Written By Theresa St. John, photos by Randall Perry Photography
I’m on my way to a sprawling estate in Saratoga. “Look for the big gray barns with blue roofing on the left – you can’t miss us.”
Man – Arthur Zobel and Ginny Brandreth are telling the truth. The gorgeous barns are off to one side, their roof the striking color of classic blue skies overhead.
The couple greets me in the driveway, a rambunctious puppy having fun digging in the dirt at their feet. We stand next to an impressive home built in the late 1700s, expanded in the 1800s, and renovated in the 1990s.
“Believe it or not,” they tell me, “we were in the market for an old barn we could convert into our living space. We’d been out scouting the area every chance we could, confident our dream project was out there. We just had to find it.”
Arthur is the owner of Zobel & Co. Kitchens – an award-winning kitchen design partner to builders and homeowners alike. His company believes every home is a sanctuary, its heartbeat the kitchen.
With over 40 years of design expertise under his belt, Arthur and Ginny were confident this was just what they had been looking to buy.
Ginny looks over at Arthur, grinning. “The funny thing is that he fell in love with this property and wanted to put an offer on it, while I had my eye on another place and told him I wanted to put a bid on that.”
The couple decided whichever seller bit first, they’d seal the deal right then and there.
Ginny’s seller didn’t even acknowledge her offer. Arthur’s seller accepted his. And there you have it - the home, which had been vacant for about five years, along with three acres of land became their own.
The 1800's kitchen with the Rumford-style fireplace now serves as a cozy dining room
We enter through the front door, and I catch my breath. The home was built by/for John T. Livingston – a member of one of the most prominent families in the settling Albany county. Here, in the original front section, the ceilings are 10-feet high, the floors made from warm-toned, 6-inch milled pine, and one of the doorways’ construction features exposed millwork – all signs of a well-to-do owner.
I was under the impression I’d be visiting a farmhouse. Ginny explains they believe the majestic home is, instead, a Georgian Colonial – due to the high ceilings, symmetrical layout, chimneys on both ends, triangle block on the front porch, and decorative design of brackets on the staircase leading to the 2nd floor.
“The Livingstons were wealthy merchants, rather than farmers,” she tells me. My eyes try to take everything in during those first few moments. “The farm came about in the 1800s when the Brisbin family lived here. We believe they added the second section of the house, with lower ceilings and hand-hewn rather than milled woodwork, sometime after 1811 when James Brisbin, Jr. bought it. Besides that, experts note the barn’s construction is from that period, not before.”
I admire the gold-framed portraits and landscapes hanging on the walls of the home. Ginny explains how most of the artwork is from her family – there was a terrible fire that destroyed most of Arthur’s historical pieces.
Arthur hands me a steaming-hot cup of coffee and explains that they both love antiques, which I can see as we wander in and out of each room.
The downstairs bathroom showcases an antique sink they discovered in the barn. It’s an early 20th Century cast iron lavatory sink by Standard with heavy-duty decorative detail. Because the exterior is so decorative, it’s meant to be exposed. Arthur had fun designing the vanity surrounding it.
There are two large rooms in the front end of the house – one on either side of the staircase, with a smaller one behind them. The master and guest bedrooms are upstairs, where the layout is the same. Can I tell you – the tastefully designed closets and bathrooms are to die for?!
Natural light floods the entire area of both floors, streaming in from numerous windows.
“Even as we decided to move walls or doors around, we were already envisioning where we could repurpose windows someplace else in the home,” Arthur states with a smile. “Why throw them away – the older ones are beautiful.” Ginny has fun pointing out different places in the house where they did just that.
When they pull out an old weathered album, and I begin to turn the pages, I’m amazed at past owners, how meticulous they were in chronicling work done on the house in the 1990s using photo essays. For instance, I can see the old bee-hive oven in one image, in what once was the 1800’s ‘summer kitchen’ and Arthur is quick to point out it still works, that they use it often as a pizza oven.
The open area here in the kitchen is impressive; everywhere I turn, there’s something I want to study.
Let’s mention the wicked cool backsplash tiles on one wall, fashioned from 50 million-year-old fish fossils embedded in the surface.
Once the door to the stove that heated a large copper pot that served as the 1800's hot water heater next to the bee-hive oven - now is the focal point of the back splash.
Or, how about the nearly 12-foot-long gleaming wood dining table set in the great room, an inviting place to sit and relax for a while. The open design encourages people to unwind in the living room, talking with others preparing a meal in the kitchen.
Gorgeous cabinets and drawers open with the slightest touch. There’s a place for everything at your fingertips. Tucked into one corner, I can’t help but admire the built-in bar. I could go on and on and on. Suffice to say, if this couple dreamt it – Arthur designed it and made it happen.
One of my favorite places is up a curving flight of stairs. A bedroom and sitting room overlook the kitchen. Two beds wait for the kids to come home to visit, and a comfy space invites Ginny to practice yoga.
My other favorite place is off the kitchen itself.
“I always wanted a butler’s pantry,” Ginny tells me, sighing with delight. As soon as her husband heard the words, he started planning the perfect room for her. We walk into a long, narrow space, and I’m in awe.
They get a kick out of my reaction.
Seriously - everything you can think of is in there; from cabinets to a sink to the gleaming refrigerator, a place for silverware and open shelves for Ginny’s china sets, to exposed beams that showcase the age and craftsmanship in building the home.
There’s even a corner specifically designed to hold heavy cast iron pots, pans, and skillets often used in cooking.
Ginny walks me through one room and says,” Go ahead, run your hands along the wall.” I do. I cannot describe how smooth the walls are. I have felt plaster before, but it’s usually rough. Not this. Soft as a baby’s bottom? Yes!
Which brings us back to the album. The album chronicles the extensive renovations the Riebels did in the early 1990s. They gutted the walls down to the studs and
re-plastered them, updated the electric and plumbing, added a great room, and re-roofed and re-sided the property’s barns.
50 million year old fossil tiles make the bar a conversation piece.
In one photo, a young man and woman stand at the top of the stairs. The man is Jim Post, a master at plastering. Jim and Petra, his girlfriend at the time, straightened walls and ceilings, utilizing the art of veneer plaster both up and downstairs.
“We were surprised to look through these pages and find Jim’s picture,” Ginny states. “I tracked him down, thrilled to meet with him and talk about plaster. It was great to speak with someone who’d done so much work on our home.”
“It took us a good year to complete our work,” Jim tells me when I catch up to him on the phone. “I was proud of this job, as it was one of the first big jobs I’d done on my own.”
“How’d you two meet?” I ask Arthur and Ginny, who share a grin at the question. Speaking of heartwarming love stories…
“Arthur is a close friend of my first cousin,” Ginny smiles as she tells me this sweet anecdote. “He and his girls would come to our family camp in the Adirondacks every summer. The girls, especially the two youngest, became great friends.
“After his wife passed, Arthur invited me on a date, out of the blue. My answer was a resounding NO!”
Arthur chuckles. “But, I’m persistent.”
They look at each other, grinning before they continue.
“We took all four girls on a trip to Maine. At breakfast that first morning, they had an announcement for us.”
‘We’ve decided where we’re going for the honeymoon.’
The antique sink, a wedding present, sits on a counter made of a 1700's wall section; ceiling mounted drying rack takes advantage of the ceiling height.
The Arthur-designed vanity showcases the beautiful historic sink found in the barn.
Bathroom in the guest suite with soaking tub.
I find myself laughing out loud. “That must have been interesting.”
“What?!?,” Arthur reiterates their long-ago sentiment. “That’s what our reaction was.”
“Yeah, you’re going to get married, and we’re all going on the honeymoon so we can keep bonding.”
That conversation happened about three years before Arthur proposed, and Ginny accepted. “We’re so grateful that the girls continue to be very close.”
“Here’s the thing,” Arthur finishes our interview back in the kitchen. “All of this?” he spreads his arms to encompass their home. My eyes wander around once more, taking it all in, this breath of fresh air that’s moved over the centuries with such grace. “Every owner has been the caretaker for the next generation, leaving their mark and personality on the house and farm. Now it’s our turn, simple as that.”
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