the bride and groom past the rose garden and through a trail of giant redwoods to the meadow where an even larger tent stood, lit by torches and lanterns.

Precious in a different way are the occasions Champalimaud calls “small gatherings and quiet moments.” Intimate lunches take place beside the poolhouse at a table for four beneath a bright-orange umbrella (made of fabric from the Comptoirs Collection, her collaboration with Holland & Sherry). The poolhouse is just far enough away from the main residence to feel like something of a staycation. “I’ll bring out some salads and a nice bottle of wine and sit for hours,” she says.

In a four-season house, you must consider what a garden looks like from afar—not only from within.

–alexandra champalimaud

The cottage also serves as Champalimaud’s work studio, and the designer can often be found tackling her latest project in the sunny bay window. Not surprisingly, this seat offers a meticulously framed view. “In a four-season house, you must consider what the garden looks like from afar, from each window—not only from within it,” Champalimaud says. The architecture and decor of her own New England home dwell peaceably with the land that surrounds it—and the result is a richly satisfying living experience.

A Garden for All Seasons
By the pool, two chaise longues are covered in Champalimaud's Goa fabric, from the Comptoirs Collection for Holland & Sherry.
A Garden for All Seasons
The Perfect Guesthouse

The poolside garden cottage that serves as Alexandra Champalimaud’s guest quarters and work studio is set snugly into the landscape. Inside is a refined yet comfortable tribute to country living. Here’s how the designer put it together.

 

  • EXTERIOR COLOR

    “Secondary buildings in a garden shouldn’t be stark white. I made a custom paint with a base of Litchfield Green, a traditional regional color that has a slight black cast. It allows the facade to nearly disappear into the vegetation.”

  • SMALL-SPACE TIPS

    A lofted bedroom takes advantage of ceiling height, to offset limited square footage. Using curtains instead of doors to conceal the pantry and bathroom does away with the need for swing space.

  • DECOR

    Although the overall effect of the interior is that of a low-key classicism, some of its components hail from exotic ports of call. Bhutan, in particular, served as one of Champalimaud’s key inspirations.

  • SOURCES

    The rug in the image above was found on a visit to Marrakech; the framed art is a mixed-media triptych by Sarah Amos; and the basket chair by the fireplace is from Privet House in New Preston, Connecticut. For the fireplace itself, Champalimaud designed a rough hearth of local stone and a mantel crafted from raw ash.

A Garden for All Seasons
Anatomy of a Year-Round Garden

Alexandra Champalimaud reveals the primary elements that make her property shine through all four seasons.

 

  • SPRING

    “In New England, spring comes on very slowly,” Champalimaud says. “Every day you see something new that’s beginning to stir. Green grass sprouts up, joined by sprightly bits of color—white snowdrops, light-blue hyacinth, and bluebells. The double borders have white and black tulips with an underpinning of pale violet.”

  • SUMMER

    “Purple delphinium and phlox arrive in June. Later in the month, soft red peonies pop out to claim the spotlight from the reigning tulips. The rapid changes in color capture your attention, becoming the most intense in August: deep yellows and blues, rich violets and wine reds.”

  • FALL

    “We have quince bushes that are more than 100 years old. In autumn, when they are ready to be harvested, we fill bowls and bowls with the beautiful, yellow fruit and place them indoors. They release an amazing aroma. We have a few redwood trees that turn deep orange, and maples and oaks that turn tawny and yellow. I get quite melancholy in the fall, as I know winter is on its way.”

  • WINTER

    “Sculptural forms such as the stone walls, the copper fountain, the headless woman, and the symmetrically placed cherry trees in the herb garden are key for the season, since they look great even with a fresh coat of snow. You also get a bit of color from the red and yellow twigs of the dogwood trees.”

 

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