A Rose-Covered, Rambling Original

Defined by Reclaimed Pine and Vibrant Fabrics
Climbing roses almost conceal the main house, left, and the guesthouse. Photographs by Durell Godfrey

The house shared by Liz Robbins, a well-known Washington lobbyist, and her husband, Doug Johnson, a former news anchor for WABC-TV, reveals itself gradually. Though in the estate area of the Village of East Hampton, it isn’t visible from the street, hidden not by manicured hedges but by a profusion of shrubbery and trees. A short gravel drive leads to an inauspicious parking area. The front door is all but hidden by climbing roses, which cover the shingled facade and were in bloom on a recent visit. The house is reminiscent of a bucolic English cottage.

“There’s no place to get a complete picture of the outside,” Ms. Robbins said. “It’s not a big mansion, but rather more of a rambling house.” Only by moving through it does one discover more usable living space than the exterior suggests, including nine bedrooms, a spacious kitchen area, a screening room, and a gym. This is not a show house; rather, every area looks lived in.

Ms. Robbins and Mr. Johnson bought the property in 2006. The original structure had two wings to which a great room had been added in 1970. Standing in the kitchen, Ms. Robbins said, “The only thing we didn’t take down was the great room. We took down this wing and the bedroom wing, built a basement, then went all the way up with high ceilings in each room, while keeping within the footprint.”
They worked with David Tosher, an East Hampton design consultant who partners with an engineer. Mr. Tosher was responsible for the floor plan, layout, and fenestration.  “I knew what I wanted, and he got it done. I also had an indoor team of fabulous carpenters and painters. As soon as the outdoors was finished, they were working inside,” she said. Charles Kesson oversaw the furniture and paneling.

One enters into a spacious foyer that opens into the great room with a high, pitched ceiling. To one side is the kitchen wing, “where we live.” It contains a long work area whose cabinets and refrigerators are faced with repurposed pine, and a stainless steel sink and counter reclaimed from an old restaurant. Ms. Robbins found all the salvaged materials. “Designing is what I like,” she said. “I like to put stuff together in space.”

The kitchen proper opens into what is essentially another great room, with beams fashioned from old railroad ties, massive wooden breakfronts, a dining table, comfortable seating, and French doors that open onto a brick patio. Pointing out the two breakfronts, Ms. Robbins said, “I like to cut up pieces of furniture and put them together. That bottom went with that top.” A concealed wall of folding doors designed by Mr. Tosher can be opened to separate the kitchen from the rest of the space when the hosts are entertaining.

The dominant elements of the house are wood, much of it pine reclaimed from an old sunken barge, and fabrics from old furniture, including kitchen curtains, and quilts used as tablecloths, slip covers, or hung on walls. “The fabrics are my favorite part,” Ms. Robbins said. “So much of the furniture is old or secondhand,” she said.

The second floor master bedroom was expanded significantly from the original. “We took off the roof, went up high, built it back up, and wherever setbacks would allow us to go a little wider, we did. We put in all the windows. What I like about this room is that when you get up in the morning, you’re in the trees.” Some of the pieces consist of cabinets that were reconfigured using other pieces. Two antique glass-paneled doors lead from the bedroom to the bath. “Bar” is etched on one; “Restaurant” on the other. A vanity was made from the bottom of one of the original house’s kitchen cabinets.

Posters, photographs, and artworks fill the walls throughout the house. Two drawings by John Alexander are in the entry hall, opposite a photograph by Linda McCartney of Paul McCartney and two of their children cavorting on their farm in Scotland. Frames were made from recycled wood. While there is not a lot of empty wall space, nothing seems cluttered.

The fabrics, wallpaper, furniture, color schemes, and architectural details complement one another, and the transitions from low to high-ceilinged spaces make moving through the rooms a constantly changing experience.

Steps lead down from the entry hall to a small kitchen area, through which one passes into the original basement, which was a “leaky, concrete yuk,” according to Ms. Robbins. The ceiling was raised and carpeting and paneling added to transform it into a screening and music room, with the kind of comfortable upholstered furniture found elsewhere in the house.

The rest of the basement level is new. There is a gym and a passage that leads to an outdoor pool, as well as a large storage area with a woodworking shop. The passage, lined with towels and flip-flops, suggests that comfort and convenience have been anticipated and accommodated. “I wanted the basement to look like a cabana,” Ms. Robbins said, and with white walls and wainscoting, pale blue-and-white runners on the white floor, and white wicker pieces, she has succeeded.

A few feet from the entrance to the main house is the guesthouse, which formerly was a garden shed. The ceiling was raised, the walls paneled, and French doors added that open to a mature apple orchard, one of the many striking areas of the almost two-acre property.
Adjacent to the parking area is a small garage that is also a “party house.” While two vehicles can be parked inside, the space can be cleared out to seat 100 for dinner. Large sliding screen doors allow the wooden garage doors to be opened during the summer and on one side it also opens onto the orchard.

While it looks like it was original to the site, the garage was new and designed by Mr. Tosher. “The idea is for everything to look as if it has been here,” Ms. Robbins said. Turning from the garage to the rose-covered west facade of the house, she added, “I like flowers. I think they make all the difference.”

There are a number of 25-year-old Rose of Sharon trees, some of which came from the couple’s former house on Two Mile Hollow Lane in East Hampton. On the east side of the property, soaring trees provide a shady outdoor area that is also used for entertaining.
It’s something of a paradox that a property so tranquil, a house so unassuming, can host 250 people, as it did a few days before Chelsea Clinton’s wedding to Marc Mezvinsky. Ms. Robbins and Mr. Johnson are, indeed, public figures, but as he watched a match at Wimbledon in a comfortable TV room and she showed this visitor around in bare feet and casual clothing, one felt worlds away from limousines and A-list celebrities.

The great room in the former house, seen from the hall, was retained. Below, the great room’s large windows look out at a grove of shade trees.
A massive breakfront, like other pieces in the house, consists of repurposed sections of different furniture.
Wooden doors above the fireplace in the sitting room off the entry hall conceal a television.
A comfortable guest bedroom has its own sitting area.
A view of the master bedroom, which is in the new part of the house, reflects a love of fabrics.
Touches of blue brighten the kitchen, paneling conceals the refrigerator and freezer, and a hidden folding door can close the kitchen off from the dining room.Photographs by Durell Godfrey