A Historic Home Gets New, Loving Life

When Rondi Charleston and her husband Steve Ruchefsky moved to Westport from Manhattan, they thought they’d landed in the friendliest place on earth.

Every time they worked in their garden, sat outside — or simply opened their doors — people waved.

Eventually, the couple realized, it wasn’t them.

They lived at 3 Evergreen Avenue. Their property — smack on the northern corner of Myrtle Avenue — is one of the most visible spots in town.

It’s long been one of the prettiest. Now — following years of renovation, planting and tender loving care — it’s one of the most stunning.

It’s also one of Westport’s most historic homes.

Rondi Charleston's porch and gardens.

Rondi Charleston’s porch and gardens.

Built in 1845 by James W. Jauncey for his brother, Dr. Joseph Jauncey Jr., it was sold a decade later to Jonas H. Phelps, a manufacturer of astronomical instruments. His shop on Richmondville Avenue made the largest telescopes used by the US government. Phelps also built the “town clock” in the steeple of Christ & Holy Trinity Church, across the street.

The house passed on to the Coley family (of Coleytown fame). It remained in their hands for 99 years.

Now Rondi and Steve own it. And — unlike many new owners of older homes — they relish its quirks, and revere its history.

The breezeway opens, and offers a view of Christ & Holy Trinity Church in the distance.

The breezeway opens up. The view is of Christ & Holy Trinity Church in the distance.

They opened the walkway, relocated the driveway and modernized the breezeway. But they retained all its bones. And some may actually be buried in the basement.

When the couple bought the home, that basement had a dirt floor. “It was original, 1845 dust,” Rondi says. They suspected it had been a stop on the Underground Railroad. (The house next door, owned by Estelle Margolis, almost certainly was.)

In a coal bin, Rondi and Steve found old newspaper clippings. A rusty spoon. Other artifacts too. “It was like an archaeological dig,” she says.

In a corner of the low basement — behind a nondescript door — Rondi and Steve created a modern amenity: a wine cellar. But it pays homage to the past: Everything was built from leftovers. The racks are made of old wine cases. The bench is an original from the Westport Country Playhouse. The ancient fireplace mantel holds a horseshoe and farm tools found by the couple.

Steve Ruchefsky and Rondi Charleston in their wine cellar. The bench comes from Westport Country Playhouse.

Steve Ruchefsky and Rondi Charleston in their wine cellar. The red bench comes from Westport Country Playhouse.

The rest of the home is equally cool. A beautiful piano fills a music room where Rondi — a renowned jazz singer who recently returned from a West Coast tour, and who wrote “Signs of Life” inspired, in part, by her cellar — creates music. A shelf holds her Emmy and Peabody Awards, earned as a TV producer/journalist with Diane Sawyer.

Every corner of the house holds surprises. Pocket doors disappear, opening up a breezeway that leads to a garden with a spectacular view of downtown. That garden is what Westporters watched grow — and caused them to wave — in the years it took Rondi and Steve to bring it to fruition.

“This is paradise,” Rondi says. “I don’t know how we got so lucky.”

Countless Westporters — who walk or drive by and admire the ageless, but now handsomely renovated, home — don’t know either.

But we’re very, very happy they did.

(Click here if your browser does not take you directly to Rondi Charleston’s “Signs of Life.”)

 

24 responses to “A Historic Home Gets New, Loving Life

  1. Joyce Barnhart

    Nice to read of people who love their home so much, especially in this town of tear-downs. Please continue, Rondi and Steve to care for and about this treasure of a house.

  2. Robert R Mills IV

    I agree. The teardowns are becoming a large problem. Westport’s history is slowly fading away. The home located at 20 Maplewood Ave was bought by an out of town builder, and it was scheduled for demolition. Thanks to the neighbors surrounding that home the demolish was postponed for other alternatives.

  3. Love this story! That house makes my heart sing every time I drive by it. BTW, the former owners of 20 Maplewood, a small but lovely home, received a higher offer for their house than the one they accepted; but when the prospective buyer explained he was going to tear it down, they took a lower offer from someone who promised not to. That person, the current owner, turned right around and filed a petition to demolish it. So sad on so many levels.

  4. This is such a beautiful house and they have really made it shine! It is wonderful when people appreciate the history of the home and embrace the little quirks that make it unique. Thanks for being such great stewards of a wonderful home that adds so much to Evergreen Avenue and the Evergreen Historic District as a whole.

  5. Susan Walton Wynkoop, President Westport Historical Society

    Rhondi, Steve and their daughter are 3 gems who live in a gem – they have provided amazing care for this historic home and this is a wonderful example of preserving a beautiful structure while at the same time adding on some more modern space that blends with the historic.
    Every time I go to the Historical Society – which is often – I love to round the curve and see what is growing and blooming in their yard and along the fence. Your efforts over the years in preservation and beautification are to be applauded.
    Susan Walton Wynkoop

    • Thanks Susan. It is a pleasure and an honor to ‘grow and bloom’ in Westport – we love it here. Having the Historical Society (and all that it represents) right around the corner was a major factor in our decision to move here!

  6. Dennis Jackson

    Is this Dr. Charles O. Pommier’s fomer office; aka “Painless Pommier” (as he was characterized in a locally drawn cartoon that hung in his waiting room, where a large aquarium helped sooth anxious kids awaiting the slow-speed drill and mercury fillings in the days before fluoride)?

  7. It is not Dr. Pommier’s former office/home. That is located closer to the Post Road on Myrtle Avenue next to Ellen Ritter’s former home at #44, which has also been beautifully restored. This is my neighborhood and I love it.

  8. I have really enjoyed over the years seeing the wonderful work that has been done on this home and the owners were kind enough to share it as part of the Holiday House tour a few years back….including the guesthouse adjacent up Evergreen Avenue that has been incorporated into their property. It is equally beautiful on the inside. Westport is fortunate that we still have people with their mindset, for quite easily they could have chosen to go the tear down route, instead.

    • Another kindred spirit – we wouldn’t dream of tearing down a structure with such great history, beauty and integrity. Some things really do get better with age – houses, fine wine, jazz singers…!!! All best.

  9. I still have a few mercury fillings from Dr. Pommier – could explain a few things. I remember the cartoon – a man is leaving Dr. Pommier’s office and hits his head on the door; then shouts, “Hey, I thought you were painless!”

  10. Estelle Margolis

    I have been profoundly blesses to have Rondi, Steve and Emma next door.
    This is a family of world class people with talent and beauty and brains like
    you don’t often find and they are right next door!
    Half of my house was built in 1790. It has wonderful bones and details.

    other half is around 1850, after they had a fire that burned that original wing. I have the Keenans in the stone house next door. They get mad at me if I sdont

  11. Estelle Margolis

    (to finsh my comment) …. if I don’t tell them when I will be away so they can watch my house! More blessings! I could not edit my typos, please forgive. All of us, living here, never want to move any place else.

    • Actually, WE are the lucky ones- having Estelle for a neighbor for the last 14 years has been a blessing. She is the wise and wonderful Jewish Grandma we always dreamed of – always with good sound advice and a pot of magical chicken matzoh ball soup on the stove! Love you Estelle!!

  12. Estelle Margolis had trouble posting her comment. She wrote:

    “These neighbors are world class people and I am more than blessed to have them next door. After I fell off the ladder in the office last week, Steve came over and finished the chore I was doing.

    They made me a delicious Rosh Hashonah dinner because they knew none of the kids were coming..

    I heard a CD that Emma did. She is a fully talented, mature artist. She writes songs, plays the piano and sings like no 15 year old kid has a right to.

    I am surrounded by wonderful caring neighbors here on Myrtle Avenue. Part of the reason I never want to leave here, although I may not be able to afford to stay.

    How did I get so lucky?

  13. Rondi– What lovely responses you had to everyone’s comments, including my own. I’ll download your song today.

  14. Wendy Crowther

    Thank you, Rhondi and Steve, for all you’ve done to preserve this gem. It so adds to the streetscape and sense of history in downtown Westport. I was on the Historical Society’s Holiday House Tour when you graciously opened your home for the tour. It was beautiful, both inside and out.

    I was on the Committeee that restored the house house just down the street from you at 99 Myrtle (the Emily McLaury House). One of the Committee members was Barlow Cutler-Wotton, a lifetime Westporter and preservationist who recently passed away. Barlow told me that she was fitted for her wedding dress in the front parlor of your house. She stood in front of the lovely, large window while the seamstress did her work. When I visited your house during the Holiday House Tour, I thought of Barlow standing there some 60 years prior.

    When you preserve a home, yes…you do also preserve its stories. Barlow’s story is another one to add to your list.

  15. Can’t describe how touched I am to read about such a fabulous neighborhood of loving people of all ages who look out for each other! I knew Ellen Ritter well and love all the houses there on Myrtle. I first came to Westport when I was 3 in 1946 and my husband and I have wonderful neighbors on Roseville from Dr. David Beck next door (another renowned and beloved longtime physician in town) to the Sydors across the street living in the historic Gampfers’ Onion Farm (ca 1867 I think) with their four friendly children. We have terrific neighbors in the big house next door but having a variety of old stone/frame houses with great people inside make this a neighborhood. Thanks for all you have done, Rondi and Steve! I noticed how great your home and gardens look as my husband and I walked to the Memorial Day parade! Keep watching out for artist Estelle.