In Briarcliff Manor, Serenity With A View

Of course, a little earth-moving was necessary to create the terrace that would surround the pool (as well as a personal putting green, naturally). And, needless to say, the family needed a cabana with all the fixings (surrounded by a wisteria-laced pergola) to serve cold drinks, etc. All those elements were accomplished with the greatest of ease. But there was one challenge unique to pools that required a little research. “It’s easy to design a pool,” Johnsen explains. “It’s the fence that’s the hard part.” But she found a simpatico metal fence that does the job without being intrusive, and also incorporated antique French metal gates with a graceful reed pattern that appear to be custom-crafted for the site. Conveniently (and essentially), the pool fence does double-duty as a deer barrier. Plus, on the pool side, it’s hidden behind the greenery of boxwood clipped into dentil-work and then accented by pencil-thin strips of grass segmenting the herringbone-laid bricks hemming the pool. The result looks very smart, especially combined with the green-on-celery colored cushions that were selected for the lounge chairs stationed around the pool to let family and friends soak up the sun. 

The curved wall gives a sense of fluidity juxtaposed against the craggy rock left in place below the Tudor lookout cottage.


With only a narrow ribbon of flat surface skirting the crest of the property, Johnsen nevertheless managed to tuck in side alcoves, each with a mood and an accent. Slip through a gate and you find yourself admiring a larger-than-life armillary surrounded by a wall of purple beech designed to hide the parking area. The beech was a bit of a nail-biter at first. “People need to know that it takes a few years before the foliage turns its dark color. For the first four years, it was a leap of faith,” warns Johnsen. 

Following along the crest of the hill, you come to the extant curved wall that originally introduced the beginning of stone stairs going down. The homeowners immediately realized that the hillcrest had promise as the site for a cottage with a view. So they cleared and limbed up some trees; their neighbors followed suit. Architect David Graham designed an octagonal Tudor cottage with a cupola, and this jewel box became the property’s defining element. Not only did they gain a recreational space that welcomes friends and family to party and linger, they also gained a drop-dead gorgeous view: In the not-too-far-away distance stretches the Tappan Zee Bridge spanning the Hudson with its verdant, tree-lined shores. Says Johnsen: “It’s like Oz.” 

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Yes, the view draws you in, especially from the bank of watchtower-like windows that survey it. But Johnsen didn’t neglect the close-in scene. The cottage is cushioned in its nest of easy-care “Pink Supreme” and “Appleblossom” Flower Carpet roses that now spill over the sides of the curved wall and pump out a continual supply of zesty blossoms throughout the summer. She also installed an Atlas cedar to drape dramatically down the wall, its blue needles playing beautifully against the stonework building up to the Tudor cottage that echoes the architecture of the house.

Left to right: The pillars flanking the property line were in place when the homeowners came, but Johnsen added trellis work and planted the beds in zesty impatiens and Athyrium ‘Ghost’ Japanese painted ferns; the plinths were on the property, but Johnsen found massive planters to match, filling this one in a froth of scaevola and red zonal geraniums; on what the homeowner calls “the sunset terrace,” five fountainheads from Barbara Israel spout into a water garden. 


Down below the breakneck hill, the terrain is rocky, but mowed, and has that craggy romance of the moors. Johnsen transitions down with sweet fern and other wildlings to change the mood from formal to natural. There’s an orchard-in-the-making at the bottom, plus a little cabin. Originally, it was just an old utility shed, but that was before the homeowner saw its promise. She hired some Irish craftsmen who transformed it into an enchanting thatched-roof cottage, with layers of scalloping cut into the stacked straw sheaves on the roof. Johnsen dubbed it the “philosopher’s hut” and planted low-maintenance cottage bloomers such as Japanese iris, peonies, and Stachys “Hummelo” with limbed-up trees all around to reveal the view from all angles.

So the outward-bound family now has a home that opens beautifully into the splendor of its surroundings. Elegance abounds, but nothing feels contrived; the landscape naturally falls into the scenery. Does the family use the space? Continually—starting with orange juice on the back terrace, followed by poolside Ping-Pong, then cocktails in the evening, and warming up to the outdoor fireplace after dark. All day long, it’s nourishment for the soul. With her usual finesse, Jan Johnsen delivered serenity with a view.

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