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A mix of history, eccentricity, famous owners

September 8, 2017

GREENWICH — Few houses exude as much history as the one at 30 Round Hill Road.

When John Nelson was a youngster, all he knew about the old place was that a Porsche used to be parked in front of the house, the front end always facing the road, in the days when the German sports car was something of a rarity. It always intrigued him.

Later, when he first got to spend some time on the property, it was a revelation — architecture, landscape design, history and an air of eccentricity all came together in an intoxicating mix, he recalled.

“It was like discovering Atlantis,” Nelson said, “You’ve always been swimming along, but you have never seen the city under the sea. It was like the whole continent was here. I just fell in love with the place.”

The owner of the red Porsche out front was Jim Henson, the famed puppeteer, and Nelson later bought the property from Henson and his wife, Jane. Nelson is quick to note that “bought” isn’t quite the word — the actual sale was only discussed briefly, and it was more like the Hensons were transferring a gift from one hand to another.

The house and its long history will be the subject of a panel discussion at the Greenwich Historical Society Wednesday .

The house was built in 1845, and it was home to an African-American family, the Greens, who farmed the area that was known then as Hangroot.

Artist John Henry Twachtman bought the house around 1890, and built an expansion that pushed the house even further into little dell that surrounds it. The house also seems to have grown out of the earth itself.

“It just goes up into the hill,” says the homeowner, “It gives it a sense of foundation.” Abundant wisteria entwined over trellises, and an old catalpa tree growing inches from the home’s side wall, give the home a truly arboreal feel.

Twachtman was one of the leaders of the American Impressionist school, and he painted the grounds of the property and a little brook, Horseneck Brook, in the rear. He is believed to have brought in a friend, the renowned architect Stanford White, to help with the addition. The neo-classical portico above the main entrance is attributed to White (though absolute documentation is lacking), and its Tuscan columns were one of his typical features. Twachtman also got some design help from a friend and regular Greenwich visitor, Childe Hassam, another renowned artist, who came up with the idea of a small “Juliet” balcony leading from the master bedroom.

Inside the house are classic New England features, such as a timbered ceiling, a grand fireplace and small bedrooms. A root cellar still stands, while an old tack room has been converted into a library.

Nelson, a lawyer, has made a few additions himself. He built a small section to the home, and put in a hot tub under the porch where he enjoys watching the moonlight through the trees. For his kids, Nelson constructed a little playhouse that mimics the design of the main house.

“Every family that’s lived here, they’ve had their happiest years here, I think,” Nelson said. He also used to raise chickens on the property.

The grounds are another tantalizing feature, Nelson notes, surrounded by tall trees, crisscrossed with old stone walls and planted with a wide variety of ground-covering perennials.

“The house brings you out, and then you’re related to the land,” said Nelson, “There’s a wonderful breeze that comes down the hill, just a lovely place — and it changes every season. Looks different, never the same.” Every part of the property tells a little “vignette,” he says.

There’s also plenty of phlox planted around the house, a favorite flower of Twachtman’s who painted it regularly in his work.

Nelson likes the way fall foliage paints the property — “there’s a fiery light that comes through the trees” — and in winter he sometimes feels as if he could be in Vermont.

The homeowner knows the real estate market in Greenwich is not kind to eccentric, rambling homes that date to 1845, no matter how many illustrious owners have lived in them. He suspects the home will not long outlive him, but he’s determined to be a good caretaker of the property — and get enjoyment out of it.

“It stirs the soul,” he said of the old house that grows out of a hill, “I’ve had hardened cynics, friends coming up from New York, and they sleep like a baby here and love it. It speaks to people.”