Inside a Tranquil Essex Italianate-style Home

Home Tour Essex CordsenKate Cordsen can remember the first time she experienced the Connecticut River’s magical light as a professional photographer. It was about ten years ago, soon after she and her husband, a competitive rower, bought their house in Essex. She had accompanied him on one of his early-morning workouts. “He was setting up in total darkness, and slowly the landscape and the river started to come into focus,” she recalls. “It was just a revelation.”

Since then Cordsen, who is known for her large minimalist landscapes and evocative nudes, has spent countless hours shooting along the river. “There’s this chalky diffused light at all times of the day,” she says. “Every moment is so different.”

It’s the same light that suffuses their home, which sits on the site of the former David Mack shipyard on Middle Cove. “There’s a certain magic to the house,” Cordsen explains. “I love the way it inspires me and my work.”
When the couple started looking for a place on the water, they knew they wanted an old house within walking distance of a beautiful village. “There aren’t many places on the Connecticut seaboard that fit that criteria,” she says with a laugh. The three-story Italianate-style home was exactly what they’d dreamed about. “The shipyards burned to the ground in 1978, and this house was assembled in 1980 by Victoriana enthusiasts,” Cordsen says. “It’s really a compilation of homes. So we have all the benefits of a newish house but the character and interest of an old one.”

They spent a year renovating: replacing the roof, windows and most of the doors, and redoing the kitchen and bathrooms. The interiors came together more slowly, evolving over time. “They are an accumulation of our experiences, our travels,” she says. “Our life in the house and the color palette is geared toward the valley and the river.”

There is a natural connection between her art and her home. Her landscapes have a transcendent, almost mystical quality. The elements—sky, water and grass—seem to melt into one another. “My photographs are a reduction of form and color. I get rid of the extraneous.” The same is true, she says, of the rooms in her home. “The interiors are edited down to what we want to live with every day.”

The overall effect is at once quiet and elegant, tranquil and harmonious. Even the living room with its towering 13-foot ceilings has an intimate feel. French doors open onto the backyard where a rose garden blooms all summer. A covered porch off the dining room has a 180-degree water view.

A former textile designer, Cordsen is a passionate collector of photography, Chinese and Japanese porcelain and antique furniture. She found the early 19th-century Anglo-Indian table that inspired the theme of the décor on one of her many trips to her manufacturing facility in Jaipur. “It’s a very simple table,” she says. “Natural wood with ivory inlay. I love bare ivory, the bone color.”

The floors throughout are oak inlaid with mahogany and walnut. The rugs in both living rooms are silk. The home features the work of local Connecticut and New York artisans: Melissa Barbieri’s dramatic mural in the dining room was inspired by a 17th-century Moghul watercolor that Cordsen also bought in Jaipur; Matt Austin created the mural of a birch tree in the front foyer. Done with casein paint and hand-rubbed to reveal the gold branches, the tree is an allegory of Cordsen’s family.

One of Cordsen’s favorite spots to reflect is the master bedroom, with its huge 19th-century mahogany mantel. The walls are covered with a Philip Jeffries grass cloth in hyacinth, a silvery lilac that sometimes appears gray and sometimes purple depending on the time of day. Four of her photographs of the river and Hartford hang above an ivory sofa. From her desk, which she stripped and refinished in a pale Gustavian gray, she can see the shipyard piers across the river to the village of Lyme, the onetime home to one of the country’s most prestigious art colonies. “I look for watery landscapes and diffused light all over the world,” says the photographer, who recently returned from a trip to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. “Yet I can’t think of an area that inspires me more than the Connecticut River.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 2011 issue of CTC&G (Connecticut Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: Depth of Field.