WILTON, Conn. — In the annals of domestic horror stories, Jay Fielden’s is as gothic as they come. It begins with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the attendant financial meltdown in the fall of 2008. He and his wife, Yvonne Orteig Fielden, now both 43, and their two young children had just moved into their new home, a sturdy example of Connecticut’s storied collection of modernist glass houses, which they had bought for $900,000 in 2007 and spent eight months renovating.
Just as they were settling in, Jay Fielden lost his job as editor in chief of Men’s Vogue, which folded in the wake of the economic downturn. To be sure, he wasn’t thrown out on his ear. There was a stint at Vogue.com, but when he finally left, it was clear that the age of the golden parachute was long gone. Then, in October 2010, when he had been out of work a year and their third child had arrived, an electrical fire tore through the house, destroying most of it.
If this were a short story, it would be gilding the lily to add that he also contracted Lyme disease during this time and his father passed away as well, but this tale is not fiction. It does have a happy ending, however.
“It’s amazing we’re still married," said Yvonne Fielden, who in the middle of the events detailed above became guardian of her father, who suffers from dementia. “Man, it was a lot of straws."
It was a bright, windblown weekday morning, and Jay Fielden was home from his new job as editor in chief of Town & Country magazine. His house has been rebuilt (again), as has his magazine, a 167-year-old publication that has struggled to stay relevant. (In the age of social media, what role should the original chronicle of America’s social life play?) Fielden, a dapper Texan with a deep Fred Thompson rumble, is a former New Yorker editor with a taste for the U.S. literary canon that peaked around the time his house was built, in 1960. He has re-imagined Town & Country, once a slim portfolio of Midwestern debutante parties and East Coast WASP weddings, as a Vanity Fair manque, a sassy primer to the good life with a bit of meat thrown in.
The Fieldens lived for a month with friends, and then moved into a rental apartment, followed by another rental in a farmhouse. They threw themselves into the quagmire of insurance and cleanup that follows a disaster. When it became clear that the most pragmatic thing to do was rebuild the house — not an easy or joyful decision, they said, because what you really want to do after a catastrophic fire is walk away — Robert Dean and Jesse Carrier, the architect and designer who had rehabbed the house in 2007, helped them with this rebuild.
“The object becomes, how do we create a place that reflects who we are but doesn’t own us," Yvonne Fielden said.
Her husband added: “Or put us in debt."
This time around, there is a lot more Ikea, Yvonne Fielden said, than “Jesse is probably used to."
Built by James Evans, a protege of Louis Kahn, the house had all the optimism of its period, as Dean put it recently, “when architects thought they had made a breakthrough to a fresh new time."
It had all the drawbacks as well: tiny bedrooms, cheap materials, awkward connecting spaces. So the new house, into which the Fieldens moved last summer, is a nearly perfect design — open and light, yet private and safe — seasoned as it is by their experience.
Not all their belongings were ruined. Jay Fielden saved half of his books, along with artwork by Irving Penn and by his own children, and some family furniture. Yvonne Fielden’s Madam Alexander dolls, which Jay Fielden’s mother painstakingly cleaned up and now live in Eliza’s room, have only slightly blackened eyes.
And on the coffee table in the living room, two architecture books — one on Richard Neutra, one on Louis Kahn — are stacked on top of each other. If you remove the topmost book, you can see its bright silhouette in the singed, smoky cover of the book below.