Interior designer Caroline Diani and actor/writer Jeffrey Doornbos adopt and adapt a 1752 stone house in Germantown
Actor and writer Jeffrey Doornbos is standing in the living room of the 18th-century stone house he shares with his wife, clothing and home retailer and interior designer Caroline Diani. Under his feet, ancient wide-plank chestnut floorboards stretch throughout the entire main floor, skirting a brick fireplace blackened from centuries of usage and large enough to prop up a spit for roasting small game. Venetian plaster walls, punctuated by small, deep-set, chestnut-framed windows illuminate the cozy sitting area and offer views to the surrounding six acres of gardens, fields, and barn. Above, hand-hewn beams and a wood ceiling resemble the rich toffee brown hues of the chestnut floor and suggest the entire parlor was carved from the same tree—or stand of trees—gracing the property three centuries ago. In the two years since Diani and Doornbos bought their 1752 stone house, multiple experts have come through, weighing in on the restoration of the landmark property, offering advice, history lessons, and a welcome to the couple's new neighborhood on the east bank of the Hudson River.
An eclectic blend of 20th-century pieces fill the home’s living room to create a space that’s both elegant and comfortable. A mid-century Italian brass floor lamp faces an Indian wedding chest in the corner of the room. A mix of sofa and chairs face the original brick fireplace, carefully repaired by a local stone mason and now in working order.
Doornbos remembers carpenter Dan Dudley explaining the significance of the main floor's construction. (Downstairs, a more informal living space—with a concrete floor, rough-cut beams, and another very, very blackened stone fireplace—was probably once used for daily living, the upstairs parlor would have been reserved for entertaining company.) Dudley was drawn to the main room's floor boards almost immediately and explained that planks that large must have come from the middle of an old tree. "He told me they must have been the result of a windfall," Doornbos explains. "I knew the term—a windfall: like, suddenly you get a bunch of cash. But he explained to me: When a storm would blow through these parts, it would take down whole trees and people would have so much wood they wouldn't know what to do with it. The storms created a surplus—a literal windfall of wood. It was like 'congratulations!' But then they had to figure out
something to build with it."
This sort of historic tidbit is indicative of the new, old world Doornbos and Diani are uncovering as they undertake the "slow remodel" of their three-bedroom, three-bath home. "It's been like peeling an onion," Doornbos explains. Built by German Palatine immigrants for English settlers in the Dutch style, the home was one of the earliest European homesteads in the colony. Their time on the East Coast, and the opportunity to honor and preserve the home's history while updating it for comfort, has provided both husband and wife with the opportunity for some personal remodeling as well, and the beginning of a new creative chapter in each of their lives.
Designer Caroline Diani in the dining room of her 18th-century stone house. Refurbishing the historic property has stoked her creative fire. Here she’s surrounded a French draper’s table with antique chairs, all from the 19th century; the fireplace features 17th-century French andirons.
East Coast, West Coast Divide
The term "windfall" is apt. It well describes how Diani and Doornbos found their way from California to their new passion project, and the area they are falling for much more quickly than was expected. An English native, Diani has been living in Santa Barbara since 1999, when she took a gamble on a historic storefront and turned it into a row of successful clothing, shoe, and now home decor boutiques, and her thriving business, DIANI Living. This was no small feat in a town where real estate prices are some of the highest in the country and storefront businesses burn out almost as quickly as the hillsides. But by 2015, Diani was ready for a new creative challenge. "I came to a point where I asked myself, do I really want the next decade to look just like the last one?" She was already spending large amounts of time in New York City on buying trips, and became curious about the general vicinity.
Doornbos had a similar longing to go East. A Michigan native, he'd lived in New York City for 15 years where he attended acting school and became one of the original cast members of the Blue Man Group. Los Angeles, and the chance to be a part of the film industry, had called to him and he relocated to the West Coast where he eventually met and married Diani and moved into their home in the Santa Barbara hills. While both love Santa Barbara, and are grateful to the community and the opportunity to build thriving careers in the area, they simultaneously began longing for a return to their roots. "We missed the seasons," Diani explains. "And I wanted to be somewhere more like my native England." Doornbos agreed, explaining, "we had this run of 103-degree days—it was like it would never stop."
Jeffrey Doornbos with a vintage record player, owned by the home’s previous occupant and then bought back by the couple from a local antique store.
So, one very hot autumn night the couple reached a breaking point. While Doornbos was out, Diani got online and googled "historic house" and "New York," stumbling right onto the property's listing. When Doornbos returned home that night she shared her find: He was immediately intrigued. Doornbos suggested they go see it; Diani said she'd already booked tickets. The two flew out the next weekend, knowing the home was about two hours outside of New York City, but not much else about the area. After their realtor gave them a tour and some private time to walk the grounds, Diani asked her husband, "So, do you love it?" He looked back at the house and replied, "I feel like I never left. It really feels like we are home." Diani felt the same way. The two went in to confirm a meeting with the realtor for the next day. But there was just one last detail: "Uh, where are we?" asked the couple.
Doornbos and Diani enjoying a Hudson Valley summer day. The outdoor table features a marble top and metal side chairs.
One of the home’s three bedrooms, decorated with linens from DIANI Living. Diani founded and runs a suite of clothing and interior design shops in Santa Barbara, California with correlating online shops DIANI Living and DIANI Boutique.
Although a 1950s addition, the downstairs kitchen incorporates original pieces from the home's early days. White cabinetry and wood countertops provide ample space for meal preparation and are well positioned under windows with views of the grounds. White interior shutters swing down to preserve heat in the winter and period brick floors complete the space. A large wooden hutch, an original piece transplanted from another area of the house, takes up an entire wall, providing storage.
Upstairs, the home's three bedrooms are already very livable. Understated and cozy, both rooms have white planked walls, large interior shutters and stained wood flooring. The couple hopes to remove a large mirror lining the narrow hallway ("A gift of the 1970s," Doornbos speculates) and remove an interior wall to reveal the original bluestone construction behind. After that, the couple will replace the home's roof and seal up the third-floor attic, transforming the space into a master bedroom suite.
For now, though, they are relishing every step of the process, savoring the chance to get to know their new home, and the new creative directions it has spurred in each of their lives. Rediscovering his love of live theater, Doornbos has become involved with a writing group in Tivoli and found his newfound love of the region paralleled by his discovery of its theater scene. "It's all about community and feeling a part of something, regardless of your position in it. In a theater production you can be 'third spear carrier on the left' and you're still there for the rehearsal process and the performances—you're a part of the family."
Diani has loved the challenge of restoring and redecorating the historic property—a balance between staying true to the home's integrity and tradition while updating it to be livable in the modern age. "I like to take time to be really connected to the space that I'm designing," she explains. "I feel like it's almost a spiritual journey that can't be hurried. I like to listen to a room." Diani admits that she's very partial to historic homes and has already designed interiors for a few historic West Coast properties. She hopes her time in the Hudson Valley will provide new opportunities to bring her deft touch for comfort to other historic properties. About their beloved new house, they both take the long view: "We just want to caretake it and usher it into the next 250 years."