Sitting pretty

The stately Italianate house at 528 Main Street has been a New Canaan landmark for many years.

Built for a wealthy merchant in 1848, it was originally part of a 40-acre farm bordered by the Five Mile River in the rear. The home site is near the intersection of Main Street and Old Norwalk Road. Since 1946 it has been owned by members of the Bell family and has recently been lovingly restored and updated by Marianne Bell Reifenheiser, who moved into the house with her parents as a toddler in l946. She recalls that “there was no Farm Road, but the nearby Weed family farm stretched all the way from South Avenue to White Oak Shade Road.”

Her parents, Robert and Mary-Katherine Bell, were both Wall Street lawyers who met in Washington, D.C., while working on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” legislation. Her mother was among the first female lawyers in the country, and had put herself through Stanford University during the Great Depression, earning money through public speaking. Many interesting people were frequent guests at the historic house, including authors Clifton Fadiman, Vance Packard, and Maxwell Perkins, the renowned Scribner’s editor who lived at the time in another New Canaan landmark — the Greek Revival home on Park Street near God’s Acre.

The Italianate style is a distinct phase in the history of classical architecture, originally seen in the country villas of Tuscany in the second half of the l9th Century. It is known for classic characteristics which include a low-pitched or flat roof, a balanced symmetrical rectangular shape and a tall appearance with two to four stories. The style has overhanging eaves, with large decorative brackets and cornices (horizontal molding).

The in-town, 1.8-acre property is a delightful, unexpected private oasis with a surprise “wow” factor behind the house — a lawn which gently slopes down to a large pond which has a small island and two fountains, and just beyond, a glimpse of the Five Mile River. A border of trees on three sides make this secluded area a very tranquil setting. “I have many happy childhood memories of floating on a raft in that pond, navigated by our favorite babysitter, Toby Nickerson, a family friend,” Reifenheiser says.

The house has a wrap-around porch on three sides and a porte-cochere entry. The sunny living room to the left has many windows, a fireplace, and opens to a family TV room which also has a door to the kitchen. To the right of the entry hall is a study with fireplace and built-in bookshelves. Beyond that is a large spacious dining room with a wide picture window providing a stunning view of the pond — the perfect spot for a dining table. At the far end of the room there is a large bay window with a cozy sitting area. The updated kitchen also has pond views, a breakfast eating area and French doors leading to a large porch taking advantage of the spectacular view. There is a half bath on this floor.

The gracious front hall staircase leads to three bedrooms and two full baths (including the master suite) on the second floor, and to three more bedrooms and a large full bath on the third floor. All bathrooms have been attractively updated.  

In the renovation process, Reifenheiser, breathed new life into her childhood home with her keen sense of style and design, relating all updates to the demands of today’s lifestyles while preserving the historic charm.  

As the house, which is now for sale, is on 1.8 acres in an area zoned for ¼ acre, there is a potential opportunity to sell a ¾-acre lot which would include the level side lawn and access to the pond with its beautiful view. A subdivision has been approved by the town, should a future owner so desire.

For more info, contact Carol Hollyday, William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty, 203-966-2633, or Susie Okie, Halstead Property, 203-655-1418.

Additional photos, courtesy of Chris Kiely