Alexandra Lotsch Reimagines Stepping Stones Compound
by raul barreneche
Few homes in Southampton can boast a pedigree quite like that of Stepping Stones, a compound of Arts and Crafts style cottages owned by Alexandra Lotsch. Long before the New York City artist bought the nearly three-acre property as a weekend retreat for her family in 1997, it enjoyed another, very different life as part of the art colony that grew around William Merritt Chase’s fabled Shinnecock Hills Summer School of Art. From 1891 to 1902, Chase led this influential academy, one of the first American summer schools devoted to plein air painting and a touchstone in establishing the East End as a serious artistic enclave. Life at the school centered on the cluster of cottages orbiting the main studio, which together created a quaint mini-town that became known as the Art Village. The studio was eventually turned into a light-filled loft-like house owned until recently by Kate and Andy Spade. Arts patroness extraordinaire Beth Rudin DeWoody still lives down the road, in another original summer school cottage.
The main house on Lotsch’s property, one of five charming shingled structures nestled around an unusually hilly landscape for the Hamptons, became a private residence after the school’s demise. Film producer David Brown lived there until the 1950s, when he married Helen Gurley. The property changed hands several times before Lotsch took possession in 1997.
When Lotsch, who grew up summering on the East End, first saw the six-bedroom, five-and-a-half bathroom house (plus two maids’ rooms off the kitchen), it was “a complete wreck, a rabbit warren of dark rooms,” she says. “But I loved the rustic, low-key vibe. And it hadn’t already been ‘done’ like so many other houses out here.” What really sold Lotsch on the place was what is surely one of the most unique structures in all the Hamptons: a freestanding ballroom, tucked away from the main house at the far edge of the property. According to legend, David Brown’s father built the ballroom as a place for his wife, an accomplished violinist, to serenade guests from a little colonnaded balcony beneath the soaring ceiling. Lotsch now throws dinner parties for up to 70 people and many more for cocktails in the ballroom, which is also her painting studio.
Lotsch made a few improvements to the property, adding a freestanding garage and a screened-in porch off the main house, always mindful of keeping the home’s historic look and feel intact. She renovated and enlarged the kitchen but kept the original early 20th-century look, even matching new cabinets to existing ones. Lotsch painted the floor a sunny, cheerful yellow—one of many colorful choices throughout the property. “As an artist, I’m pretty sensitive to color and have always loved playing with it, seeing what different light does to it, and seeing its effect in the space and on people inside that space,” she says. “I like the surprise and freshness of unconventional choices.”
Her unexpected palette includes electric blue walls in the living room, a more peaceful shade of blue in an upstairs guest room, and a rosy pink on the dining room ceiling. “That ceiling makes everyone look fabulous,” says Lotsch. The ballroom’s indigo ceiling is “a twilight color that adds romance and mystery to such a vast room,” she says. “Sometimes I fall in love with a color in my artwork, and somehow it appears in the rooms of the house.”
Lotsch also worked extensively on the gardens, once known for their stunning rose arbor and allées of cedar trees. She replaced an old blue slate terrace with herringbone red brick—“It looks like it’s always been there,” she says—and restored an original circular reflecting pool and the flower beds of the surrounding parterres, now overflowing with roses and peonies. The original stepped gardens for which the house was named are still there, leading downhill to a spectacular cutting garden packed with towering yellow, white, and purple lilac bushes, swaths of irises, and more peonies, all of it organically grown. Says Lotsch, “I have something blooming from April when thousands of narcissus bloom until the last Montauk daisies and Japanese anemones in September and October.”
photography by Costas Picadas