's storied seaside Connecticut mansion in Fenwick is again for sale.
Yes, it is the Hepburn estate. And yet, it isn't. It's someone else's house not only by title, but by feel.
A massive, multi-million dollar renovation pushed the limits of an extreme makeover of the 8,300-square-foot house, the centerpiece of the three-and-half acre estate on the shores of
Even Hepburn, who built the summer home this little borough of
in 1939, spent weekends there for decades and finally retired there until her death in 2003, would hardly know her way around the place now.
Rooms have been combined to create larger, more open spaces. The kitchen is where part of the living room was. The living room is where the dining room was. A powder room, potting room and pantry now occupy the space where the old kitchen was.
And that's just the first floor.
Hepburn's kitchen was chock-a-block full of shelves laden with dishware. Two refrigerators stood on 16-inch tile platforms in case of flooding, and a second-hand stove came from her ex-husband's house, Hepburn wrote in 1991 autobiography, "Me: Stories of My Life" published by Alfred A. Knopf.
The new kitchen is now in the center of the first floor, with views of the Sound. It has a vintage character with beadboard cabinetry, a stone, farmhouse sink and a cobalt blue Aga stove. Cabinetry hides the refrigerator and dishwasher. The only dishware in sight is on a hanging plate rack, displaying a collection of blue and white china, echoing the color scheme of the room.
"Before, it was so different," said Colette Harron, of William Pitt
International Realty in Essex, the listing agent who also sold the home its current owners after Hepburn died at the age of 96. "It was rustic and woodsy and very minimal. There was a bunch of little rooms. I'm starting to have a hard time remembering what it looked liked."
"This," Harron adds, " is what people want in 2011."
And it comes with an updated asking price reflecting millions of dollars of work. The estate is now on the market for $28 million, partly because it has been subdivided into three lots. The house -- on the largest of the three lots -- can be purchased separately for $18 million. Seven years ago, the entire property sold for $6 million, half the original asking price.
It's anybody's guess what Hepburn would have thought of all the fuss.
The 3-story house, constructed in the English cottage style, was built with 21 rooms and nine bathrooms. The reconfiguration whittled down the rooms to 15, with 71/2 baths.
Old Yankee has been overtaken by modern, Nantucket beach house. In Hepburn's time, old photographs show, the interior was dominated by exposed brick walls and knotty pine paneling. Now, sheet-rocked walls are painted with cool whites, creams and blues with a relaxed seashore motif suggested by sea stars, lanterns and shells. Doric-style columns flank main entryways.
The renovations are buffered from the flooding that often plagued Hepburn. The house was raised 51/2 feet from its concrete slab, revealing more of the house from the bottom of the winding, pebbled driveway where once only chimneytops could be seen.
The current owners, Frank J. Sciame, a
-based developer and his wife Barbara have divided the estate into three lots, with the potential for possibly building two -- albeit smaller -- houses on either side of the Hepburn mansion.
Unpretentious, Nothing Fancy
Few would dispute that the renovation has resulted in a beautiful home and grounds. The footprint of the house has not changed, with the exception of a wraparound patio. The flecked, white-washed exterior brick also remains unchanged.
But can it still be called Hepburn's house?
"I guess people would still think of it as the old Hepburn House," said Tedd J. Levy, a member of the trustees of the Old Saybrook Historical Society. "It's quite a different house than what it once was."
Levy and others longtime local residents say the Hepburn house -- though large by most standards -- wasn't fancy. The actress "wasn't too fussy about caring for things," Levy said.
Donna DiBella, past president of the historical society, visited the house one time while Hepburn was alive and came away with an indelible impression: "It was the kind of place where you could sit and put your feet up."
Hepburn was known to wear loose pants -- sometimes frayed at the cuff -- cotton and flannel shirts and large hats. Sometimes, she dried her laundry on the grass outside her home to capture the fresh, air-dried feel. In general, she kept a low-profile and residents of Old Saybrook didn't bother her.
At Walt's Market in downtown Old Saybrook -- where Hepburn often ordered legs of lamb and tenderloin roasts -- owner Paul Kozey remembers making deliveries to Hepburn's Mohegan Avenue address.
"I would say the house definitely needed some changes, some updating," Kozey said. "But she was comfortable with how she had it. I'm sure Katharine would have liked to keep it the way it was."
Levy said Hepburn was the kind of person who lived in a very unpretentious way, more interested in living than any fanciness of surroundings.
Certainly, Harron said, Hepburn wouldn't have made the renovations herself. Nevertheless, Harron believes Hepburn would have appreciated the simple, clean lines of the renovation that eschews any temptation to go over the top.
"It's not ostentatious," Harron said. "It's elegant and understated and that's just what she was."
Nods To Hepburn
The Sciames owned neighboring property when they bought the Hepburn estate in 2004, the year after the actress died.
Frank Sciame was well suited to tackle the project as the head of a construction company that has worked on a broad range of renovation projects involving structures significant for their history and architecture. In New York, his projects have included the restoration of the Historic Front Street at South Street Seaport and the renovation of theGuggenheim Museum.
Sciame declined to be interviewed for this story. But initially, Sciame intended to buy, renovate and then sell the Hepburn estate. The family held onto to the house because, according to one published report, his children loved to stay at the place.
The property has been for sale for about a month and already has attracted interest from potential buyers from as far away as Australia, Paris and California, Harron said -- but no offers yet.
The luxury home market in Connecticut has been slow in the housing downturn, but in recent months it has picked up, with one
mansion setting a record for a sale price along that tony suburb's waterfront.
Visitors touring the house and grounds with Harron recently could see nods to Hepburn in nearly every room. There are books and magazines about the woman who won the Best Actress Oscar four times, the last for "On Golden Pond" in 1981. And there are framed photographs of Hepburn at Fenwick: sailing with her brother, Dick; posing near a patch of the wildflower Queen Anne's Lace, a favorite; and taking a dip in Long Island Sound on a winter's day with snow on ground.
Harron said the Hepburn legacy is a selling point for the house, but not the only one.
"The name is a good provenance," Harron said. "But there is a lot of value here. All you need to move in your toothbrush."
'Times Are Different'
Change had come to Hepburn property before -- once, brutally.
Ever since Hepburn was 5, she and her family spent summers in Fenwick, about 45 miles from Hartford, where Hepburn was born and her father practiced as a well-regarded urologist. Fenwick was the summer place for many of Hartford's elite: the Brainards, the Bulkeleys and the Goodwins, Hepburn wrote in her 1991 autobiography.
"Everyone knew everyone," Hepburn wrote. "They were very nice -- very Republican -- very
In 1938, a smaller -- but still impressive -- wood-shingled, Victorian-style home was swept away in a ferocious hurricane. The hurricane still stands as one of the worst to ever hit the Connecticut coast, and Hepburn, family members and friends barely escaped alive. The aftermath became the stuff of Connecticut coast lore: Hepburn photographed sitting in a claw-footed tub, one of the few things left behind, and digging for her mother's silver service.
A new, much larger brick structure rose on the property -- about the time Hepburn was starring in the stage version of "The
Story," which would bring acclaim in the film version a year later. The house cost about $300,000 to build -- roughly $4.6 million in today's dollars -- and it provoked this headline in The Courant: "Pretentious 21-room Structure on Sound at Fenwick to Replace Father's Modest Frame Cottage Razed By September Hurricane."
Hepburn likely would have concurred with Sciame's decision to raise the house higher above the water line. In her autobiography, Hepburn lamented just one thing about the property she often described as paradise: "We made one mistake. We raised the property only three feet. We should have raised it eleven."
She was less enamored of changes inside after the hurricane. In her autobiography, Hepburn described this change: ""There's a big kitchen. It was a kitchen and a pantry but my brother Dick didn't like the pantry, so he took the wall down, and now Well, you can imagine. This surprised me quite a lot when I first saw it."
Change is also coming to Hepburn's surrounding neighborhood: A house near the entrance to Hepburn's driveway has been purchased for $3.2 million and there are plans to demolish it and build another multi-million dollar house.
DiBella, the former historical society officer, said it is to be expected that houses with sometimes long lives can change with ownership and lifestyle tastes.