HOUSE TOUR: historical monuments full of charm

A Great House is not necessarily a great house. The former is historically important, architecturally significant, and frequently intimidating. The latter is a place where you want to hang out. So it’s a credit to Peter Spears and Brian Swardstrom that they’ve turned the 228-year-old Ludlow Homestead, in Claverack, New York, into a house that is distinguished, fine, and proud, yet also so congenial that you can’t help wanting to curl up by the fire and take a nap.

The house was built in 1786 with bricks made on-site, and the shutters are painted in Farrow & Ball’s Calke Green; the structure to the left, originally the summer kitchen, is now used as a potting shed.

“Our goal was to have it not be a museum piece,” says Swardstrom, a talent agent whose clients include Tilda Swinton and Michael Douglas, “but rather livable, comfortable, warm, and relaxed.”

The couple also felt a deep respect for the history of the house, which was built in 1786 and will likely long outlast them, according to Spears, an actor, director, and producer who’s currently at work on a project with James Ivory. “It’s like we’re just part of the lineage of it now. We don’t really own the house so much as we’re its custodians for the future.”

In the study of the Claverack, New York, home of Peter Spears and Brian Swardstrom, the sofa and chair, covered in an Indian batik fabric, are by Ralph Lauren Home, the 19th-century side table is American, and the 18th-century cabinet is Dutch; the Regency-style ceiling pendant came from an auction at Stair Galleries, the 19th-century Persian rugs are also auction finds, and the mantel is original.

Their first job in this role was to restore the structure, which was in need of attention when they acquired it in 2009. For one thing, the house had sat empty for a few years and had deteriorated accordingly. Moreover, its previous owners had converted part of it into an antiques shop, installing track lighting in the ceilings and ripping out part of the banister. Undoing that was an ordeal. The banister alone required borrowing a 3D-imaging device to create a model of how the original would have looked, then presenting it to a millworker who could fabricate a new one.

Antique maps of New York’s Columbia County in the library; the 17th-century chair is Dutch, and the bookshelves are custom designs.

A bigger challenge still was lurking in the dining room. “There was a little pucker in the ceiling, and the guy who showed the house was like, ‘Oh, it’s just plaster,'” Spears recalls. “After we bought it, we explored further and found the main beam supporting the second floor had split.” A careless 20th-century bathroom installation had created more stress than the original beam could carry. The dining room ceiling had to be cut open, and so did the floor—right through to the basement, so that a jack could pass through it, to rest on solid ground. “A centimeter at a time, the jack eased the beam back into place,” says Spears, “because we didn’t want to crack it again.”

A 19th-century barber’s cabinet and a Chippendale-style chair in the library; the walls are painted in Farrow & Ball’s Dead Salmon.

Decorating the house proved a lot less nerve-racking. The couple quickly decided that, apart from upholstered pieces, they wanted furnishings that were appropriate not only historically but also, whenever possible, regionally. “There’s a big difference between stuff that was made in New York and stuff from Boston and Philadelphia,” says Spears, who majored in Colonial American history in college and took to the project “like a duck to water.”

An 1840 center table, made in the region, was found at the Rhinebeck Antiques Fair, and the pine floor is original.

They also introduced moments of playful drama, as in the “Grand Tour” room, an upstairs parlor decorated with pictures and mementos reminiscent of those aristocrats collected during their 19th-century peregrinations, including a painting of Vesuvius, a classical bust, and early photographs of Egyptian ruins. And once the dining room was restored, they invited a muralist to decorate the walls in the style of Rufus Porter, an itinerant artist who’d traveled throughout New England in the early 19th century, painting landscapes on the walls of houses and taverns.

A pair of circa-1930s armchairs from John Derian and a 19th-century American table in the library; the 19th-century Persian rug was bought at auction, and the mantel is original.

All the same, the house’s broad, even vast, Georgian proportions took some getting used to. “The rooms can swallow furniture up,” says Swardstrom. “So at first there was a lot of empty space. But over time, we’ve started to layer things in.”

The dining room mural by Elektra Buhalis is painted in the style of the 19th-century New England artist Rufus Porter; 18th-century chairs surround an early-20th-century Regency-style table, the Dutch-style chandelier is 18th century, and the 19th-century mirror came from a Hudson Valley estate.
mid-century modern lighting
Hunting for those things has been fun. “There were a lot of great bargains to be found,” says Swardstrom, “thanks to the fact that ‘brown furniture’ is not in style right now.” He likens it to shopping for modern furnishings in the early 1990s—an experience the couple knows well, having lived in and decorated a string of notable homes, including a Paul Williams–designed bungalow during their 20 years in Los Angeles, where they still keep an apartment. “We’ve always been drawn to architecturally significant houses,” says Spears.

The kitchen island was made with reclaimed wood from the house, the countertop is Carrara marble, and the refrigerator is by Sub-Zero; the light fixtures are from Time and Materials, and the window frames, shutters, and cabinetry are painted in Farrow & Ball’s Buff.

Still, it takes a bit of moxie to inhabit a house that’s nearly as old as this country—and that, according to Spears, is among the most famous in Columbia County. Yet the couple did not for a moment feel apprehensive about living up to their house’s illustrious pedigree.

In a guest room, the 19th-century chest of drawers and painting were found at the Brimfield Antique Show; the walls are painted in Farrow & Ball’s Elephant’s Breath and trimmed with Lime White.

“We’ve always had the kind of personalities that, even if everybody told us something was impossible, we didn’t see the obstacles,” says Spears. “I grew up in Kansas. Brian grew up on Cape Cod. Hollywood is full of people who dream really big, and I think we always had big dreams. Certainly, this house is the fulfillment of a dream we didn’t even know we had.”

Perhaps the Great House, too, was dreaming that one day, a couple of equally great characters would come along and take up its story.

The master bedroom features an Empire four-poster with a coverlet from Rural Residence, an 18th-century blanket chest, and vintage alabaster lamps atop American Empire side tables; the walls are covered with a custom wallpaper by Adelphi Paper Hangings.

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