Unique Room #4 – Bird Lover’s Retreat

Written By: Rebecca Sweat

There aren’t a lot of homes still standing these days that predate the founding of the United States. Being involved in the restoration and redesign of such a house is the chance of a lifetime. So when interior designers William Totten and Linda Guy McGuirl were given the opportunity to work on the historic Ross Family Farm, they jumped at it.

Set on 61 acres or rolling pasture in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, this formal manor house was built in 1771 by Elias Boudinot, president of the Continental Congress and signatory to the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War. Today the mansion belongs to the Somerset County Park Commission. This past year, the Commission granted permission to the Women’s Association of Morristown Memorial Hospital to use the home as a designer showhouse as a way to raise funds for the hospital’s new cardiac center.

The Women’s Association enlisted the help of 45 of the area’s most accomplished interior and landscape designers to update and revitalize the house and gardens. Totten and McGuirl’s job was to transform the first-floor lady’s study into a more inviting and eye-appealing, yet still very functional, space.

The two designers believed it was important to create a room that was truly reflective of the period in which the house was built.

They also though their design should build on the spectacular backyard view from the room’s bay window. Much of the property is wetlands, so there is an abundance of wildlife on the property, especially gulls, herons, storks, cranes, ducks, geese, and other birds. Totten and McGuirl suggested the room be turned into a bird enthusiast’s study.

The Woman’s Association put their stamp of approval on Totten and McGuirl’s vision for the room, and the designers got started. Their first step was to remove the built-in bookcases, which were worn-out and warped. Then they added a chair rail and crown molding, which were painted in a thick, distressed coat of mute aqua green paint to give them an old-time look. The walls were upholstered from the baseboard to the crown molding in a cotton crewel fabric with a hand-sewn bird motif.

The designers opted to paint the wood floors. First, a base coat of paint was applied to the floor. On top of that, using gray-green, cream, and brown paint, Totten hand-painted the floor in a 17th-century Dutch design, featuring a circular and rectangular pattern. Then the floor was lightly sanded to give it a distressed look.

Custom draperies were sewn for the bay window in the same crewel fabric as was used for the walls. The draperies were hung by a hand-carved pole that simulates a branch – complete with knot holes and branch-like finials. The bay window is softened by hanging lightweight cotton cafe sheers from hand-crafted iron rods.

All of the furniture pieces selected for the room are 18th-century antiques or reproductions: a painted kneehole desk with a black Sheraton elbow chair upholstered in a cream patterned velvet. A custom-made small-scale wing chair upholstered in muted aqua-green linen with brown piping. Adjacent to that is an old-fashioned wrought iron bridge lamp and a small side table.

The room’s dimensions are just 8 feet by 9.5 feet – not a large space to work with.

Most of the accessories forĀ  the room relate in some way to birds: a set of 18th-century French hand-painted bird prints for the walls, an antique pheasant painting for the desk, a handmade desk lamp with a decoupage owl print base, an upholstered bulletin board over the desk with a collection of antique bird postcards, binoculars for bird watching, a set of bird identification guides for the side table, a wrought iron pigeon figurine on top of the books, a pair of 18th-century Chinese porcelain cranes sitting on painted bracket shelves, and a hand-painted silk pillow with a bird’s nest motif for the wing chair.