In Style
Mar. 2001
Let It Be: That was Isabella Rossellini's mantra when she went about transforming a 150-year-old barn and six lush surrounding acres into a plain-spun rural retreat.

Isabella Rossellini fell for the place the minute she saw it, though it took all her powers of imagination to envision the tumbledown barn as a potential rural getaway. Built sometime around the middle of the 19th century, it stood on six acres of overgrown land on the eastern end of Long Island, N.Y., uncared-for, unclaimed and unwanted. "I'm sure that I was Roman in a previous life, because I like ruins," says Rossellini with a lusty laugh. "The house looked like ruins, the garden looked like ruins, and I loved it."

Wearing a Dolce & Gabbana leopard-print sweater under a loose Shanghai Tang black silk jacket, Rossellini, 48, has today laid claim to a choice banquette at Sant Ambroeus, an Upper East Side restaurant and pasticceria that's a little piece of Milan on Madison Avenue. A bowl of her favorite minestrone keeps the winter chill at bay, as does a chance to conjure up the home that, with plenty of hard work and an unwavering vision, became a funky yet sublime retreat for the actress and her family.

Bellport, a virtual daguerreotype of clapboard houses, picket fences and outlying farmland abutting the Great South Bay, has long had a special resonance for Rossellini. "The first time I went up there was in 1981," she remembers. "I was working with the photographer Bruce Weber, who had a barn there. We did some test shots at his place, and those eventually got me the Lancome campaign. And then [photographer] Steven Meisel took a house there. I have always associated Bellport with friends." She bought her first home there not long after that initial visit, when she was gaining fame for the scores of magazine covers she graced, not to mention her pedigree as the daughter of Swedish-born actress Ingrid Bergman and Italian film writer-director Roberto Rossellini. Once she saw her acting career--which has included everything from conventional Hollywood movies (Cousins, White Nights) to more avant-garde efforts (Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart)--take off in 1985, Rossellini came to cherish her time spent in the village. ("It can be magical in winter too, when the light reflects across the snow.") In 1996 she sold the old place in order to spend more time abroad with daughter Elettra, 17 (by a former husband, Jonathan Wiedemann), and adopted son Roberto, 7. Within a year, having stepped down as the face of Lancome after a 14-year stint, she again felt the call of Bellport. It's a convenient commute (an hour and a half on the train from her home in Manhattan; Rossellini doesn't drive) for her, the kids and her ever expanding pack of dogs that includes a stray named Pikachu, a dachshund called Ziggy and a Jack Russell terrier, which she has dubbed her Jack Rossellini.

She didn't look at any other properties; the barn won her over from the start. "It reminded me of houses in Sweden--it had a simple, practical, almost frugal style," she says. The challenge, though: how to convert it into a livable house without losing the rustic feel. "There were different loft areas for hay," she explains. "Obviously Roberto would climb everywhere and fall, so"--and this is where being Isabella Rossellini helped--"I called the Big Apple Circus in New York, and they put up acrobat nets everywhere. Now he can jump as much as he likes." But she refrained from making any major structural changes. "There is nothing that would take away from the original building. It has pretty much remained the same."

The natural, no-frills approach extends to the way she has furnished the house. Recycling produced many of the home's key pieces--whether they were rescued while excavating the grounds (such as the old tin bath that she found, cleaned up and brought into the present day by having plumbing attached) or discovered at a flea market (the Kashmir paisley shawls that now act as curtains). Some came from more unusual sources: The wrought-iron bed frame in one of the guest rooms started life as a pair of small gates decorating a church.

Rossellini's triumph, however, just might be the garden. She believed it shouldn't lose the character that 30 or more years of neglect had imbued it with. So twigs were woven into fences and tree branches were cut to form a canopy over an outdoor table. She enlisted the help of Swedish landscape architect Lars Krantz to help her achieve her vision, and she knew she had chosen the right man for the job when he came to visit her in Bellport. "When he arrived, Lars said the magic words: 'I have to listen to the garden.' I was intrigued." She laughs, then continues her story. "He told me, 'I don't want to cut down a tree that's a favorite of a bird that sings a pretty song.' I would see him just sitting in the garden, listening to it. It was our way of working with it." The garden has even informed her new fragrance line, Manifesto (also the name of her cosmetics line). "The scent's top note is basil, which I grow there," she says. "It's a smell everyone likes but associates with cooking. I'm taking basil from the kitchen to the ball!" If that sounds unexpected, so is the philosophy behind the line. "I'm not interested in setting unattainable standards of beauty," she declares. "I'm encouraging women to work with what they have--not to wish for something they don't."

Working with what she had was certainly how she hoped to create this haven. "It was difficult for me to persuade the decorators not to paint over the barn," she recalls. "I think it takes a European eye. But since we've worked at this, the carpenters, the painters--now they love it." Sometimes Rossellini is tempted to make concessions to convenience, but she almost always defaults to "do not disturb" mode. "There are huge doors that close the barn, and someone suggested I put in an automatic door. But I like to take that moment, that 30 seconds, to close the door. It's a gesture to something that has been done for hundreds of years. I'm following in the footsteps of others." In some ways Rossellini inhabits the house much as those enchanting songbirds do the birch and cedar trees outside it. "I love that the house is part of an ever evolving landscape," she says, "and that I'm leaving a trace of myself, enriching its layers."

-- Mark Holgate
Below are photos from this article; click on thumbnail for larger photo.

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