A charmed life

The Columns blends the modern with the historical

Photographs by Bob Rozycki and Tim Lee

The Columns, a relaxed spread that straddles Mount Kisco and the town of New Castle, is a property with a storied past.

After all, it’s not every home that can truthfully state “Frank Sinatra slept here.”

But then again, the former owners of the home long known as the “Cerf-Wagner estate” were themselves notables who rubbed shoulders with the elite of the literary, entertainment and political worlds.

The eight-bedroom, seven-and-a-half bath classic 1927 Colonial was the country retreat of Bennett Cerf, the head of Modern Library and Random House publishing, who went on to more widespread fame as the author of humor books and a panelist on the popular television show “What’s My Line?”

In the early 1930s, Cerf purchased the estate on the banks of the Kisco River. With his 1940 marriage to Phyllis Fraser, an actress, journalist and publisher, he and their growing family would build their life together there (and in Manhattan) until Cerf’s death in 1971. His widow would go on to marry former New York City Mayor Robert F. Wagner Jr., and they would live at The Columns, part time, until his death in 1991.

Over time, the property’s guest cottage, a spacious retreat complete with a large living room, full-size bedroom and two baths, hosted notables from Sinatra to Theodor Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) to John F. Kennedy, among others.

The 5,789-square-foot main residence, tapped for a recent New Castle Historical Society house tour, today retains much of its historic charm thanks to current owners Bill and Jane Lewis, who have made substantial renovations over the past 15 years while retaining the home’s original character.

THE LURE OF THE COUNTRY

The Lewises were living on a houseboat at the 79th Street Boat Basin on the Hudson River when they decided it was time to return to dryland.

Bill Lewis, a veteran of the employment and training industry, says he came home early from work one day to find his then-8-year-old son watching television.

“This is not a way for a kid to grow up,” he remembers saying. “The boat basin was not a place for play dates.”

And it was very unlike his own childhood in Yonkers, full of outdoor adventures.

After a house search that focused on Westchester, they came across the property that captivated them from the start. Lewis says his wife, upon seeing the abundance of books, the fireplaces and the foyer, was hooked.

“The bookshelves were full of first editions because of Bennett Cerf,” he remembers, pointing out to the foyer. “Jane walks that far in here and says ‘Bill, buy this house.’”

And that was basically it.

Of course, they did their research and were taken not only with the home, its past and its grounds, but also its more practical attractions such as its school district, a key factor for their sons, now aged 29 and 19.

The home’s 9.6 private acres – threaded by a long, gently curving drive that leads to the main house – feature buildings that fall under the town of New Castle and thus, the Chappaqua school system. The remaining three-plus acres are part of the village of Mount Kisco and provide the address.

The Lewises felt at home from the moment they arrived, complete with a new station wagon and a grill picked up at a store on the drive up. That first weekend would be spent assembling the grill.

“Immediately we became suburbanites,” Lewis says with a laugh.

Today, it’s easy to see what so captivated the Lewises.

The dramatic entrance foyer, which leads right through to the back of the house, is anchored by an understatedly elegant staircase. A side hallway houses the original telephone room, a sweet reminder of the home’s age.

French doors open onto a formal living room, a gracious space complete with one of the home’s five fireplaces.

FIREPLACES – AND SO MUCH MORE

Though the home appeals in any season, Lewis remarks, “What could be better than sitting around the fireplace, or three or four, on a snowy day?”

A built-in bookcase wall adds a literary touch, with many of the books left behind from the original owners.

A library/den is a cozy retreat complete with leather furniture and evocative paneling, while the spacious dining room – home for countless gatherings of extended family and friends – includes a large bay window and yet another fireplace. A butler’s pantry leads into a large, renovated kitchen, which includes not only a sitting area with a bay window and gas fireplace, but a breakfast room with cathedral ceilings at the opposite end. Rounding out the Bilotta-designed kitchen are statuary marble countertops, an island with prep sink and butcher block and professional appliances.

A pair of bedrooms lies beyond the kitchen area, complete with a separate entrance and back staircase, allowing for easy conversion to office, studio or other use.

An office at the house’s other end, now used by Jane, a psychoanalyst with a Manhattan-based practice, could also convert to a guest or second master suite with its bay windows and private bath.

Upstairs, the true master suite includes a fireplace, built-ins and a French door leading to a Juliet balcony. A large walk-in dressing room is adjacent to his-and-her bathrooms. Another office, this one Bill’s, again features the trademark bay windows. Five more bedrooms of varying sizes complete this floor, which offers access to a walk-up attic. A lower-level family room – renovated in 2010 to include a wet bar, wall-to-wall carpeting and an unexpected touch in two restaurant-style booths – boasts space for entertainment, exercise and access to the large storage, laundry and utility rooms.

OUT OF DOORS

Step outside onto a veranda to glimpse the two-story columns that give the property its name.

The backyard gently slopes down to the scenic Kisco River, which is bordered by conservation land on its other bank.

It’s a view well-savored from ample seating scattered about.

The outdoor amenities also include a flagstone patio featuring a professional-grade outdoor grill system; a two-hole golf course with three tees; and an in-ground pool complete with a heated flagstone deck and a pool house with his-and-her changing and bathrooms, a kitchenette and stone barbecue.

A leisurely glance reveals a tennis/basketball court, two ponds with algae-treatment systems, a full garden and a Lord & Burnham heated greenhouse. A caretaker’s cottage and maintenance buildings complete the well-maintained and landscaped grounds.

One can’t imagine wanting to leave this private and expansive retreat, but Lewis says he and Jane, with their love of travel and plans of returning to houseboat living, are finding it a practical, if bittersweet, decision.

“It’s so comfortable and wonderful and here all the experiences are great – but there’s two of us.”

The Columns at a glance
• Mount Kisco
• 5,789 square feet
• 9.6 acres
• Bedrooms: 8
• Baths: 7 full, 1 half
• Amenities: Alarm system, close to shops, eat-in kitchen, five fireplaces, guest and caretaker cottages, Lord & Burnham greenhouse, master bath, patio, two ponds, pool with pool house, privacy, powder room, river, skylights, tennis and basketball courts, two-hole golf course with three tees, three-car detached garage, walk-in closets.
• Price: $4.877 million

For more information, contact Susan Battaglia at Houlihan Lawrence at (914) 238-4766, ext. 304, (914) 400-3466 or sbattaglia@houlihanlawrence.com.

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