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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.