French Fantasy

A Purchase garden’s chateau inspiration not only influences its striking design, but dictates a home’s architecture, too.

French Fantasy

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A Purchase garden’s château inspiration not only influences its striking design, but dictates a home’s architecture, too.

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By Dorothea Smith


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Very often, the architecture of a house influences the design of the surrounding landscape. In the case of Avis and Bruce Richards’ recently renovated home and gardens in Purchase, the course of events was decidedly the other way around.


The couple had purchased their five-acre property 15 years ago. Three years later, when Mount Kisco-based architect Ira Grandberg was hired to create a new gym and spa in the lower level of the house, Daniel Sherman, then a landscape architect in New York City (he has since moved his business to Valhalla), was called in to create a beautiful entry to what was rapidly becoming, but not yet, a dream home and property.



Today, double white gates, flanked by 12-foot-tall blue beech hedges and masses of impatiens, open onto a rectangular courtyard, evoking the grand entryways of yesteryear. Permanent white-brick planters topped with bluestone were built near the boxed beeches. Sherman’s transformation was so dramatic that Grandberg was called back to give the front of the house an equally striking facelift. The formal courtyard informed the French style of the home, which was given a makeover with a limestone façade, tall shuttered windows, and antique entry doors. Two matching boxwood-lined gardens—each containing a purple beech and white, waving allium bulb blooms—line the walkway to the house, and low brick walls that double as planters on either side of the entrance steps were built to match the home’s new white-washed brick.



Avis (an independent producer for not-for-profit films) and Bruce (a hedge-fund manager) knew they wanted a formal look to the garden, with symmetrical beds rather than the uncultivated or wild aesthetic so popular today. “I like to say it’s ‘relaxed formal,’” Sherman says. “Everything I did with the flowers was symmetrical, but they’re still placed in casual clumps.” Hot or loud colors were avoided. Buds in soft shades of pinks, lavenders, blues, and whites are accented with pale yellow, creating a continuum of color that unfolds like a sunset in the French countryside. There is one unexpected pop of color: a bubblegum-pink iron bench surrounded by hundreds of pink and yellow tulips.



Nearly three years ago, when Grandberg added a screened-in porch topped by a second-floor balcony, Sherman kept up the pace with more of his inventive plans. He designed a new outdoor sitting area below the addition and renovated the large semi-circular patio leading from French doors at the back of the house. Bluestone-capped steps lead from the top patio to a mezzanine area, where seats look out at the big lawn, the turquoise pool, and the pond beyond.


Today, if you follow the renovated driveway in the courtyard, you’ll find a new basketball court and batting cages (where the two Richards’ children practice their favorite sport “nine months a year,” according to Avis) often occupied by neighborhood friends. The path continues alongside a white picket fence lined with spruces, white dogwood, and virburnums. ‘Endless Summer’ and oakleaf hydrangeas reach over the wall along with fragrant white, purple lilacs, and deutzias.



Open the gate to that white fence and a path of cement pavers leads to a secret hideaway announced by two five-foot-tall terracotta urns filled with purple annuals, licorice vine, and pink petunias. The path itself is something to behold: strips of green peek through pavers, strategically set far enough apart to allow grass to grow, creating a checkerboard effect. A round redwood dining table and four chairs in that hidden spot provide a clandestine place for intimate dinners beside a weeping blue atlas cedar that stands in the corner like a living sculpture.  



If you were to follow the checkerboard path in a different direction, you would soon find yourself entering yet another garden, this one recently added by the new porch and surrounded by ‘Green Gem’ boxwoods, backed by pachysandra, and lined with plantings of pink, white, and lavender impatiens. Two Lutyen-syle benches sit poised for company in this shady rectangular space of concrete pavers, offering a prime view of the 10-sided pool set right in the lawn, framed by plantings of white birch on either side. Soon-to-bloom Rose of Sharon trees anchor the sitting area and form an allee to a quaint garden shed covered with Virginia creeper and ivy at the rear of the property.


One would be quite mistaken to assume that the delights of the garden are near complete. From the front courtyard, a white, arched trellis in a picket fence leads to yet more tantalizing garden spaces, including a potager, the French counterpart to the English kitchen garden. It’s home to three raised beds of ornamental lettuces, peppers, tomatoes, blooming purple chives, squash, and numerous herbs including thyme, parsley, sage, and dill that provide plenty of flavor for summer fare. Lining the deeply mulched beds outside of the potager, daylilies, pink cranesbill, deep purple coral bells, astilbes, and purple coneflowers later serve as excellent cut flowers for the table.



Within this vast array of terraces, formal gardens, and informal plantings is a cohesive sense of tranquility the landscape inspires. From the onset, this was the homeowners’ goal and they fully intended to exploit it, creating various eating areas, from the upper-level patio to the mezzanine to the lawn bordering the pool. On the upper patio, just outside the kitchen and dining area, McKinnon Harris’s gray round tables and chairs, upholstered with turquoise- and gray-striped fabric, are shaded by matching patio umbrellas. A barbeque built into a stone wall suggests congenial gatherings on this level, which is faced in granite rather than bluestone.



Further down, three rounded mounds of boxwood and a 10-foot Chinese fringe-
tree give structure to the beds on either side of the mezzanine level that also contain low-growing pink carpet roses, pink and white azaleas, and spirea ‘Gold Mound.’ These are interspersed with soft gray lambs ears, pale yellow threadleaf coreopsis, and other perennials such as columbines, astilbes, shasta daisies, geraniums, and the daylilies ‘Happy Returns,’ ‘Pardon Me’ and ‘Stella D’ora.’ From the turquoise-colored furniture on this level, visitors can gaze at the birch groupings flanking the turquoise pool and the pond in the distance.  



Inspired by a pool they saw in Tuscany, the Richards removed the stone terrace surrounding the 10-sided pool, instead surrounding it with a simple bluestone edge and then expanses of green lawn, which go up to the water’s edge. Just beyond is yet another surprise: a rock garden the homeowners undertook before Sherman came into the picture. Avis found the rock garden’s star attraction—a Buddha seated in a Lotus position—in an Asian antiques dealer’s San Diego shop. Shade-tolerant plants, such as ostrich ferns, astilbes, and hostas, have made themselves at home here.


While a garden is ever-evolving, the Richards say they were more than satisfied with Sherman’s mastery. In fact, they’ve hired him to help them with their second property, in Southhampton. Says Avis: “That’s also a very manicured garden, with a formal French rose garden and twenty-foot-high privet wall.” How this will affect the architecture of a Long Island beach residence is yet to be seen.


Tovah Martin is the author of numerous gardening books, including View from a Sketchbook: Nature through the Eyes of Marjolein Bastin (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2004).  She is also an editorial producer and frequent guest on the PBS television gardening series “Cultivating Life.”

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