House on the Hill: Berkshire Magazine

Upon entering the Cooney residence, visitors are greeted by clean lines and contrasts that  highlight an organic and contemporary space with a reverence for times past. Jessie and Joe, their three children, a massive Chesapeake Bay Retriever rescue dog named Buck, and an eccentric Rat Terrier named Roxie live in this renovated turn-of-the-century house on “The Hill” in Great Barrington. The home combines antique features with modern-day efficiency for a welcoming, warm, and playful space. 

The Cooneys personify Berkshire living. Jessie designs and decorates interior living spaces, bringing clarity, beauty, and ease to people’s lives. Her mastery is in resurrecting deteriorated homes and crafting spaces that work. “I like to think that I make sense of spaces and bring harmony to them while creating efficiency for busy families,” she says. 

That design perspective applies to her family’s home as well. Jessie and her husband are active members of the community: Joe is a general practitioner, and his business, Stockbridge Family Medicine, occupies the same doctor’s office building on Main Street featured in several iconic Norman Rockwell paintings. He even treats a number of patients whose family members were featured in Rockwell’s work. Jessie, once a star athlete who excelled at soccer and basketball in her teens, serves on the development committee at Rudolf Steiner School. She is also on the Berkshire Hills Youth Soccer board and is a committee member of the Great Barrington Fair Ground fundraising effort. The couple is unassuming and playful, and their home reflects the effortlessness with which they live.

Before they moved into their house on The Hill, the Queen Anne-style structure stood for years in disrepair. In 2003, Joe and Jessie were living in the carriage house next door and got to know the homeowner, Norma Thompson, a retired professor. The couple’s young daughter, Maya, was a frequent visitor, partaking in afternoon tea and watering the garden. As their friendship grew, Thompson decided she wanted the Cooneys to have the house.

After a long process of attempting to buy the home to help Thompson pay for nursing care, the Cooneys eventually purchased it in foreclosure. “It was clear we had a mountain of work ahead,” Jessie recalls. The house stood shrouded by overgrown trees, so the first thing they did was clear the roof from overhanging limbs.  “The house suddenly seemed larger than life with its high profile,” says Joe. They rolled up their sleeves and started renovating and adapting to the age of the structure to maintain its historical qualities. The work took nine months, and while a few rooms were gutted and redone, for the most part the house maintains its original hardwood floors, woodwork, and overall structure. (Thompson passed away away in January 2012 and the Cooneys recently sold the carriage house to a young family.)

The main house was originally owned by the Stanley family, including, notably, William Stanley Jr., a renowned inventor responsible for providing electrical lights for Main Street in Great Barrington—the first electrified downtown in the United States. Stanley was the creator of the alternating-current device, a precursor to the modern-day transformer, and his house on West Avenue had elaborate electrical knob-and-tube work. “The wiring was quite advanced for a turn-of-the-century home, but we had to strip the structure to the bones in order to rebuild,” notes Jessie. “We carefully cut large chases in sections of the walls to replace the wiring and plumbing without destroying the structure or trim. This was very important to keeping the integrity of the house and maintaining all of the original moldings.”

The renovation included a careful redesign for daily life. The main porch leads into an open foyer, accented with East Asian iconography, modern art, tractor toys, and minimalist textiles. On either side of the foyer, living and dining spaces are characterized by an earthy backdrop of warm tones punctuated by pops of color. Jute wallpaper in some rooms adds texture to the walls. Refurbished light fixtures, stylish seating, and antique glass windows accent the main floor with an updated, yet vintage feel. 

The second floor reflects the original design, with updates for modern life. Bathrooms have been remodeled, each featuring white marble, simple, period-looking tile work, and minimalist, Zen-influenced décor to tie the rooms together. A calm Buddhist influence permeates the space, while children and dogs constantly in motion energize the area. Another interesting aspect of the upstairs is the creation of a suite for the couple’s two younger children. “Rather than giving them their own rooms, we decided it’s better for them not to sleep with tons of stuff around them. Their sleeping rooms have beds and a nightstand only, and the toys are in the other room. It works really well,” notes Jessie. 

Practicality is a priority, with many items recycled and repurposed. “I like to work with sustainable materials and create simplicity and structure. To me, the modern family has to work on editing rather than acquiring,” she says. With this in mind, the property is made up of historical elements, such as an ornate music room with dark chestnut panels leading out to a stone terrace. There is a servants’ quarter with a notably narrow stairwell—typical of the time period—thin doors, and, compared to the rest of the house, modest trim. 

While the space is not open concept, the Cooneys have created a cohesive flow. Design aspects such as Carrera marble, jewel-toned vases, peaceful Buddha heads, toy fire engines and dolls, Moroccan throw rugs, poufs, and vibrant art generate a tasteful whimsy that reflects the full life led here. Along with the kitchen, the majestic dining room is also a hub, with a 16-foot-long table that was once a study area in a law office. “We can house everyone for parties and holidays,” says Jessie, “and that feels really special for us.”