In landscaping their home, a husband and wife restore a piece of Fairfield history
photograph by Stacy Bass
On a great stretch of country road in Fairfield, longtime real estate professionals David and Terrie D’Ausilio found a property on which to construct the house they had been thinking about for some time. The parcel, once part of a grand estate that had been subdivided, had all the qualities they had been looking for: great location, nice topography, and the perfect site for the house they had envisioned. The place also had a bonus feature; at a back edge of the plot’s lot lines was a long-neglected sunken garden. It had lovely old walls but required significant restoration.
Having acquired expertise in new construction through their careers, the couple was ready for the challenge of general contracting the project, and bought the land. With construction underway, they began to consider the landscape, ultimately turning to designer Kim Proctor for help with the grounds around the house.
Proctor had first met the D’Ausilios at Fairfield’s Oliver Nurseries, which had been owned by her stepfather, John Oliver, and where she had worked in the afternoons and on weekends as a high school student and then through the summers while she learned printmaking at Rhode Island School of Design. With a bachelor’s degree in fine arts in hand, Proctor spent a number of years at the nursery, honing her knowledge of plants and her ability to design with them. While she continued to work on her art, landscape design became her livelihood.
“In landscape design, you’re painting with plant material,” Proctor says, clearly describing how art and landscape can dovetail. Eventually, she started her own business, KDayDesigns. About two years after she met the D’Ausilios, she got a call from the couple. “It was a family connection that brought us together,” she recalls. The D’Ausilios had met Proctor’s son, Ross, at a wholesale nursery in Newtown, and he had provided the couple with shrubs and trees for their new home. When they asked him whom to call for help with putting it together, his response was, “Call my mother.”
As she assisted David and Terrie with the larger landscape, Proctor was drawn to the sunken garden, still in need of attention. “David kept saying, ‘Not yet, not yet,’” she remembers. But, eventually, as other parts of the landscape were completed, everyone’s attention was directed toward the property’s historic gem.
David and Terrie diligently researched the garden and its origins at the local historical society. They discovered that their property was part of a twenty-nine-acre estate, purchased and built by Francis Blossom in 1929 or 1930. They also confirmed that the sunken garden had been commissioned in 1932 from Agnes Selkirk Clark, a landscape architect and wife of Cameron Clark, the architect of many fine houses in Fairfield County.
“We searched for the original garden plans, and while they do exist somewhere, they were misfiled and are still at large in the Fairfield Historical Society’s records,” notes David.
In spite of this disappointment, Kim Proctor determined from other documents on file that Agnes Clark had worked for another famous landscape architect, Ellen Biddle Shipman. By researching Shipman’s work, she was able to piece together some ideas about how Clark might have originally envisioned the garden.
“Back then, designs were more formal, with more perennials,” says Proctor. “Those old gardens required a lot of maintenance, and while my clients love working on their landscape, I knew they didn’t have time for a plan that was fussy and very labor-intensive. They need time to enjoy it, too. Even when you love tending your own garden, as David and Terrie do, you don’t want to be forever on your hands and knees.”
Proctor based her final plan on materials that would reflect, but also simplify, the historical nature of the landscape. To keep the maintenance manageable for the couple, evergreens and shrubs became an important part of the structure; boxwoods, hydrangeas, spireas, and a Japanese plum yew shaped the garden. Then, using a limited color palette, Kim and her clients added perennials.
“The garden has many microclimates,” notes Proctor.
The section closest to the property line is very shady and damp, and as such a happy home for ferns and astilbe. A grand pergola, beautifully crafted in a traditional design, creates a shaded spot on the garden’s sunny side. It is covered by wisteria that David carefully tends himself—this ancient vine was part of the original garden and displays its bountiful blossoms each year in late spring. The D’Ausilios also took care to preserve a beautiful flowering dogwood and cedar trees that had their origins in Agnes Clark’s landscape plan.
The finished restoration has become a focal point from the house, as well as a restful retreat for the owners—one they have happily shared with a broader audience. Once the garden was finished, the D’Ausilios agreed to make it part of the Discovery in the Garden Tour in June of 2011, a popular self-guided fundraiser that benefits Bridgeport’s nonprofit science and technology Discovery Museum.
David says, “We love our garden, and it’s great to be able to share it.”