Serena & Lily Opens; Downtown Streetscape Changes

Two years ago, when Bedford Square developer David Waldman proposed a deal to save Kemper-Gunn — moving the 1889 Queen Anne Victorian house from Church Lane to the Baldwin parking lot — the town imposed several conditions.

One was that he could not rent to a retail tenant operating more than 5 stores.

Serena & Lily — a California-based lifestyle and home decor brand with branches in the Hamptons, San Francisco and Los Angeles — was interested.

Serena and Lily

Aaron Mutscheller flew east from Sausalito headquarters. His first impression of Westport — driving over the Saugatuck River bridge — was great.

Then he saw the building.

“It was dark and smelly,” he recalls. “There was a dropped ceiling, falling plaster and rotten shag rugs. It hadn’t been touched in years.”

But Mutscheller is not the chief creative officer for nothing. He poked around the old house. He traveled around Westport. Gradually, he realized that Serena & Lily could make the property as unique — and different — as its other 3.

Serena herself — Dugan, co-founder and chief design officer — was not so sure. She thought it was haunted.

But she trusted Mutscheller. The deal was done.

Now — 23 months later — the public is about to see what Mutscheller and Dugan have done.

It’s pretty impressive.

Serena & Lily, ready to open on Elm Street.

Serena & Lily, ready to open on Elm Street.

The duo (and their team) have turned a 19th-century house into a 21st century design destination.

Mutscheller calls the building “our way of saying ‘we get Westport. Here’s our version of it.'”

Which means what, exactly?

“Westport doesn’t feel like the West Coast perspective of Connecticut,” he explains. “It’s not a hedge fund town. It’s really an eclectic mix of lively, creative people.”

Mutscheller hopes that Westporters see the repurposed old house — now a bright, fun retail store — and realize they can update their own living space.

“Change happens. But it doesn’t have to involve demolition,” Mutscheller says. “You can do a 2.0 version, without tearing everything down to the ground.”

Dugan adds, “We’ve paid a lot of respect to the original architecture. But we’ve made it applicable to today’s living. We’ve tried to show we can blur the lines and evolve, in an honest way.”

A fireplace and mantel in the Kemper-Gunn House has been beautifully preserved.

A fireplace and mantel in the Kemper-Gunn House has been beautifully preserved.

The Serena & Lily renovation was complete, and careful. Stained glass windows and casework were preserved, beams uncovered. Crown molding shows off the hand-carved center staircase. Rooms were opened up, creating a fresh, clean look — without sacrificing the building’s great old bones.

The store’s products — bedding, bath, furniture, fabric, rugs, lighting, nursery and art — are shown in actual settings like a dining room, living room and bedroom.

The 1st floor features a kitchen and nook. A swatch-filled design shop on the 2nd floor is where designers work with customers. The 3rd floor — formerly an unused attic — was transformed into a dramatic “kids’ space,” filled with funky delights.

The original windows enhance the new Serena & Lily.

The original windows enhance the new Serena & Lily.

Serena & Lily enjoys a unique position in town. They occupy prime downtown real estate. They’re the 1st tenants of Bedford Square (sort of). They bridge old Westport, and new.

They take that role seriously. They’re sponsoring an artist for next month’s Art About Town. They’ll contribute to organizations like Near & Far Aid (15% of all sales this weekend), Project Return and Pink Aid.

Before that though, they’ll welcome Westporters. The official opening is tomorrow (Friday, April 29). There’s a ribbon-cutting (9:30 a.m.), and a weekend filled with balloons and face painting, coffee and treats from SoNo Baking, a gelato cart and more.

Westport watched warily as the Kemper-Gunn House was saved.  We watched with wonder as it was moved into the parking lot. We worried what would come next.

Now we know.

But don’t take my word for it. Check out the old/new building for yourself. See what a bit of vision and creativity can do to a place that — just a couple of years ago — seemed not only doomed, but haunted.

16 responses to “Serena & Lily Opens; Downtown Streetscape Changes

  1. Julie Fatherley

    A miraculous marriage of history and business. A model for other towns
    to emulate!

  2. Matthew Mandell

    Tomorrow will be a great moment for Westport and Downtown. It took a lot to move that house, it stood on a number of peoples’ shoulders, and the pain of the effort is only finally offset by standing there and seeing the finished product. Though watching it move that cold November day in 2014 was truly a marvel, it’s also hard to believe the first meeting took place in October of 2011.

    Early on it was Morley Boyd and Don Bergmann who pushed the concept forward. Dewey Loselle and Helen Garten joined on and were instrumental, as well as Jim Marpe who embraced the plan during the election and followed through. The RTM needs to take a bow when they unanimously overturned the prior P&Z’s denial of the move and gave it the momentum to succeed. And all through it David Waldman’s team was there to keep tweaking and offering options, thanks Rick Hoeg and Karen Johnson.

    Of course there were people who didn’t like it and still don’t and this solution is not perfect, but it says something about our Town, its fortitude and our commitment to do things special. 100 years from now when Kemper Gunn still stands. those people then will say, look at that she’s beautiful.

  3. Here is a link to a discussion of the Gunn House issue on 06880. Some individuals said something about “local”,”incubator” , “mom and pop”, and such. It would have been nice if those promises had been fulfilled.

    • Matthew Mandell

      Michael, I agree. That was part of the goal. Rules were created, as Dan mentioned, and they were followed, it did not work out as expected. But that should not diminish the results overall in terms of the house. And as I said, its not perfect, but what is? The rules do run with the house and it will be here for a long time.

    • Caroline Kelly

      No one is stopping you from opening a “mom and pop” shop and move into this old house. Although I am sure you know how hard it is to own and operate a successful mom and pop store.

  4. This story so gladdens my heart. I loved this line:

    “We’ve paid a lot of respect to the original architecture. But we’ve made it applicable to today’s living. We’ve tried to show we can blur the lines and evolve, in an honest way.”

    Congratulations and thank you!!!

  5. don l bergmann

    The effort and success so far of the Kemper-Gunn relocation, preservation and new birth is something for which many of us are proud. The “mom and pop” outcome has disappointed some and as usual Matt Mandell’s words capture the truth. The only shortcoming in Matt’s comments is his modesty. His words of credit to others selectively ignored the huge role he played.
    Don Bergmann

  6. This looks gorgeous! Kudos to everyone involved.

  7. Holly Wheeler

    Well done. Can’t wait till tomorrow.

  8. Proof that historic structures often have more to give. In this case, a portion of our community’s original streetscape was conserved in a way that is meaningful and productive. Something to bear in mind as we now begin the work of returning two empty, town-owned historic buildings in Barons South to service after nearly two decades of slumber. Cheers to all who helped push this project over the top.

  9. Agree that the building’s relocation and renovation is brilliant. Too bad that it’s just another shi shi national chain, and that it’s taking up a bunch of once-public parking spaces. I assume the public will be allowed to park in Bedford Square, but wonder how those high-paying retail tenants will react to non-shoppers parking there.

    • Petra Krause

      This brand is exactly a mom & pop … or rather a “mom & mom.” You should check out the founders’ story. Their wildly successful wholesale business turned into catalog business. Now they’ve opened their 4th retail location (so, hardly a chain) in our town and with it will come buyers from all over the county and likely neighboring counties. Spending their elsewhere in town as well. This is actually a great story so, so what if they aren’t historically local? They could have put their store–and paid their corporate tax dollars–in a million other places, but they chose Westport. Here’s an interview with one of the founders (which btw, took 2 seconds to look up):

  10. Frinstance, those simple square stools shown in the bottom picture are called “Dorset” and they cost, depending on fabric, from $695-$995 EACH! This for mass-produced furniture that most likely hails from Asia, and starts swaying after a couple of years.

  11. Remember when we had the W&J Sloane Furniture Clearance Center at Compo Shopping Center. Some of the stuff we bought there cost relatively little and lasted for decades.

  12. Megan Slingo

    While it may not be considered “Mom&Pop” I think this is close enough…and what they have done with that building is nothing short of a miracle…in the end it was saved…and it was preserved! The company seems to really get tying the old with the new…If this inspires one young couple to save a historic home..then it will be a WIN WIN! can’t wait to check it out, even if I can’t even afford a pillow let alone any furniture!

  13. Elaine Marino

    Could a “Mom & Pop” have afforded the extensive renovations? Renovations that retain the bones of an antique tend to be a lot more costly than simply tearing down and starting anew. We are fortunate to have a “newcomer” that was willing to make a substantial investment in the Kemper-Gunn house. Serena & Lily has helped to make our downtown more beautiful and more interesting. Welcome!