A home design challenge they couldn’t refuse

An English-style house renovation in Waccabuc has brought together a wealth of local talent for its high-profile but low-key, personable owners, Duncan Dayton and wife Renea Hudson-Dayton.

Three and a half years ago, a woman he didn’t know walked up the driveway of Duncan Dayton’s North Salem home and asked him if he would consider selling the house, because she believed she had a buyer for it. While it wasn’t for sale and he didn’t want to sell, Dayton nevertheless replied, ‘Well, everything’s got a price.’”

Duncan Dayton is the entrepreneur, former racecar driver and racing team owner, a scion of the Dayton-Hudson retail corporation, which later became Target. His wife of nine years, Renea, now also a racing enthusiast, founded and runs the popular destination café and florist, Hayfields, in North Salem

Everything, it transpired, does have a price. The prospective buyer who was so keen on their property turned out to be Bill Gates’ daughter Jennifer. The Daytons accepted the offer (which was clearly not to be refused) and set about building a guesthouse, greenhouse and antique car barn on a 22-acre lot the couple owned across the street. 

But as Covid hit and the Daytons were settling down to life in their guesthouse, the broker who had originally inquired if the first house was for sale approached them again, wanting to know if the additional site was for sale. And once again, the couple accepted an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Although they also owned a farm down the street from the original property, where they had planned to build their dream house, they now needed somewhere to go for a couple of years while that project took shape. “We were scrambling around, looking. We looked at probably 20 different houses and then saw this house in Waccabuc online,” Duncan says. “We didn’t think anything of it but decided to come and take a look.”

They liked what they saw. The house, which was built in 1998, sits on around six acres and, as Duncan says, had “a very Cotswold-y feel to it,” which, knowing the picturesque Cotswolds in England, he loved. And the couple were already members of the Waccabuc Country Club next door and had actually got married at the Mead Chapel along the street (the chapel, incidentally, where Arthur Miller and Marylin Monroe had wanted to get married but were not permitted to do so,) so they felt they already had a connection to the small, exclusive Waccabuc community.

They decided to buy the house, but the plan was simply to renovate it, live in it for a little while and then flip it. “And then go back to Mills Road, to the dilapidated horse farm we’d bought and where we going to build our dream house,” says Renea. 

But as the renovation started and the architect started to point out all manner of features they hadn’t noticed, gradually a house bought as a temporary dwelling seemed like it could become a more permanent home. “I mean, yes, there are some limitations with this house,” says Duncan. It doesn’t even have a dining room, but then again, we’re very casual. We’re not fancy or formal.” 

Renea elaborates: “And what we really like is how the house reminds us of the house Duncan bought when he first came to North Salem. (That house) was cozy and quaint and it’s where I fell in love with Duncan and with North Salem, so this house is sort of reconnecting with those feelings, which I think is really fun. And this house, the size…it feels like home.” 

As for the renovations, the Daytons have not changed the footprint. There are very low ceilings throughout, some of which they have been able to raise, and a beautifully dry but unfinished basement, which they are polishing up. Additionally, two back-to-back living rooms seemed a little bit redundant, so they have opened the walls as much as possible to make it flow better, and flipped the front bedroom to the back of the house, which Duncan says was done at a friend’s suggestion. And apart from naming the house ‘Bucland’ — a compound of Buckland, a favorite spot in the Cotswolds, along with the ‘buc’ of Waccabuc — that has really been the extent of it.

Nevertheless, the architecture had to be right. Duncan is himself a graduate of the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and sets a high bar, so for the work the Daytons chose Two Tall Trees Design, whose principals, Rick and Liz O’Leary, also happen to be friends. They valued the understated elegance of their design, which Duncan describes as “very clean, very calm — in many ways very simple, not a lot of tchotchkes, just really elegant.”

 He adds: “I grew up in a Romaldo Giurgola house, who was a disciple of Louis Kahn, and it was all white and very stark, but it still felt homey, very clean and simple.”

Duncan describes the O’Learys as “super fun-loving, easy to work with and dedicated to the craft.” Renea also points out that theirs is an interesting dynamic — Rick the “creative dynamo,” Liz the “nuts and bolts” person who does the drafting.

The inspiration for the bedroom, which has floor-to-ceiling windows, came from the great room in the spa at the Mayflower Inn & Spa in Washington, Connecticut., which we wrote about in last October’s WAG. Renea adds that they wanted the room to be like a hotel suite:  “It’s not your bedroom in your house, but a little oasis, and they really accomplished that.”

For the interior design, they went with Gretchen Farrell from Gretchen Farrell Interiors. A designer to the stars, Farrell’s client list is so “A-list” that many of them require an NDA from her before she even sets foot on the property — although you suspect she would be far too discreet to talk about them anyhow. Duncan was aware that Farrell had moved into the area (North Salem) and liked her aesthetic but didn’t really have a project for her until the Waccabuc house came along. With a soft palette of creams, taupes and pastels, occasionally straying into bolder territory of cobalt and pale bronzes, Farrell has delighted the Daytons, helping to give them, in Duncan’s words, the “serene, calm house” they wanted.

They also speak enthusiastically about Yonni Sosa from Sosa Construction in Brewster. “We’d hired a larger contractor at the old place and towards the end of the project it was becoming not a good situation…it was unravelling… and Yanni was brought in to do some detail work and finish up some loose ends. He was super-thoughtful, a super-organized and clean and a master-craftsman.” When it came to finding a contractor for the Waccabuc house, they went with Sosa without a second thought.

Another nice thing about the property, the couple remark, was that they found garaging for six cars already in situ. “That was a fun feature, because we’re definitely car people,” says Renea, in what must rank as the most colossal understatement this side of Westchester. Duncan, a self-professed motor  head since he was a little kid, started racing in Formula Continental in 1990 and made his debut in the American Continental Championship in 1994. He won the first Historic Grand Prix of Monaco and a further nine Monaco Grand Prix events in different historic classes between 1997 and 2010. Renea, meanwhile, was director of marketing at Lime Rock Park when she met Duncan and now hosts Cars and Coffee, a vintage and historic car gathering on the first Sunday of every month at Hayfields.

‘I feel very fortunate to have owned and driven some of the greatest cars in the world,” says Duncan. But although he’s on the board of two racing tracks and still follows Formula One and IndyCar racing closely, what with a young son and gently advancing years, he says he is now transitioning out of racing cars and into road cars. 

The road car, which takes him to the supermarket and doubtless soon on the school run? That would be the Audi RS6 Avant Wagon. It’s an impressive machine in anybody’s book, although it’s hard to square what Google describes as “one wicked station wagon with an intimidating appearance and a raucous 591-hp engine,” with the mild-mannered, unpretentious Duncan or the naturally warm, friendly, genial Renea.

For more visittwotalltreesdesign.com, gretchenfarrel.com, sosa.construction and hayfieldsmarket.com.

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