Story by Sara Paul
Step into Michael Bertolini’s residence, and one is immediately transported back in time. His home on Church St. in Warwick NY, the landmarked Ketchum House, is part history book and part trip to a far-away country.
With classic, old paintings, Oriental tapestries, and 18th century porcelain plates from Holland hanging above handcrafted French and English furniture, elaborate statues, and a 1903 Steinway & Sons piano sprinkled atop with black and white family photos dating back to the 1800s, the dwelling is simply drenched in history and culture.
The only problem encountered at this 3,000 square foot 19th century historic museum meets impeccable residence is that one does not know where to look first. Iconic eyes stare down from their oil on canvas homes, hundreds of tattered books line built-in shelves, and silk curtains hand-woven in Thailand dress over a dozen windows, warming the spacious three story structure.
Built in 1820 by Azaraiah Ketchum, the three home house was later given to the Warwick Historical Society in the 1950s. Bertolini took it on as a design and renovation project and moved into the home in 2004. The interior designer and antique collector had his work cut out for him, “putting together” both the inside and outside of the approximate one acre property.
Doubling the house’s footprint, Bertolini, added a large living room, back porch, and two bedrooms. The original parlor room, hallway, and one upstairs bedroom are what school age kids view on the regular tours hosted by the Town of Warwick Historical Society.
“It’s part of the job of the Historical Society to promote more education in the field of history, and it’s something I feel strongly about. This house is used, its toured, and its enjoyed,” noted Bertolini, an Illinois native with close ties to his Tuscan roots, coming from generations of wine merchants.
Born in 1928, Michael Charles Bertolini, was raised by his grandmother and his aunt in a traditional European home, something rare in America at the time.
“Back then everyone was trying to be American, but our home felt authentic. It felt like Italy,” he said.
College was followed by graduate studies in Fine Arts at Yale University, however the Korean War took Bertolini away from his passion. The young soldier had to contend with an unforgiving northern Indiana winter, where he was stationed, but his multi-lingual background and advanced education landed him a counter-intelligence post, enabling travel to Austria and Italy.
When the war ended, the young gent chose the theatre as his next adventure. With some off Broadway roles and other scattered New York City showbiz successes, Bertolini was still struggling to pay his $17.50 a month NYC rent in a fifth floor walk-up cold water flat. Taking a job in an art gallery, he soon became immersed in the design business.
After traveling the globe to decorate and renovate expansive wealthy mansions in exotic spots such as Bangkok and London, Bertolini next moved into an 18th century Georgian house on five acres in Scotchtown, NY.
“I’m not a city boy, so I really missed the country. I knew I wanted to be somewhere in this region,” he said.
Retiring for just one year before ennui set in, Bertolini started a design business in Goshen, NY, with clients from Tuxedo Park to Thailand. He joined the American Appraisers Association, and opened a second business, this one in estate appraisals.
One particular home on Maple Ave. in Warwick caught the appraiser’s eye, and the intrepid Bertolini purchased it on the same day of his first viewing.
Quickly becoming an active member in the Warwick community, Bertolini became Warwick Historical Society curator and then president in early the 2000s. He has also been chair of the Architectural Review Board since its fruition in 1980.
“Michael never ceases to amaze me. His encyclopedic knowledge of the Historical Society is absolutely invaluable. Most importantly, if I am having a tough day I just call Michael. His wit and sarcasm will always put a smile on my face!,” comments Historical Society Executive Director, Lisa-Ann Weisbrod.
With his federal-style Maple Ave. dwelling completely renovated and restored, Bertolini soon experienced his second failed attempt at retirement. His creative sights now set on the Ketchum House, he sold his home in 2004 and got to work.
“This house called to me. It’s a part of federal history and part of the history of Warwick that has to be saved,” said Bertolini, who is also an antique car enthusiast.
While the outdoor gardens and downstairs living and dining areas, which are also rented for special events, are overwhelmingly ornate with a purposeful sense of history and art, the upstairs greets one with even more ancient gems, old photos and priceless treasures around every corner.
Now at age 90, Bertolini can describe every item in the three bedroom, three bathroom house. Without blinking, thinking, or even a short pause, he describes the silk needlework likeness of George Washington, the 18th century portraits of John and Elizabeth Davenport that flank the parlor room entry, and the odd story of a local painting by W.A. Bartsch hanging above one of the home’s two fireplaces.
“This was an unfinished painting a friend was working on. He told me it wasn’t yet completed, but I loved the softness of the work and had to have it,” said Bertolini of the Edenville landscape, chuckling that when the artist visits “he always gets mad and wants to finish it.”
Continuing the tour up the dark wood staircase, one meets five time great-grandmother of Princess Diana, her gentle face gazing over the split stairwell. There are even portraits of Bertolini as well as his mother, Anna Marchi Bertolini, painted by famous Salsburg artist Adolf Reich.
A large bedroom features General John Hathorn’s canopy bed from the 1800s, and a guest room comfortably fitting two twin beds is a sea of historical eye candy, with 1850s Italian watercolor paintings on the walls, gold leafed wooden angels from a church in Thailand, and Chinese and Russian black lacquer table boxes from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Free time finds this bachelor at home reading with feline friend, Fanny, on his lap, perhaps on the daybed that is dwarfed beneath a life size oil on canvas of three children in Tuscany in the 1840s, one of whom is his great-great-grandfather.
Worlds away from Orange County, the Spring and Autumn seasons find the Italian gentleman in his Tuscan villa, Casa Maria, a lifetime gift to Bertolini from the Countess Piccolomini. The hillside home he has owned for 20 years contains furniture that traveled from his family’s home in Italy to America and then back to Tuscany.
Finally abandoning the notion of retirement, Bertolini now owns an antiques and interiors shop on Main St. that bears his name, with partner Jane Glazman.
So, after trotting the globe no less than four times, twice east to west and twice north to south, why did this world traveler with freedom and means choose to settle in the Village of Warwick?
“This is truly old fashioned America. There is a solidness here, a beauty, a small town feeling that even some of my friends in Europe say is missing there. It’s just a lovely and wonderful place to live,” he said.