If architecture could be compared to dance, the Federal Style house known as Hillstead, in the Hudson Valley town of Claverack, New York, would be a quadrille. Crisp, elegant, and symmetrical, the home’s formality is relieved, like the dance itself, by idiosyncratic flourishes that heighten its individuality. Certainly Hillstead’s quirky period details—from the flamboyant classical motifs carved into the living room mantel to the built-in benches on the front porch—captivated Bruce Shostak and Craig Fitt when they toured the circa-1817 property with a real-estate agent 15 years ago.
The Manhattan couple aimed to purchase the painted-brick dwelling as a country escape, but the family that had owned it since the 1930s fretted that the landmark, along with its pair of rickety barns and poignantly dilapidated redbrick summer kitchen in the backyard, would be in danger of rude modernizations once the nearly two-acre property changed hands. A number of potential buyers had made generous offers—all were rejected. Shostak, an interior designer, and Fitt, an aesthete who works in investment banking, finally won out, convincing the sellers that they would be conscientious stewards.
“The family understood we were passionate about this kind of architecture and would use the house to indulge our interest in the furniture and decorative arts of the first quarter of the 19th century,” says Shostak, who was raised near Washington, D.C., and spent “untold childhood weekends at house museums and the National Gallery of Art.” Fitt grew up close by and was similarly obsessed, so conversations with the two men frequently touch on some of the greatest domestic hits of the Federal age, among them Baltimore’s Homewood, Boston’s Otis House, and Springfield, New York’s Hyde Hall—which, Shostak points out, has a sinewy tiger-maple staircase almost identical to the one in Hillstead’s entrance hall.
“There was great attention to proportion, scale, and appropriateness in the early 1800s,” says Fitt, who also writes Reggie Darling, a beguilingly catholic design blog about subjects ranging from feather-edge creamware to Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House office tower. “That period was really the apex of beautiful, graceful houses in America.”