AP NEWS

Fairfield house a showpiece once again

March 21, 2019

FAIRFIELD — When Terry and Anne Willie bought the house at 1555 Burr St. in 1997, it had been vacant for two years. The house had fallen into disrepair, as its previous owners had gotten frail and less able to take care of it.

By the time the Willies — who hail from England, but had been living in America — drove by the house, the land had been purchased by a developer, and there were plans to knock down the house and its outbuildings.

But the Willies saw more than a doomed, deteriorating home. They saw the majestic estate it once was, back when it housed members of the Burr family throughout most of the 1800s. And they saw a place that needed their help.

“We pulled into the driveway and we decided this was the house we were going to buy,” Terry Willie said.

Eventually, the Willies bought the house, known as Burrwood House, and 2.3 acres of the surrounding property (part of an original parcel of 15 acres) from the developer. They made an agreement with the town that they would preserve the house and wouldn’t change its footprint while they lived there.

But restoring the Greek Revival structure to its old glory was a challenge. It was, Terry said “utterly crumbling. The paint was peeling off the walls. The curtains were threadbare. There were holes in the ceiling.”

Anne said everyone knew restoring the house would be an uphill battle. “People started telling us about this American movie ‘The Money Pit,’ ” she said, referencing the 1986 comedy starring Tom Hanks and Shelley Long as a couple that buys a home in need of seemingly endless renovation. “They started leaving VHS copies of it at the house.”

“I refuse to watch it,” Terry said. “It would be too painful.”

Still, they both knew the project would be worth it.

“The bones of the house were stunning,” Terry said.

Their instincts paid off. A little more than 20 years after the Willies bought it, the 4,698-square-foot home — which town records say was built in 1819 — is a local showpiece once again.

The property is steeped in local history, largely through its connection to the Burr family, for which Burr Street is named. In a history written about the property for the Smithsonian Institute, the Willies said the home was built by Lewis Burr, a seventh-generation Burr who had been gifted the land by his father, Ebenezer.

“It was a really prosperous working farm,” complete with oxen, sheep and other animals, Terry Willie said.

The home passed to members of the Burr family until the mid-1940s, when it was bought by Mather and Elizabeth “Betty” Whitehead. Betty was the granddaughter of August Uihlein, then owner of Schlitz Brewing Co.

“They were sort of in ‘The Great Gatsby’ style,” Terry Willie said. “The neighbors said they had these epic parties.”

After the Whiteheads died, the home sat empty until the Willies came. They began their renovation of the property with its gardens, which were badly overgrown. Diseased or dying plants were removed and the gardens were re-designed to be a combination of American and English style. Terry also began building stone walls around the property.

Eventually, the inside was refurbished, getting a paint job, a new roof, and new shutters. Interior rooms were reshaped and modernized. But the Willies were careful to maintain the integrity of their historic home.

Original windows were kept wherever possible. Beautiful glass embellishments (likely from the home’s Whitehead era, Terry said) remained on the staircase. Original flooring was kept where possible, as were many architectural details.

The house has four bedrooms, three and a half baths, and several outbuildings, including a greenhouse that has been converted to a space for entertaining.

Despite all the work they put into it, the Willies have listed the home for sale. It’s listed at $2.15 million with Michelle & Company.

“We’re getting older and sort of rattling around in this house,” Terry Willie said.

However, he said he and Anne are looking for “the right buyer,” and won’t sell until they find them.

“We’re not in a hurry,” he said.