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Secrets in house, garden

Couple trim, tuck, mold home to style


By Cheryl Dorschner, Free Press Correspondent • July 12, 2008

SOUTH BURLINGTON -- Her husband affably calls her the "Constant Gardener."

A better moniker might be the "Perpetual Decorator" and "Furnisher of Foolery."


Visitors to Tracy and Rick Kozlowski's home and gardens during the Flynn Garden Tour on Sunday will find out why.

The Kozlowski family's caramel-colored cape house on Victoria Drive is small -- only about four rooms downstairs and as many upstairs. A postage-stamp front yard fits just two bermed perennial flower beds and a front gate.

"I don't need more space than this. More space means more work," Rick says.

That's this home's beauty -- its ability to make the most of every morsel of space, offbeat creativity and finesse with a French theme. Tracy's vision comes to life through Rick's master carpentry and her trompe l'oeil finishes.

"If I can't have a little cottage in Provence, I can have this," Tracy says with a gesture.

The house

When she, an interior decorator, and he, an attorney, moved from Boston to Mayfair Park neighborhood 16 years ago, the house interior included knotty pine walls and kitchen cabinets that "when you closed one door, three would open," recalls Tracy. They chose the neighborhood for its wide range of ages that foster community; they chose the house for its potential. Initially, Tracy parlayed her former career as an art director into that of photo shoot stylist, with clients such as Gardener's Supply Co. and Orvis.

"People often asked if they could buy the props, or they'd say, 'Don't put (the furniture) back;'" that led to my decorating homes," Tracy recounts the origins of her business, Style by Tracy.

Meanwhile, the couple raised two daughters and set about improving their lot.

Today the dining room walls glow with anaglypta (wallpaper-like textured material) in blues and golds, and the 10-by-13-foot galley kitchen has everything within reach. Scrounged collectibles, such as library card-catalog drawers and antique knobs from French windows, make the design original.

In the adjacent study, nothing is as it appears -- even the name "study." Richly dark custom-paneled walls belie secrets, mind-tickles and the so-called "slow reveal." This is actually the couple's bedroom! Bed? Closet? Bathroom? They're all there -- somewhere, behind the panels! Even the fireplace hides a television. Every night they slide the two leather chairs and a table-cart over to the writing desk and pull down the Murphy bed.

No, Tracy did not earn her decorating degree at the "Institute of Interior Illusion," instead, she says she's inspired by the secret passageways of her childhood home in Rochester, N.Y. -- once part of the Underground Railroad, the informal network of safe houses where American slaves stayed as they traveled to free states during early to mid 1800s.

Building a family room addition in 1991 gave Tracy and Rick one more chance to show her creativity and his building skills. Where one woman sees only concrete garden statuary at a roadside business, Tracy saw pillars to cut vertically and flank a fireplace. Where one woman shops secondhand book sales for summer reading, Tracy bought complete sets of old books, cut the spines about an inch deep and fastened them to cabinet doors so faux bookshelves hid the electronics systems. Travertine marble windowsills are deep and surrounded by dramatic wide molding crafted by Rick and finished by Tracy.

While he downplays his contributions in the decorating duo, Rick does note that custom designs aren't for everyone. "She always has ideas that you can't just go to the store and buy. Instead of taking 30 minutes, a project takes 30 hours."

The gardens

When Kozlowski's arrived in 1992 the half acre lot "resembled a mud field, after a good rain," Rick says.

Studying that water flow, Tracy figured she'd work with nature: adding pea-stone paths wherever the water ran, building raised beds elsewhere to hold gardens. First, the couple built two black-latticed fenced gardens using the house as the fourth wall. Between the two, they built a patio for a dining table, grill and etageres chock full of potted plants and "eye catchers" -- potted passion flower, big brass picnic ants, fleur de lis ornaments, cast-iron urns and the like.

The sunny side is planted with perennials and a few Japanese maples bordered by violets. Tracy keeps a tight rein on the latter and others with potential to become invasive.

"I wanted the loose, natural feel of a French garden," she says. "My gardens are very free, but the borders are like soldiers keeping it all in control."

The other side features a loose congregation of shade plants rimmed with a row of spikey dracena. At the intersection of paths a Provencal urn fountain burbles. A garden path leads back to the house's back door. Well, not really. In typical Tracy fashion, the door wears blue shutters, mirrors instead of windows and its steps that lead precisely -- nowhere. Tracy hung the door because she thought the house exterior looked a tad bland.

Her favorite plant, potted bright blue agapanthus, gets star treatment in several locations.

Because the Flynn chose this destination a year in advance of its tour, Kozlowskis had three seasons to plan.

Last fall they added a coveted Camperdown Elm centered smack dab in the middle of the huge long back yard.

"Last year on my birthday in February I looked out the window in the morning and, there around the Camperdown Elm in the snow, was the most beautiful four-piece, Parisian style circular bench," a surprise that Rick orchestrated.

One thing literally leads to another.

In spring, Tracy simply had to build a pea-stone path to the elm; 21 wheelbarrow loads later she reached the elm. Then she kept going on the opposite side of the elm leading to, well, it led to ... a woodpile.

That would never do.

This time it was Rick's idea: Build a firewood storage crib off to the side, move the pile so the path led to a new arbor opening to the final garden. While he had his tools out, he built a substantial fence around an eight-bed potager of annuals and perennials. Tracy put her "stamp" on it with a carefully angled mirror that makes it possible to view both sides of a statue and give the illusion of the path continuing twice as far.

A Lilliputian building combines potting shed, workshop, storage, canoe rack and two-person sauna. Hockey skates and old "guy" photos decorate his walls.


On her side, nails skewer magazine clippings, garden ideas and funny garden ephemera. A scrap of lattice holds plant labels proclaiming plants' cultural requirements.

An adjacent new fence defines the "utility" area -- a euphemism for unsightly storage. Even so, that fence is yet another wall for a surprise that Tracy vows not to reveal until the tour.

Kozlowski's is one of two houses and 12 South Burlington gardens chosen for the Flynn Garden Tour on Sunday. The daylong event ends with a tea at Gardener's Supply at Four Seasons in Williston. The tour is the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts' largest fundraiser for its children's education matinee programs at which busloads of students attend theater performances and receive accompanying background information.

"My own kids attended the Flynn Theatre trips, and now the neighbor kids are," Tracy says. "So it's especially neat that the Flynn Garden Tour is here and benefiting kids like ours."

Nothing like a garden tour to bring home and garden to a state of near perfection all at once.

"I'm done working (on this house and garden)," Rick says. "There's nothing left to do. I joke that during the Garden Tour I'm going to put my tools out on the front yard with a 'for sale' sign on them."

He pauses. "Oh, I know she'll have more ideas ... ."

Luckily, Tracy has homes other than her own as outlets for her unstoppable ideas.

Couple trim, tuck, mold home to style

Lighting makes a difference. The Kozlowskis sprinkled lights among the branches of their Camperdown Elm, arranged lights atop a buffet and in a corner cupboard of white china. She spotlighted a favorite statue.

Design is not just about appearance. Scent and sound count. At Kozlowskis', a pot of fragrant jasmine near the dining table is heavenly. Cocoa bean hull mulch says "chocolate" without the calories. Drifting outdoors from the kitchen window is the sound of Maurice Chevalier singing "Ca Sent si Bon la France."

Remember, you can have a loose, flowing garden if you hem it with precise edging and border plants. Even a bed of say, only hosta, is enlivened by this border treatment.

The same applies indoors. The Kozlowskis use one tile pattern throughout the kitchen, entry, bathroom, sitting area and family room. They have pairs of the same leather wingback chairs in two rooms. It's accent pieces that count.

Live it up. The Kozlowskis' home and gardens are on display for one day only. "Houses should be living spaces, not museums. I have three dogs and two kids -- my house is not one in which you have to take your shoes off," Tracy emphasizes.

While the Kozlowski home and garden are special because of its secret spots and foolery, it's no secret that a big part of the success is the combination of Tracy's innovative ideas and persistent finish work complemented by Rick's expertise in turning a unique plan into nuts and bolts, lumber and trim. She dreams; he builds; she finishes. "I don't do wallpaper," he says. "She's really good at wallpaper. If you can't do it all and don't have a willing and able partner, hire one.

Whimsy isn't for everyone, but a sense of humor is -- never take yourself too seriously when it comes to decorating or gardening.
-- Cheryl Dorschner,
Free Press Correspondent

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