All photos/art by Bob O'Connor
An unfinished farmhouse inspires expat empty-nesters to reinvent themselves in the Green Mountains.
There was nothing about Peter Weber and Graziella Weber-Grassi’s old life that suggested a need for reinvention. They lived in an airy, modern cottage in Sea Cliff, New York, a pretty village in the northwest corner of Long Island, where they watched the boats sailing across the Sound. Peter ran a business supplying machinery and technology to the printing industry, and Graziella worked as a fine artist, finding gallery representation for her tapestries and pop-art-inspired paintings in Manhattan, just 30 miles away.
Nevertheless, as their son, Kiran, headed off to college in 1996 and Peter and Graziella contemplated the next phase of their life, they found themselves taking weekend drives to upstate New York. “Peter always wanted to go to the country,” Graziella says. “Finally, I gave in.”
Natives of Switzerland–they met in 1968 on a plane headed from Zurich to Montreal, where both had landed jobs–the couple had passed their first years of marriage traveling around Europe and South America and had lived for two years in Bogota, Colombia, before spending the next three decades in Sea Cliff. Now they were feeling itchy. Peter’s work was fairly portable, as was Graziella’s; it was time for a change.
But their weekend trips proved that upstate wasn’t for them. “It wasn’t a good fit,” Graziella says simply. Then they saw an ad for a house in Grafton, Vermont. “As soon as we crossed the state border,” she remembers, “it was like ‘Ahhhhhh …'”
They didn’t buy the Grafton house, but some while later, on the way to one appointment near Middlebury, their real-estate agent took a wrong turn and led them down Route 30 in Whiting, past a big Federal-style farmhouse, recently built, set back amid an apple orchard, with panoramic views out to the Adirondacks. Sticking out of the snow was a small “For Sale” sign.
A quick phone call informed them that yes, the house had just gone on the market; a local builder had designed the place as his own dream home, but divorce had changed his plans. It was about 90 percent finished, but as Peter and Graziella walked into the entry, its walls painted with a soft pastoral scene, it felt complete. “I knew there was a place somewhere for us,” Peter says. “I knew what it would feel like, and when we walked into this house, I saw that picture in my head and knew this was it.”
They drove home in silence. About an hour from Sea Cliff, one of them turned to the other–they can’t remember who, because the feeling was so simultaneous–and said, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” In 2005, they moved in.
The work of making the four-bedroom, three-bath house their own fell mostly to Graziella and her artist’s eye. She filled the space with soft, beachy colors, choosing pale gray for the living room and whitewashing the dark-navy toile wallpaper in the dining room until it took on the gauzy blue of moonstones. Her style is part Swedish Country, part Early American, jazzed up with bright splashes of folk art, modern pieces, and a variety of retro tchotchkes: a collection of jadeite bowls in one cabinet, Vermont yellowware in another. Many walls are decorated with Graziella’s paintings, but others host a collection of Mexican milagros, antique crosses, and icons inherited from her family, who for several generations owned a Catholic art store in Lugano.
It’s an eclectic mix, but one with a consistent spirit: a love of old, found things and of bright colors; a cleaner, brighter bohemian aesthetic. Rather than devoting herself to a single pursuit during her frequent garage-sale outings, Graziella prefers to dabble, and she displays her mini-collections all over the house. The couch is piled with satin souvenir pillows from the early- to mid-20th century, and her stash of old thermoses has found new life as a set of vases, displaying flowers from her garden.
The couple’s efforts went beyond decorating, though. To take better advantage of the views, they added a west-facing outdoor patio, a mudroom, and a screened-in porch off the kitchen. The porch, anchored by two Mayan hammocks, is part dining room, part hangout. “We live in those hammocks,” Peter says. “We don’t watch TV; we watch the weather.”
They’ve also made ambitious use of their five acres of farmland, adding a large organic garden stocked with chicory, tomatoes, fennel, and a dozen other vegetables, plus flowers for cutting. In another corner, they transplanted 10 raspberry bushes from Sea Cliff, which soon multiplied to create two densely packed rows of fruit. Following Swiss tradition, Graziella planted elderberry bushes along the drive: “They believe it keeps away bad spirits,” she says.
She and Peter have added quince, cherry, and plum trees to their orchard, as well as peach trees trained espalier-style along a stone retaining wall. They do all the farm work themselves: pruning the 140 apple trees over two months in the late winter, then harvesting all the fruit come fall. They don’t even irrigate, preferring to water the gardens by hand. “I once told Peter, ‘At our age, you downsize,'” Graziella says. “And he said, ‘No, you energize.'”
For Peter, it amounts to a new way of living. “My day is dictated by nature now,” he says. “I’m learning to find a balance between my work, the farm … Maybe it sounds corny, but nature is teaching me to find that balance.”
Graziella and Peter Weber maintain a studio apartment in their home, which they rent out to friends, visiting artists, and tourists. For details, visit: airbnb.com/rooms/64703