A House by the Sea - Bunny Williams, Schafer Gil, Christian Brechneff, Angus Wilkie, Page Dickey, Jane Garmey, Roxana Robinson (2016)
V. THE SOUL OF THE HOUSE
“We had been living at La Colina for a few years when John realized something was missing: dogs.”
BOB, MARCO, CLEO, AND BLANCO
We had been living at La Colina for a few years when John realized that something was missing: dogs. One day when I was in New York, John and our friend and caretaker, Pablo King, went off to the market and, on the way home, stopped for gas. There, sitting next to the station, was a dirty, scrappy-looking terrier-mix mutt that John noticed immediately. I had recently lost Brewster, my beloved Norfolk terrier, and this little dog reminded John of him. He asked Pablo to find out how much the dog would cost. After John paid the station owner twenty dollars, the dog jumped into the car and never looked back. This is how Bob came into our lives, and as John says all the time, “There is no dog like Bob.” Bob lives at La Colina full-time, in Pablo’s care when we are absent. We can be away for a month, but upon our return, Bob instantly becomes John’s shadow. He is at his heels, beside his chair, or at the foot of our bed for our entire stay.
Our canine family grew larger when Annette de la Renta called to tell us that two black puppies had been rescued on the golf course after their mother was killed, and they needed a home. John and Pablo went to our neighbor and dog-lover Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was temporarily sheltering the animals, to check them out. John decided to take the female, but when they brought her home, she cried and cried, so the men went back to get her brother. We named the two puppies Marco and Cleo, after Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, but they were completely feral; no one could touch them. We left food and water for them near the house, and for months they lived outside and watched us from afar, hiding under the giant leaves of the elephant’s ear planted near the lower loggia. Little by little they became more trusting, and now they are part of the family.
A few years after the arrival of Marco and Cleo, Pablo called us in New York to say he’d found us another little dog. We returned to find an adorable white pup I immediately named Blanco. Blanco grew into a wonderful, gentle husky mix, completing the dog family—for the moment. (Stray dogs are a huge problem in the Dominican Republic, and it is all I can do not to take in every one of them.)
Our four dogs have brought as much joy as any pet owner could wish for.
FRIENDS BY ROXANA ROBINSON
I’m sorry to say it, but La Colina is going to the dogs.
Bunny and John’s dogs, that is. The house is utterly beautiful—beautiful to look at, comfortable to stay in, beautifully maintained, and beautifully run, and it’s very comfortable for human beings—but the roost is ruled by the four rescue dogs that live there. And they know it.
Two of these dogs look Egyptian: Their names, of course, are Cleo and Marco (for Egyptian queen Cleopatra and Roman general Mark Antony). They are sleek and black and elegant, with smooth, glossy coats; long tails; and large, pointed, catlike ears. They move with subtlety and grace, so whenever they stand still, they look like statues. They lie with their hind legs curled under them, their front legs stretched straight ahead, and their pointed ebony ears pricked, as though they are guarding the pyramids. They are regal and aloof and rather frugal with their affection. They like to sniff a hand very thoroughly—security check—before they allow any petting. And this is not a one-time exam; it’s required procedure for every single pat. Cleo and Marco are siblings, as those royal Egyptian partners so often were, and they’re often together, like a pair of porcelain objects. Their glossy black silhouettes echo and reflect each other as they come into a room, silently circle a table, or head down the curving pale stone staircase on some mysterious Egyptian mission.
“The real emperor of the house is Bob . . . he has chosen John as his life partner.”
Blanco is a gorgeous white husky, long-legged and narrow-waisted, with a thick, creamy coat and a curly tail. He has an open, smiling mouth and sweet eyes. He welcomes everyone. He is always happy to see you: He reminds you each time you meet that he’s your best friend. Hello! says Blanco. You’re back! How great to see you! He wags that lovely curly tail and opens his mouth in a friendly grin. Then he goes back to the kitchen, where he is treated not like a best friend but a god.
The real emperor of the house, however, is none of these beauties: It’s Bob, the mixed-breed terrier. Bob is not regal and not graceful. He is long and low, solid and short-legged, with a rough tan coat that’s always a bit tousled.He has ragged prick-ears; a long, shaggy tail; and a purely sweet temperament. Bob is John’s dog. When John arrives at the house, Bob cleaves to him until he leaves. Bob has chosen John as his life partner. When John walks through the rooms of the house, Bob follows him. When John walks through the gardens, Bob is one step behind. When John stops, Bob stops. When John starts to move again, Bob wags his tail and follows. When John stretches out on a chaise longue, Bob jumps up next to him and settles down against his leg.
“Blanco is a gorgeous white husky . . . he reminds you each time you meet that he’s your best friend.”
One night we all went into the TV room to watch a movie. I arrived early and sat down on the big sofa that faces the screen. I saved the cushion next to me for Bunny and John: It was right in the center of the sofa. As the room filled up, I defended the empty space, keeping it for our hosts, who were the last to arrive. When John finally appeared, Bob padding behind him, we heard that Bunny wasn’t coming.
“I’ve saved you a seat,” I told John. “Come and sit here.” I patted the only seat left on the sofa, dead center facing the screen. John looked down at Bob.
“Bob,” John said, “get up there.”
Bob looked at him, ears pricked.
“Go on,” John said. “Up on the sofa.”
Bob obediently jumped up next to me in the empty space and curled himself into a rough, tawny heap, but his gaze remained on John. John sat down in an armchair off to one side, and Bob watched him settle. Only then did Bob put his nose down, give a little sigh, and close his eyes. He slept through the entire movie. But he was in the perfect place, front and center, and I was honored to be beside him.
REFLECTIONS BY CHRISTIAN BRECHNEFF
“We are not going to build a small beach cottage. We want a big house with big rooms . . .”
I can still hear Bunny at a cozy dinner a long time ago in Falls Village, Connecticut, excitedly making plans for La Colina, her and her husband John’s new property in Punta Cana.
I had to wait quite a few years before I was actually able to visit La Colina, but, finally, in 2006, barely four hours after my plane’s takeoff from New York City, the white gates of La Colina opened in front of me and revealed a Caribbean paradise I had never dreamed of finding. The setting, the design, the comfort, and the peace of this magnificent home were intoxicating.
The magic of the place instantly made me want to draw and paint in one of the gardens. Constantly planting and pruning, Bunny and John and their team of gardeners have created a labyrinth of secret paths and “rooms” where one easily forgets time and the world, and where I have spent hours—entire mornings and afternoons—drawing by myself in the shade of magnificent trees.
“The magic of the place instantly made me want to draw and paint in one of the gardens.”
Only upon my third or fourth visit did I become aware of a dreamy, secluded studio above the garage surrounded by palm trees. The couple built this white, high-ceilinged, pristine sanctuary for Bunny’s book and design projects and as John’s office. It is their studio, but Bunny generously invited me to just “take it over, whenever.”
What an invitation!
Climbing up those few steps to the white lattice door that allows the sea breeze to caress you while working is already remarkable, but the inside is truly fabulous. Decorated entirely in whites and creams so as not to interfere with one’s creative vision, and flooded with light, the space is big enough to allow you to really spread out and work. It is also big enough to allow for some significant comfort: Twin beds invite naps between drawings, armchairs let you look at your work in considerable luxury; there’s a small bathroom as trim as a space designed for a yacht.
On that first trip, I scouted all the local nurseries for exotic orchids for me to paint and brought them back to the studio, where I could study and paint them in perfect peace; time doesn’t exist within those walls. I carefully laid out my ink and handmade paper, and soon magic happened, and my hand started flying over those white pages.
Nothing ever disturbs me there—no phone, no computer, no noise. Only the gentle roll of the Caribbean and the palm trees singing in the wind. The blissful surroundings allow for total concentration and immersion in one’s work—everything a painter could dream of.
Thank you, Bunny and John.
“Nothing ever disturbs me there—no phone, no computer, no noise.”
THOUGHTS FOR CREATING YOUR OWN HOUSE BY THE SEA
Sometimes, the beginning of a design project can seem overwhelming—choices, choices, choices! Here’s what I do to focus and make the decision-making process easier: I concentrate on sense of place, the key impressions and elements that make a location unique. For La Colina, my sense of place included the hot climate, sand on my feet, wet bathing suits, suntan lotions, afternoon naps, lovely dinners on the loggias with tropical breezes, and orchids blooming in the trees. Together, these things made me realize I wanted a casual, carefree house where all guests would feel comfortable. I kept this sense-of-place image in my head and used it as a guide for every decision—I encourage you to do the same when designing your own seaside getaway.
“When any home is filled with individual unique personal items, magic will happen.”
You might want to start by choosing a color palette. I was inspired by the color of the sea, the sand, and the lovely colors of tropical flowers and I took my color palette from these. I kept the color pale for the walls, as I find dark colors seem out of place in such sunny places. I used stronger, brighter colors for accents in pillows, throws, and art. What is amazing (and something to keep in mind) is how fast the strong sun fades everything. It is not noticeable on white, neutral, or pale fabrics, but bright fabrics can look sad very quickly, so save them for accent pieces that can be easily replaced.
If you aren’t keeping the floors bare, flat cotton rugs and sisal rugs are the best choices for sandy foot traffic; deep pile rugs are hard to keep clean, so I prefer flat weaves.
For soft furnishings, simple cotton fabrics give a relaxed feel to a beach house. Cotton makes wonderful slipcovers that are easy to launder should they gather stains from sunblock lotions. There are so many indoor-outdoor fabrics on the market, and this material is a must for loggia cushions. For accents—especially pillows—cotton batiks, sarongs, nautical stripes, and hand-blocked Indian prints are all perfect for creating a beach-house atmosphere.
Moving on to the more durable pieces, I advise mixing simple wooden furniture with lovely, soft painted pieces and wicker tables and chairs. Unless it is stainless steel or aluminum, it might be best to avoid metal furniture; the salt air corrodes it eventually. (We found we even had to use stainless steel wire to hang the mirrors and pictures, and stainless steel chains to hang the lights at La Colina, since stainless can stand up to tropical seaside conditions).Wrought iron will deteriorate very quickly in salt air, but aluminum furniture can work well. Teak is great (and ages gracefully) for terrace or poolside furniture. There is also synthetic wicker furniture that looks very good and is easy to maintain. But be careful to check quality: If the frames are metal and subject to corrosion, the pieces will come apart in a short span (as some wonderful wrapped plastic rattan chairs of mine did!)
Shells are something I love, and they create a seaside look no matter where you live, even in the city. La Colina is full of shells and shell motifs, and whenever I come across a piece of furniture with a carved shell, I just can’t resist: There is a white carved mirror in our bedroom, a carved wooden shell over the bed, and a real shell mirror hanging in the powder room. Real shells are everywhere: Huge clam shells are placed casually around the pool.Hanging shelves with a collection of coral and shells hang in the pool house, a nice touch that is easy to adopt any place you want to have a little sense of the beach.
Last, although little has changed since we first moved into our finished house, the interiors continue to be enriched with wonderful gifts from friends. Cherished objects that bring warmth and life to a room are so important in any décor. A few of my favorites include a bowl of porcelain fruits from Clare Potter, faux bois bisque cache pots created by Christopher Spitzmiller, and a beautiful hand-blocked tablecloth from Elizabeth Hamilton and Peter Fasano.The paintings of our artist friends Tim Lovejoy and Christian Brechneff embellish the walls. All these things make the house even more personal. When any home is filled with individual unique personal items, magic will happen.
This page We built the house around this ancient multi-stemmed tree that had been growing on this windswept hill for ages.
This page A walkway of coral stone leads from the house to the beach. Gates can be closed to keep the dogs on the property.
This page The curved circular pathway leads into the pool house with fig vines covering the façade.
This page Giant all-weather chaises designed by Oscar de la Renta for Century on the upper loggia overlooking the ocean are perfect for naps. Sofas and chairs are from Walters Wicker.
This page Handmade pottery made by our dear friend, the artist and ceramicist Clare Potter, and brought as gifts on her visits.
This page The main driveway is flanked by palm trees and hedges.
This page The large blue-and-white jar in the center of the living room is always filled with tall palm fronds to emphasize the height of the room.
This page This high-backed eighteenth-century Italian sofa was slipcovered in blue cotton. The back is covered with an antique suzani and the pillows were made from batiks found in Thailand. A new carved-wood framed mirror was painted chalky white to resemble plaster.
This page A detail of one of the four hand-painted panels we commissioned for the living room. They are based on white birds from Audubon’s folio and painted on brown kraft paper cut in squares.
This page On the large trestle table in the living room, a blue-and-white vase sits on a low Chinese bamboo table surrounded by a collection of silver fish, crabs, and shells. Huge palm fronds fill the vase, giving drama to the room.
This page Antique Italian doors (probably from a cabinet) with mirrored panels hang on the back walls of the pool house—almost reading like windows.
This page Another house present was a gift from Clare Potter and Christopher Spitzmiller, who collaborated on this beautiful vase.
This page In the master bedroom, this nineteenth-century American mahogany four-poster bed was enlarged to California king size. A Swedish painted settee sits at the foot. Sheets are Matouk.
This page A giant nineteenth-century bamboo bed fills the guest bedroom. The bed is hung in a sheer linen.
This page Somehow you always find a place for things you love. After purchasing this nineteenth-century hand-painted screen in a French market, I found a home for it behind a tub. Local cement-tile floors.
This page Hand-blocked batiks mixed with hand-embroidered fabrics add color and pattern to a neutral linen chaise.
This page The air-conditioned linen closet is organized by color of bedroom. Extra towels and tablecloths fill the shelves.
This page A large fourteenth-century English chaise floats in a corner of the master bedroom. The chaise is draped in an antique Suzani in shades of bright blue to complement the turquoise walls.
This page I had the Dufour wallpaper panels, printed in France around 1820, restored and hung in the yellow bedroom. Two Biedermeier daybeds float in the middle of room, serving as both beds and chaises.
This page A nine-foot-long sofa in the TV room makes a wonderful place for watching movies. A series of Swedish bird prints hang on the wall.
This page A card table is ready for a game of gin rummy or chess. The bookcases are filled with perfect beach reading.
This page A huge nineteenth-century tortoise shell sits on an Italian table in front of an antique Dutch mirror. Indonesian chairs flank the table.
This page I put together this collection of shells to fill a pair of Regency hanging shelves that I placed on the walls of the pool house.
This page John’s collection of Indian miniature pictures were hung in groups in a dressing room around a Directoire painted daybed. Grouping pictures helps fill a large wall.
This page The table set for lunch in the garden. Pottery from Vietnam sits on an orange linen tablecloth.
This page The pantry is filled with china we have collected over the years. These are cups from an assembled set of hand-painted Italian pottery.
This page A mirror John made from antique pilasters hangs over a serving table from John Rosselli & Associates. A collection of blue-and-white jars and platters fills the table. A huge nineteenth-century French tole urn sits in front of the mirror, flanked by large pieces of coral.
This page The coffee service, hand-painted with palm trees by Marie Daâge, sits next to a stack of green pottery leaf plates in the pantry.
This page We created this fountain in the courtyard in order to hear the cool sound of water on a hot day. Vines tumble over bamboo supports and urns filled with agaves sit on the edge.
This page An antique Portuguese tile panel for a winery that John has owned for years hangs on the wall leading to the loggia.
This page The swimming pool is framed by the columns of the pool house loggia. Deco-style faux rattan sofa, chairs, and chaises create a comfortable seating group around a Balinese coffee table.
This page The entrance to the cactus garden: with blue pots inspired by the Majorelle Garden in Marrakech, filled with cacti.
This page The Cobaea vine covers an eighteenth-century Fiendi stone shell fountain at the end of the swimming pool.
This page John and Bobby on one of their many trips through the garden.
This page The studio over the garage is the perfect place to slip away and read, paint, or nap.
This page An allée of tall royal palms underplanted with giant gingers creates a shaded pathway to another spot in the garden.