Interior designer Sara Story once thought it would take two years to renovate her country house in Snedens Landing, a hamlet in Palisades, New York, nearly 20km north of the George Washington Bridge to Manhattan. As work progressed on the historic home, she came to realise that she had committed to a four-year slog.

“You know that movie The Money Pit?” she asks. “That’s what I say to my contractor every time I see him.”

To be fair, it was an ambitious project from the outset. The house, an 8,000 sq ft mansion named Niederhurst that overlooks the Hudson River, had been built in 1874. It appeared to have slowly declined ever since, says Story. Some landscaping and mature trees were still in place, as was the original polychrome brickwork. 

Inside, Story notes, was a different matter. “Long story short, no one actually did anything bad to it. They just sort of neglected it over the years.”

The restoration of Niederhurst was completed by early 2016, in time for it to be featured in Architectural Digest. Since then, Story and her family have used the property as a weekend house, driving 35 minutes (50 minutes when traffic is slow) to spend time on the property, now 13 acres (5.3ha).

The problem, Story says, is that lately, she has been spending more time at her ranch in Texas. Concluding that it is time to sell, she has listed it with Ellis Sotheby’s International Realty for US$28.5 million ($38.5 million). “My husband is more torn about it,” she says. “I’m always ready for a new adventure.”

Restoring the house

Niederhurst, listed on the US National Register of Historic Places, was built by Winthrop S Gilman Jr, a banker and philanthropist. “I have the original drawings of the house, framed,” Story says. Gilman’s family held onto the property for years; Story recalls just two additional owners until she purchased it in 2011 for a reported US$4.35 million.

Story had been looking for a country house for about eight years: “The Hamptons, Connecticut — and we rented houses, but could never find something that was quite what we were looking for,” she says.

Then she visited the tiny community of Snedens Landing, just north of the New Jersey border and renowned for famous residents, to tour a house that dancer and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov had put on the market. “It wasn’t right for us,” Story says.

On a whim, her real-estate agent mentioned a semi-abandoned mansion on six nearby acres. “The front door was nailed shut. There was a big dumpster in front of it, and we kind of had to get in through the back, where there were mushrooms growing.”

Squeezing inside, they found a hand-crank elevator in the centre of the building — and a future home in serious need of care. “We got back in the car and were, like: That’s it,” Story recalls. “Let’s just bring it back to life.”

She hired the architect Dirk Denison to take on the heavy lifting. The basement floor was lowered with the help of jackhammers; structural elements were restored; modern comforts such as air-conditioning were installed; and the house became a gracious place for entertaining.

What’s inside

“I had been spending a lot of time in Copenhagen, so I was really inspired by the architecture and the old mansions there,” Story says. “There, the interiors are really light.”

In an effort to replicate that effect, she imported wide-plank, light-oak floors from Copenhagen and applied white plaster to the walls. “The plaster has a little bit of a sheen, so it reflects the natural sunlight,” she says. Much of the millwork is also light oak, and the illumination was sourced from northern Europe. “Everything is very light — pure and not ornate,” says Story.

The house totals eight bedrooms, seven full baths and two half-baths. The layout, Story says, remains essentially unchanged from when she found it.

“The first floor is all public: living room, family room, dining room, kitchen gallery and powder room,” she explains. After seeing unusual decor inside the restaurant Skopik & Lohn in Vienna, Story hired the same artist, Otto Zitko, to create a work for the dining room. 

“That mural is so amazing, because when you’re having a dinner party the whole room comes alive. It’s like there’s a whole other personality in the room,” she says. 

The second floor has a primary bedroom and bathroom, along with two studies and two large closets. The third floor, she continues, is for her children, with three bedrooms, three bathrooms and a playroom. The lowest level has an additional two bedrooms, a lounge, sauna, mechanical room and a separate kitchen.

Story’s family used Niederhurst, which has six fireplaces, as a four-season vacation house. In the winter, she says, “it’s so nice to go up there, light a fire and be out in nature”.

The home’s proximity to the city allowed for a nice mixture of day-trippers and weekend guests. “People could just Uber home,” Story says. “I had a bunch of bedrooms, but it was kind of nice that people could just come and go.”

The property

Soon after buying Niederhurst, Story bought a neighbouring property that she says was originally the caretaker’s home, but was sold off at some point. 

That house, dubbed Fern Lodge, came with converted stables and a barn, for a total of 5,700 sq ft of additional residential space. It added eight bedrooms and four bathrooms to the estate’s tally. She also bought a contiguous 4.5-acre vacant lot, bringing the property’s size to 13 acres.

Story moved the pool to the south side of the house and elevated it slightly so she could see the Hudson River while swimming. She planted formal flower gardens, added hardscaping in the form of patios and terraces, and installed a gravel driveway with ample space for parking. The rolling lawns are perfect for soccer.

“We put so much work into the house,” Story says. “It’s ready to go.”


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