INTERVIEW WITH REBECCA TIMLIN-SCALERA, HOMEOWNER;
GINA SCHAPIRO, GRACE DESIGN BUILD; & SARAH WEILAND, TUSK HOME + DESIGN
STYLING BY LESLEY MARLAN | PHOTOGRAPHER AMY VISCHIO
Rebecca, we’re sitting in your dream home on your dream property. When did it all begin? I’ve been coming to this beach since I was 8 years old. My cousin went to Fairfield University, and I would visit her at college and thought it was so cool that she lived in a beach house on the beach. I then went to Fairfield University as well, and I met my husband, Tom, at a party several houses down from here that, coincidentally, was a house my cousin had lived in ten years prior. Before my husband and I moved back to town, I used to walk the beach and always thought this property was the prettiest one. It had these dunes next to it, and you could still walk to town and be part of a neighborhood. I used to write letters to the previous owner and told him that if he ever wanted to sell the property to please let me know. We couldn’t even have afforded it then, but I thought we’d figure it out, that maybe we’d rent it. We ended up moving back to town about fifteen years ago, and we lived in a beautiful house on a marsh with wonderful neighbors. It was a perfect place to raise our kids, but in my mind, it was always my dream to move to the beach someday— I love the water and find it to be so peaceful.
When did the idea for this house first take hold? About three and a half years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and it changed our lives. I had a number of complications and was in and out of the hospital quite a bit for the first eighteen months. I had ten major surgeries and underwent chemotherapy and radiation. Once we got through all of that, we were on vacation in February 2017. We were at a point where we thought there was a chance the cancer wouldn’t come back because it was at an early stage then—it was stage 3C—and I had gotten through all of the surgeries. But we knew life was short and that the cancer could come back, so we decided to move up our plans to build our dream house sooner rather than later. We had our friend call the previous owner, and lo and behold, though the house wasn’t even on the market, he was thinking about selling. It all just worked out—we bought the property that I had dreamed about all these years, and we started making plans to build. Then, a few months later, the cancer did come back. It had metastasized to stage 4, which means it’s terminal and there is no cure. When it returns, the average prognosis is only about eighteen months, so we really didn’t know if I would still be here to move into the house. We were already in the middle of building, but we decided to keep going, build our dream house and make it a place that, for whatever time I had left, would be a sanctuary and a place we loved.
What inspired the vision you had for it? We decided to model it after Ocean House in Rhode Island, which is our favorite place in the world. It’s beautiful and has history to it, and it’s set in a quiet, quaint beach town. We love everything about it—the design, the location, everything—so we decided to recreate it with our home. We wanted the turrets and little spaces that just felt carved out and cozy. The front of the house is very much inspired by Ocean House, with the round portico and mansard roof. I like historic homes, and I wanted this to look like it had been here for 200 years, but just redone. I wanted it to feel accessible but not stuffy. The exterior looks a bit formal, and I wanted the interior to feel very livable.
What is it about the beach that speaks to you? I love this beach so much. You can walk for miles on it, horses come in during the off- season, and I love watching the boats in the summer. Even in the middle of a storm, there’s never a bad day here. I feel like I’m in the middle of a painting, because every time you look out the window there’s something different to see, and we tried to make the view the focal point of the house with no window treatments in the back and not much art. With the dunes right here, I didn’t want much separation. I wanted it all to be integrated with as many natural materials as possible.
How involved were you during the design and build? I was here two or three times a day throughout the project. It was great to have a design team that was all-encompassing, where everybody worked together. Gina Schapiro of Grace Design Build and Sarah Weiland of Tusk Home + Design made it easy—it didn’t take them long to learn my style, and because we had Ocean House to base the style on, it was so much fun picking out everything. I wanted a classic house with a few surprise elements, and I didn’t want cookie-cutter. Gina had experience with really detailed, higher-end custom homes, so I knew she’d be great with the finer touches and details, and Sarah was great at including pops of different things. I know what I like when I see it, and I make quick decisions. Sometimes when the three of us would meet, they would have a selection picked out, and they’d have a game to see which one they thought I would pick!
You also founded The Cancer Couch Foundation. Can you tell me about that? Before my cancer had metastasized to stage 4, I learned that almost no research funding goes to metastatic breast cancer, which is stage 4. When your cancer metastasizes, your prognosis is often only a couple of years because no one has put any funding into it. I just couldn’t believe that, that you’re just left to die—that didn’t seem right. I had been working as a neuropsychologist at Norwalk Hospital, and I stopped practicing once I was diagnosed. Since then, I’ve dedicated my life to raising money for metastatic breast cancer research through The Cancer Couch Foundation. We fund two labs that only focus on metastatic breast cancer, and we give 100 percent of the proceeds. I run the foundation on a volunteer basis, and it’s privately funded, so every dime goes to a lab at Dana-Farber and a lab at Memorial Sloan Kettering. We’re in a really fortunate position where every dollar we give is matched. I started the foundation three years ago, and we’ve put more than $2 million into metastatic breast cancer research, and they’ve already published three studies that we, in part, have funded. It’s been really incredible to see what’s been able to happen, and we’re still going full force.
You moved into the house this past March. What has life been like since then? My cancer grew aggressively last summer, and it went to my brain, liver, adrenals and bones. Once it goes to your brain, you usually don’t have that long. So, again, we didn’t know if I would be here to move into this house; it was a really difficult year. I have a very rare mutation that there happened to be a clinical trial for and, miraculously, I qualified for it. We moved into the house on March 17, and two weeks later on April 1, I got the news that my last scans showed no evidence of disease. That doesn’t mean the cancer is gone—I still have a terminal illness—but right now, it’s in remission. We don’t know how long that will last—it could be weeks, it could be a year—but it’s amazing. Being in this house, now having a chance at life…there are just no words. It all feels like a miracle. Even though I thought this property was amazing, I never thought we’d actually live here, that we’d be able to build a house like this. It all came together at the right time. Plans that we were putting off until retirement, we pushed them up, decided to go for it and live our life now, and here we are. The fact that my husband and I met at a party just houses away…it feels like it has all come full circle. It’s definitely a different feeling than last summer and fall, when the house was feeling tragic in a way. It was a labor of love, and I didn’t think I’d ever be living here; it was gut-wrenching. We had moments where we thought we should abandon it, that we should build it and sell it, but it couldn’t have worked out better. From the style of the house to the location, it’s a dream in so many ways.
You named your new home Sound House. What’s the story behind that? We named it Sound House because it’s based on Ocean House, because it’s on Long Island Sound, and because, as a psychologist, “sound” to me also means a sound mind, a feeling of calm. We’re also really into music, so “sound” relates to that as well; it has a lot of different meanings. Sound House is our version of Ocean House.
How does it feel to be living here every day? There was a period of time, with everything we were going through, when as a family we closed in a bit, taking care of ourselves. Now it feels like life has become more expansive in every way. We’ve opened up our home again, and I feel well enough to entertain and bring other people in. I feel like people were taking care of us for a while, and now it feels really good to be able to host and take care of other people. It feels very peaceful, it feels like I’ve arrived, and I always have the feeling that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’ve never felt that way my entire life. I love the beach so much. My heart was always wanting to come here, and I came as much as I could, and now, I live here. This is a nice, new chapter for us. It’s a good new beginning.
Builder: Grace Design Build, Stamford; 917-446-8214; gracedb.com
Interior designer: Tusk Home + Design, Westport; 203-319-0001; tuskhomeanddesign.com
Architect of record: Donald William Fairbanks Architect, Southport; 203-345-6307; dwfarchitects.com
Interior millwork design and architecture: Marybeth Woods Architect, Westport; 203-856-7406; marybethwoodsarchitect.com
The Cancer Couch Foundation: Rebecca Timlin-Scalera, PhD, founder and executive director, 203-820-8692; thecancercouch.com