History Lesson

Tour one of Westport's most historic—and storied— homes.

Article by Sara Gaynes Levy

Photography by Lillie Fortino

Originally published in Westport Lifestyle

When famed artists Naiad and Walter Einsel moved into their historic Westport home back in 1965, Walter left a note for a future owner embedded in the wall while renovating a bedroom. “If you think this work is shoddy, you should have seen what it was like before!” he scrawled on a piece of wood. Fifty-six years later, the home’s new owner, Lillie Fortino, found Walter’s cheeky message. “I cut it out, and I saved it,” she says. 

If the Einsels could have dreamed up the perfect future owners to find that message, it would have been Lillie, her husband George, and their two children. The Einsels were well-known artists. Walter was a sculptor and Naiad was an illustrator, and together they were the first husband-and-wife team to create stamp designs for the U.S. Postal Service. Their breathtakingly constructed and romantic Valentines for one another were enshrined in a 2008 book, Art from the Heart. Lillie, a Westport native, is a classically trained artist, as well as a renowned event photographer. She’s a history buff, too, volunteering from a young age at the Westport Historical Society. It was a cosmic aligning of interests that led Lillie to work so tirelessly to preserve the story, beauty, and legacy of the historic home, known in the town’s historic registry as the Charles B. Sherwood House (yes, he’s a second cousin of Sherwood Island’s Daniel Sherwood!). “We were always incredibly passionate about wanting to maintain the historical integrity of the home,” she says. Still, the house needed some serious TLC when her family moved in three years ago. “Maybe three lightbulbs worked in the place,” Lillie recalls. “The goal was just to make it liveable.” Over the last three years, she has done not only that, but turned it into a warm, inviting space for her young family, all while paying homage to the 200 year history of the classic colonial-turned-Italianate home. “I've always been in love with older homes, I think because they've outlived all the families that were here before and the stories that they hold,” Lillie says. “I really feel that homes have a soul. Being able to cherish and try to restore that soul is important.” 

Take the kitchen. It was built in 1938, more than 85 years after the home itself. (Lillie has had historical architects view the home, and believes it may actually date back to the early 1800s, or even before). The present-day layout combines the main kitchen with what was the butler’s kitchen, creating an eclectic feel. “Old kitchens were unfitted—it was just a bunch of furniture thrown together,” Lillie explains. “I wanted to make sure we stayed true to the house.” So she sourced a gorgeous burgundy French Lacanche stove from a second-hand vendor in Hartford, combining it with charcoal cabinetry and black-and-gray marble on one side and pine-colored glass cabinets, fridge, and wine fridge on another. A vintage wood piece serving as an island and intricate black-and-white tilework on the backsplash complete the “unfitted” look. “I find a lot of things at antique sales, monger’s markets, tag sales, Westport Gift Economy, and heirlooms,” she says. Together, these items nod to the home’s soul Lillie speaks about. You can feel it in every room. 

Her eye for design and nods to history are just part of what makes the home so special, though. The history of the owners— not just the visionary Einsels, who used what is now Lillie’s primary bedroom as their art studio; but also turn-of-the-20th-century radio star Elizabeth Lennox Hughes, who, along with her husband, used the home as a summer getaway after they bought it in 1925— is palpable as you walk through the quirky floorplan, a product of the many disparate eras the home has lived through. (Just one example: a dramatically steep staircase with “200 years of footprints” worn in rises off the former dining room, now the living room. It leads to what was once the servant's quarters—separated from the rest of the bedrooms, naturally—but now serves as the guest room.) When Lillie and her family moved in, a local archeology buff asked if he could dig through the grounds of the property. He found incredible relics of all of these eras: a Victorian shoe buckle, a vintage musket ball, and a New York City taxi medallion dated to the 1920s. 

“I can just imagine Elizabeth Lennox Hughes and her husband coming to their summer home from the city, and the driver losing this!” Lillie says. And Lillie is still finding treasures. Wrapping paper from one of the legendary Valentines the Einsels made for each other is preserved in Lillie’s office.

Each corner of Lillie’s house is an incredible reminder of the rich history of the arts community in Westport— for more than 100 years. And the beautiful design choices Lillie has made— from the rich turquoise butterfly curtains in the dining room to the vintage-y soaking tub in the primary bath to the abstract-patterned carpet runners adorning those 200-year-old staircases– only further cement this home’s legacy as one of the most charming in town. 

“I really feel that homes have a soul. Being able to cherish and try to restore that soul is important.” -Lillie Fortino

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