This House Used to Host Wild Art-World Parties. Now It’s Where the Wild Things Are

Catherine Hong
·4-min read
Photo credit: Chris Mottalini
Photo credit: Chris Mottalini

From ELLE Decor

The central Connecticut town of Farmington is best known today—if it’s known much at all—as home to the Otis elevator company and the exclusive all-girls private school Miss Porter’s. But in the 1930s and ’40s, Alexander Calder, Joan Miró, and Salvador Dalí knew the town, which is just outside of Hartford, as the location of their friend James Soby’s country home. A critic, collector, and influential early champion of modern art, Soby regularly hosted his circle of art-world intimates at the stately Greek Revival house, which he purchased in 1935. Snapshots from the era (now in the archives of the Museum of Modern Art, along with most of his collection) depict Miró and Yves Tanguy smoking in the living room; Calder on the patio, dancing to an accordion; and Soby and Le Corbusier standing on the roof.

Photo credit: Chris Mottalini
Photo credit: Chris Mottalini

“There was dancing, drinking, dressing up, outrageous parties—not exactly the mundane life we lead today,” says the house’s current owner, Margaret Heiner, who, with her husband, Oliver Tostmann, moved here seven years ago, soon after he became curator of European art at Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum. Both art professionals (Heiner owned a contemporary art gallery in Washington, D.C.), they loved the home’s unique history as well as its unusual design, encompassing gracious formal rooms with 10-foot-high ceilings in the front and an airy, sun-filled modern wing in the rear. “We had looked at a lot of older homes in the area that felt too cramped,” says the German-born Tostmann, who stands six foot five.

Photo credit: Chris Mottalini
Photo credit: Chris Mottalini

By the time the Heiner-Tostmanns purchased the property in 2013, the house, while structurally sound, had accumulated a surfeit of carpeting, built-in cabinetry, and chair molding. “We wanted to return the house to more of its original simplicity,” Tostmann says. Exposing additional blank wall space would also allow them to hang their art collection more freely. Also on their list: an overhaul of the dismal kitchen and a gut renovation of the detached garage, which the couple converted into a guesthouse and studio. “We wanted to work with someone local who had a taste for New England tradition, and that’s how we found Heide and Rafe,” says Heiner, referring to Heide Hendricks and Rafe Churchill—the married principals of Hendricks Churchill, an interior design and architecture firm based in Sharon, Connecticut, that specializes in historic restoration. “We loved the simplicity of Rafe’s designs,” she adds. “And Heide’s taste and color sense are brilliant.”

Photo credit: Chris Mottalini
Photo credit: Chris Mottalini

The result is a sensitive refresh of the 1833 home that takes into account the house’s history and location, as well as the couple’s art collection (including both Old Masters and contemporary works), eclectic furniture, and two young children, ages six and eight. A major alteration was the widening of the doorway between the formerly closed-in kitchen and the dining room. “I had wanted an eat-in kitchen, but Heide and Rafe convinced us that we’d be happier eating in the dining room and using the kitchen’s windowed nook as a lounging area,” Heiner says. “They were totally right.” For the kitchen itself, Hendricks chose a moody color scheme—slate blue industrial lighting, dove gray painted cabinetry—and butcher block counters to evoke a cozy “downstairs Downton Abbey” vibe.

Photo credit: Chris Mottalini
Photo credit: Chris Mottalini

Other elements of the house required only the barest assistance. Throughout, the worn oak floors were simply sanded down and given a matte coating so that they appear “freshly scrubbed,” says Churchill, who believes that the imperfections and “even the awkward repair patches” of old floors help “tell the story” of a house. The firm’s philosophy, he explains, involves thinking just as much about “what we’re not going to change” as what they will. The study, for example, was transformed by the use of monochromatic color. “The millwork was there, so we just painted everything an indigo gray for a cocoon-like feeling,” he says.

Photo credit: Chris Mottalini
Photo credit: Chris Mottalini

Perhaps the most liberating area to reimagine, say the designers, was the sprawling family room in the rear, an addition that Soby commissioned as a gallery for his Calders, de Chiricos, Rousseaus, and Matisses. Unlike the older rooms in the front, which are furnished with antiques, this bright, expansive space is punctuated with seating by Saarinen, Thonet, and artist Rob Pruitt; a work table from Blu Dot (“it’s the dining table from our old house in D.C.,” says Heiner); and a profusion of ceramics and houseplants. Its easy comforts—conducive to family movies, papier-mâché crafts, and remote schooling—have been welcome during these past months of quarantine, say the couple. With any luck, when things finally go back to normal, they’ll be able to throw some art-world parties there too.

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

This story originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of ELLE Decor. SUBSCRIBE

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