By Barb Howell | Photography By Shanna Wolf
Down a winding lane that leads to the edge of a wooded hillside lies a simple dwelling that sits within the land so perfectly it’s difficult to discern where one begins and the other ends. It’s not just the green board and batten siding that tricks the eye, it’s the way the building’s long, narrow shape hugs the earth.
This natural, almost pristine juxtaposition is in sharp contrast to the building’s original, rudimentary purpose at the turn of the 20th century when it was constructed as a farm outbuilding on the Lake Geneva estate of Simeon B. Chapin. Eventually Harry Hartshorne, Chapin’s grandson, would come to own this portion of the land and the tiny outbuilding that sits on its edge. Affectionately named the Hog House for the animals that lived there up until the Second World War, this simple structure has also served as a rustic summer cabin, but had been vacant for years when Manhattan designer and Hartshorne’s long-time friend, Richard McGeehan, first laid eyes on it.
It was the Hog House’s setting, with its view of lush green pasture land and its beautiful Shaker-style purity, although in rough shape, that interested McGeehan in taking on a long-distance renovation that lasted three years. Today, with the house’s renovation complete, McGeehan juggles his schedule to ensure he can enjoy as many long weekends as possible in the Lake Geneva countryside.
THE PROJECT BEGINS
The renovation was a slow process that began in 2005, and McGeehan had strong feelings about the look of the house and how it relates to the land that surrounds it. “From the beginning, the goal was to maintain the house architecturally, exactly as it was,” says McGeehan. That meant no expansion to the building’s footprint which measures just 44 feet long by 14 feet wide. Plus McGeehan was adamant about keeping the board and batten siding and the original doors and windows. “It’s far from airtight. There are a lot of issues with 100-year-old doors and windows, but it’s just so perfect as it is.”
His vison, he says, was to maintain a very, very, simple farm-like look. There are no perennial gardens, which would require too much maintenance for a part-time resident. “It’s just grass and a view of the land,” McGeehan says. The only major change he made to the landscape was to remove some overgrown shrubs between the grass in the front yard and the field beyond it.
“I just wanted to open up the view so you really see the rise and fall of the earth, and the grasses blowing in the wind.”
The interior, however, was a blank canvas that allowed McGeehan to masterfully design a new space. First, though, walls that formed a kitchen, living room and bedroom were removed along with the old pot belly stove, rusty metal kitchen cabinets and old bathroom fixtures. The construction crew used jack hammers to remove the old concrete floor that had cracked and chipped due to frost heaves that occurred yearly in the unheated building. A new concrete floor was then poured between the interior walls.
MAKING THE MOST OF EVERY INCH
The design of the interior, according to McGeehan, would prove to be challenging and would require multiple drawings to get it right. “There were strict limitations because I didn’t want to change the position of the doors and windows. The question became how to make that little structure as expansive and beautiful as it could be. In the end, I have to say, it was one of the most enjoyable and joyful design projects I’ve done.”
The first design decision McGeehan made was to open up the space so when entering the front door, the view is all the way to the back wall, 44 feet away. This expanse makes the house seem much larger than its approximately 650 square feet.
In addition, McGeehan decided the old plywood veneer paneling should be replaced with simple 5″ pine boards that would run horizontally and be finished with a blue/gray translucent stain to unify the space and provide continuity. As the contractor peeled away the old paneling, what he found would surprise and delight McGeehan. Underneath, was truly a serendipitous discovery—5″ horizontal pine boards, evidence of the building’s original construction and confirmation that McGeehan’s 21st century design decision was spot-on.
MORE LIKE A NEW YORK APARTMENT
Playing off the light-colored pine walls is natural light that floods the space through five sets of windows that run the length of the south-facing building. From the front door, the kitchen flows seamlessly into a combination dining-living area with a bedroom beyond that—all with beautiful views of the countryside. The home is heated on cold days by radiant heat in the cement floor plus an antique Franklin stove McGeehan found on Cape Cod. He acknowledges a fireplace would have been nice to incorporate into the new space, but a brick chimney would have altered the exterior of the house too much.
Because the interior of the house was completely renovated, the kitchen has every modern amenity in its galley-style space that is just 11 feet in length. A combination of European appliances—smaller than their American-made counterparts—stainless steel countertops, and custom cabinetry faced with the same horizontal pine boards as the walls makes for an upscale and very efficient kitchen.
The only thing that is in short supply in the house, according to McGeehan, is storage. “There is one closet to the left of the dresser in the bedroom. That was a decision I made. It’s really a weekend house—I don’t need a lot of storage.”
He goes on to say, the design for the house is much more urbane that its setting. “It’s like this great New York one bedroom apartment that was dropped in a field.”
DECOR MAKES A STATEMENT
The house’s eclectic mix of furnishings combines things McGeehan already owned and pieces he bought specifically for the space.
There are the six red chairs that surround his dining table that he purchased in London about 20 years ago.
Placed on opposite walls in the dining and living area are two large 19th century religious paintings, found in the Hog House when McGeehan started the renovation.
A tall, yellow Chinese vase and a table next to the sofa were discovered while he was antiquing in Savannah. (The table, coincidentally, is a piece from the Basil Street Hotel in London, now closed, but once a favorite of McGeehan’s.)
Hanging over the sofa is an interesting multi-element piece comprised of a series of numbers that were originally used in the 19th century to post horse racing results.
The most regal piece of furniture is a high style, 1840s dresser located in a nook in the bedroom. Its placement in the direct sightline to the front door creates a focal point when entering the house.
HIGH-RISE AND HOG HOUSE
When McGeehan is in Wisconsin he says this is his time for appreciating the outdoors, whether it’s walking his property, taking a swim in Geneva Lake or enjoying the Shore Path. “I live in a cement and glass high rise in New York. Living and working there has a whole universe of excitement and interest that is in a completely different category, but my time in Lake Geneva is about noticing the earth.”
There’s no question, he adds, that after returning to New York from a weekend trip to Lake Geneva he feels recharged because there’s less static and background noise at the Hog House. “I have always said my life is two times the size it was because I have Lake Geneva in my life, in addition to New York, and I love them both.”
SO FAR AWAY
Many people, including those in his own family, initially questioned why McGeehan felt the need to have a weekend house so far from Manhattan. Once they saw the house and the land, however, they understood.
“There is definitely magic in that place,” he says. “I wake up every morning when I’m there with a feeling of gratitude. I look out over the field with the sun coming up and I think, ‘How was I so lucky?’”