From the front, Marsha Mason’s house in Washington, Conn., is modest as can be — low slung, with small windows — no reason to stop and covetously gawk.
“It looks very unassuming,” said the similarly unassuming Ms. Mason, 79, a four-time Oscar nominee (including for 1973’s “Cinderella Liberty” and 1977’s “The Goodbye Girl”), who plays Arlene on the Netflix series “Grace and Frankie,” now in production for its final season.
But stroll around to the back, and it’s a different story altogether: an expanse of floor-to-ceiling glass framed in gray cedar, and a terrace with a seating and dining area that runs the width of the rectilinear structure, making the great outdoors feel part and parcel of the great indoors (and vice versa).
Think of the house and the eight-acre setting as Ms. Mason’s Act Three.
After more than two decades in Abiquiu, N.M., where she built a 7,000-square-foot house and an art barn, and started a business that specialized in organic medicinal herbs, Ms. Mason was eager to downsize and refocus her attention on theater work — in particular, directing.
Marsha Mason, 79
Occupation: Actor and director
Sense of direction: “I feel that getting more serious as a theater director came out of building houses. It’s all about preproduction.”
To be sure, she has lovely memories and no regrets.
“When I moved to New Mexico, the movie business was changing. It was getting very youth-oriented, and roles weren’t coming as much as before,” she said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. In some ways, I was having a little bit of an identity crisis. What Abiquiu was about was me maturing and becoming a full-blown human being, in that I had my show-business work and a lot of other, different work.
“It was an interesting place during all those years,” she added. “Gene Hackman lived there while I was there. Jane Fonda lived there. And my friend Shirley MacLaine lived up a mountain across the road. She’d come down to my house for Christmas dinner on a golf cart dressed as Santa.”
In 2014, Ms. Mason sold the 247-acre property and returned to the New York area, where she had typically owned or rented an apartment even after moving to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s with her second husband, the playwright Neil Simon. (The marriage ended in 1983.)
This time, she decided to hang her hat in western Connecticut, where she had friends in the area. Briefly under consideration was a large house with many bedrooms, many nooks and many crannies. “Then I thought, ‘No, I’m not going to have something of that size again,’” Ms. Mason recalled. “But I asked the owners if they would sell the hayfield that was attached to the house, and they agreed.”
It took a while to conceptualize this, the fourth home she would be building from scratch. (The others were in New Mexico and Los Angeles.) But Ms. Mason was clear on certain points long before the heavy machinery rolled in: She wanted it to be all on one floor and of manageable dimensions. She wanted solar panels (but didn’t want to see them), radiant heat, a great room, a “really nice bathroom” and a guest room on the opposite side of the house from her own quarters.
“The design grew out of all that,” Ms. Mason said of the resulting 2,600-square-foot contemporary, which she is fond of characterizing as a “New York loft in a hayfield.”
“I find that, in general, it’s the details that set things apart — what kind of door you choose or what kind of sconce,” she said, offering the example of the bright red bookcase that on one side houses a television screen and, on the other, serves as gallery space for several paintings. “I knew I wanted to do certain things like that.”
The house is a study in contrasts: plain exterior and — thanks to a trove of furniture and art from around the world and from various stages of her life and career — vibrant, eclectic interior. Here, a 19th-century Spanish chair; there, a sofa from Design Within Reach. Over there, a country French bureau.
Twenty-five years ago, when Ms. Mason was being honored at a film festival in Egypt, she did some shopping and brought back a game table with parquetry inlay and mosaic chairs. Those made their way from New Mexico to Connecticut. A pair of spindle chairs with rush seats and leather cushions were bought for the Bel-Air house that she shared with Mr. Simon. After the couple split, she kept the chairs, which have since been outfitted with crushed-velvet pillows.
The Tulip dining table and chairs were bought post-divorce when she moved into a co-op on Central Park West. They’re now in a corner keeping company with a vivid abstract and a painted wood sculpture of a mother and child that was part of the décor during her years with Mr. Simon.
Three wood female figures from Thailand and a wooden head of a merry-faced king from one of Ms. Mason’s trips to India are displayed atop the Stûv fireplace that dominates the great room. A Ganesh statue sits sentry in the hall outside her bedroom.
Behind the antique rosewood desk in the office are shelves with assorted trophies, among them two Golden Globes. And perhaps because distraction is always welcome when you’re folding towels and sheets, a wall in the laundry room is given over to framed award citations and photographs of Ms. Mason’s stepdaughters, of her with her father, and of her with Paul Newman. The two became fast friends through their shared passion for auto racing. “He eventually invited me to Lime Rock, here in Connecticut, his home track, and I drove one of his GTs,” she recalled.
“The sink where I wash up after I do my gardening is here in the laundry room,” Ms. Mason said. “So I see these pictures every day.”
Moving into the house necessitated winnowing, she said. Many things were jettisoned or left behind for the new owner in Abiquiu.
“This place,” she added, “reflects my sense of aging and ‘what do you need?’ not ‘what do you want?’ It’s about a few nice pieces as opposed to a lot of nice pieces — the whole psyche of simplifying.”
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