With charming fabrics and a deference to the past, designer Kathryn M. Ireland transitions a fabled Cape Cod estate from one notable American family to another.
KATE BETTS: Wow, this historic property is set on 26 acres of Cape Cod waterfront — and it has a storied social connection.
KATHRYN M. IRELAND: Yes, it was Bunny Mellon's house. She had many residences, of course, but this was one of her favorites. The house sits on a private peninsula and looks out over the sound, so it's completely protected. The surrounding landscape is wild, except for the gardens, of course.
Is this what you would call a "classic Cape"?
Not really. The Mellons built it in the 1940s. It's actually quite a big house, but somehow it still feels like a rambling cottage — charming, intimate, and totally unpretentious. This is where the Mellons would host family and friends. Jack and Jackie Kennedy would come here when they were on the Cape, getting away from Washington. Bunny would have Noël Coward over and whomever else she thought might be fun for Jack to meet.
It has several guesthouses, too, and greenhouses, and beautiful formal gardens. But it certainly doesn't look grand. It looks very comfortable.
The charm of it is these wonderful, unassuming-sized rooms. The house is rather modest in a way. It's shaped like a horseshoe, and the rooms, even though they're small, have great proportions, which is what I fell in love with. You walk onto a property like this, and you are struck by the love and the attention that the past owner brought to it.
Who are the new owners?
Bridget Koch and her husband, Bill. She's a Rooney — her grandfather founded the Pittsburgh Steelers — and she has two sisters, Kathleen Mara, who is the mother of actresses Kate and Rooney Mara, and Maggie. Their mother, June Rooney, is a great beauty. They're kind of the modern American version of the Mitford sisters — they're all such fun. They love to laugh.
These days, decorators find clients everywhere, including on TV and social media. Isn't that how you met?
Yes! Kathleen is a fan of Bravo's Million Dollar Decorators, and she was following me on and saw me post "Designer boot camp starts Thursday." So she called Bridget, who was on the golf course, and said, "Wouldn't this be fun to do as a family outing?" They asked if four of them could sign up, but we didn't have room. So we did a private boot camp with Maggie, Kathleen, June, and Bridget. Bridget had just bought this house. She hadn't realized how many rooms there were to decorate, so she finally came out and said, "Can you pull this together for me and make everything look fabulous?"
What were some Mellon touches you kept?
I believe that when you buy a house, you have to respect its past, and we wanted to show that we could totally respect the previous owners. For example, Bunny always had a tiny table in the window for her and Paul. So we have a small table by a window in the dining room. All the painted floors are original, and they are ravishing, especially in the hallway, which we kept intact. And we left the kitchen practically untouched.
What about some of the furnishings? Did they come with the house?
Some of Bunny's baskets and the odd piece of furniture were left in the house, and we kept those. There were also some sofas and upholstered pieces that were just too big to fit through the tiny old doorframes, so it was easier to keep and re-cover them. We bought pieces where it was necessary, like in the living room, where we needed new upholstered furniture. But most of the furnishings are from the owners' storage facilities. They had furniture from various houses, and I just picked stuff. I found the beautiful Gustavian chairs we used in the dining room in storage, but there was no dining table, so I had one made at Lief in Los Angeles. Then we had these wonderful rag rugs custom made in Sweden by Vandra Rugs. They are marvelous — you can order them in any color, and they're very durable and easy to clean. Bridget bought the house for entertaining friends and family, so we really emphasized comfort and ease, with places to read and relax.
The paint colors seem to match the summer light on the Cape, which is beautiful. Did you introduce any new colors here?
We wanted to resurrect Bunny's old paint colors — that sort of blue-gray, almost like an English sky on a good day. She loved strié, which is the paint technique when you take the paintbrush and drag it from top to bottom to form lines.
How did you get that very airy feeling in the living room?
One of my favorite films of all time is The Great Gatsby — particularly that scene out by the pool with the billowing curtains. So we made those sheers with one of my Scalamandré fabrics. It has a little bit of raffia in it, but it's sheer. You open the doors to the porch, and the wind comes in, and everything is billowing around. It's magical.
This story originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of Natipernavigare.