Let There Be Light

Friends always say, “Be sure to take pictures of the project” or “Make sure you blog about the process.”  Truth-be-told, rejuvenating a historic home grabs ahold of your time, energy and money.  Even though we truly love this extraordinary journey, seldom do we place the word spare before any of those three previously mentioned words.  When the dust settles, like many restoration-minded souls, we wholeheartedly believe that Rejuvenation = Happiness.


I appreciate your patience and interest in Restmere. Should you become restless while waiting for the next post, I hope you’ll visit another restoration blog….one that’s on a more impressive scale than Restmere:  www.chateaugudanes.com  Restoring this French Chateau will certainly inspire your creative spirits!

Every day we uncover more fascinating history about Restmere. For example, we recently learned that Edith Wharton (my favorite author) was related to the original owners and visited the home.


Work continues at Restmere. We are remodeling the kitchen and bathrooms. Every click of a nail gun and buzz of a power saw is music to our ears.  The distinct melody of progress.

Lighting the Way


Before this phase, we restored, relocated and reinstalled several antique light fixtures that were found in the home.  When architects Richard Upjohn and Richard Morris Hunt designed Restmere in 1857, they planned for gas lighting fixtures.  While repairing ceilings and plaster over the summer, we discovered original gas fittings for chandeliers and sconces throughout the entire house. Unfortunately, none of the original fixtures remained, so we can only imagine what type of lighting originally defined the Van Rensselaer’s décor.

Since the advent of electricity, a succession of light fixtures were installed in Restmere.  Some were very good.  And some were not so good.  The provenances ranged from stunning antique French crystal chandeliers to big box store clearance bin flush mounted lights and ceiling fans.


Taking Stock

To make sense of the lighting, we began by creating an inventory of all the fixtures in the home. Next we decided which fixtures were worth rescuing and which fixtures warranted a quiet burial in the dumpster. An old newspaper article given to us by a neighbor provided some important clues.


We now believe that Adolph Audrain introduced French lighting to the home when he resided here in the early 20th century. We think his collection included a bronze chandelier with dragons and glass shades, a pair of bronze sconces with winged mermaids, four gilded sconces with hand blown glass candle covers, a ten-arm crystal chandelier, and a gilt bronze chandelier with a crystal bowl shaped design.


Oddly enough, some of these fixtures seemed as though they had been moved to other rooms by various homeowners after Audrain move to France.  For example, the Gothic dragon chandelier was hanging in the dining room, when it seemed more appropriate for the library with a Medieval carved limestone mantel.  And the elegant crystal chandelier and mermaid sconces seemed to have been relegated to a spare bedroom on the second floor when they could’ve really made a statement in the formal dining room.



To map out a lighting plan, we studied each room and determined which antique fixture would suit the space best. We kept saying, “What would have Audrain done?” Our plan may have driven our electricians crazy.  I recall them ascending ladders to closely examine the fixtures and wiring, then descending the ladders muttering the same two words to themselves over and over again, “Horror show, horror show.”

Here’s the great light shuffling plan:

  1. Move dragon chandelier from dining room to library. Remove ceiling fan.  Center dragon chandelier in front of the Medieval fireplace.
  2. Move crystal chandelier and sconces from spare bedroom to dining room.
  3. Move crystal chandelier in living room three feet so the fixture can be centered on the fireplace.

Before any fixture could be relocated and reinstalled, Tom Powers of Genuine Antique Lighting in Boston had to restore the fixtures, which entailed repairs to decorative details and rewiring. To avoid becoming ensnared in traffic on the Southeast Expressway Tom came up with an interesting plan.  We would leave a fixture on the front porch before retiring to sleep.  He would depart Boston at 1 a.m., arrive at Restmere at 2 a.m. and return to Boston with the fixture.  A few weeks later Tom would return the restored fixture to our porch at 2 a.m.  Many may argue which nocturnal creature makes a more beautiful sound on a summer evening. Is it a hooting owl or could it be a chirping Cicada?  For me, there is nothing more lovely than the sound of tinkling crystals being gently set beside a wicker porch chair.


After the antique fixtures were restored, we turned to Tom to help us find more period lighting to replace the budget-friendly modern lights we removed from the house.


He suggested this circa 1870s gas fixture that had been modified for electricity for the entry hall.


He recommended this circa 1900 slag glass fixture for the library.


He thought three of these vintage pendants would make a statement suspended above the island in the kitchen.

Don’t Forget the Switches


The light switches were another design element that we had to consider.  When we bought the house, we were charmed by the vintage mother-of-pearl button switches that adorned many of the rooms.  Push the top button, the light turns on.  Push the bottom button, the light turns off.  Sadly, the switches did not meet code.  Good news though, the House of Antique Hardware  sells push button switches in a wide variety of styles and finishes.  Additionally, the switches come with a dimmer.  Sign up for email notices and you will receive promo codes for a 15% percent discount.  This certainly adds up when you need to purchase many switches.

Lighting is such an important design element that really requires some careful planning to create the perfect ambient and task lighting.  Also, for the safest results, always work with electricians and experienced restorers.

Stay tuned to see pictures of the new kitchen.


A New Chapter for Homes of the Brave

Reports of Demolition are Greatly Exaggerated


Perhaps Mark Twain would have appreciated Restmere’s mistaken fate. When Antoinette Downing and Vincent Scully wrote “The Architectural Heritage of Newport, Rhode Island” in 1952 they listed Restmere as being demolished.  Just like Twain, reports of a demise were an exaggeration.


Architect John Grosvenor and I recently purchased Restmere and have embarked on our next rejuvenation project. Each day we uncover clues about the Italianate and Stick Style house built along Beachview Avenue (now named Miantonomi Ave.) in Middletown, Rhode Island in 1857. The many notable figures and events associated with Restmere are truly fascinating and we look forward to sharing details with you in the coming months.


In the Beginning


Architects Richard Upjohn and Richard Morris Hunt collaborated on the design. The house was originally built for Hunt’s sister-in-law, Mrs. Howland Van Rensselaer.  The neighboring estate designed by Upjohn was built the previous year for Hunt’s other sister-in-law, Mrs. Howland Hoppin.  The twin estates shared ten acres of park-like grounds. J. Weidenmann showcased the estates in his book “Beautifying Country Homes” published in 1870.


The Audrain Years

Audrain Building Ben Jacobsen Photo.jpg(Ben Jacobsen Photo)

In the early 1900s Restmere was sold to Adolphe L. Audrain. Audrain was an art and antiques dealer who commissioned Bruce Price to design the Audrain Building in 1903.  The commercial building represents one of four Gilded Age buildings that form an architecturally significant block on Bellevue Avenue. The adjoining buildings include Travers Block designed by Richard Morris Hunt; Newport Casino designed by McKim, Mead, and White; and King Block designed by Perkins and Betton.

Price drew inspiration from the Renaissance to create an iconic two-story edifice defined by broad arched windows that rise through both stories and a roofline distinguished by a terra-cotta balustrade with lion sculptures. The building is faced in red brick with jewel toned terra cotta trim. Street-level terra-cotta ornamentation is relatively restrained but increases at the arched second floor windows and cornice. The first floor was originally designed to feature six retail shops and the second floor accommodated 11 offices.

Coincidences Mean You are on the Right Path

John Grosvenor led the design team at Northeast Collaborative Architects that restored the Audrain Building in 2014.

Oddly enough, John and I recently learned that Audrain lived at Restmere for about 18 years. Audrain expanded the home by adding bay windows in the library and a second story bedroom.  He also introduced central heat, indoor plumbing and electricity.  Many of his chandeliers and sconces remain in the home.  Audrain added stained glass windows to the stair landing and bathrooms and an exceptional hand-carved limestone mantel to the library.

overall stained glass(Andrea Hansen Photo)

living room(Andrea Hansen Photo)

limestone mantel(Andrea Hansen Photo)

During Prohibition, Audrain sold Restmere and moved to France. He was quoted in numerous newspapers in September, 1920 as saying, “I am driven out of this country. When the American people regain common sense, which will be in about six years, I will come again to reside.”

United States Navy Connection

Audrain sold Restmere to Rear Admiral William H. Howard. Howard sold Restmere to Admiral Kalbfus.  In the early 1950s, a real estate developer bought Restmere and subdivided the remains of the five-acre estate into small lots where modest ranch houses would be built.  Restmere was slated for demolition until the Myer family persuaded the developer to sell the house to them. Fortunately, he did.

Did Bob Dylan Sleep Here?


Another interesting chapter of Restmere’s history took place in 1964 when George Wein rented the house to accommodate Folk Festival musicians. According to urban legend, Bob Dylan, Joan Biaz, Joni Mitchell, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt and other folk artists jammed on the porch and recorded an album. The album cover features a photograph of the musicians gathered on Restmere’s front porch.

In 2005, The Myer family sold the house to Howard and Shirley Schiff. The Schiffs were tremendous stewards and managed to keep many of Restmere’s original architectural elements intact, while upgrading mechanical systems, restoring the porch, and painting the exterior.

An Architectural Gem

 main entry(Andrea Hansen Photo)

We certainly inherited a treasure. Our rejuvenation plan includes restoring the flooring, painting the interior spaces, re-wiring the historic light fixtures, and renovating the kitchen and bathrooms.  We also plan to reimage the landscaping to feature a private enclosed garden with walking paths.

knocker(Andrea Hansen Photo)

foyer doors(Andrea Hansen Photo)

Foyer(Andrea Hansen Photo)

bath stained glass

bath tile

fireplace grate

newel post

mirror detail

outdoor light

An adventure is unfolding. Stay tuned as we post pictures of this rejuvenation project.



A Woman’s Place


Historic house signs, markers and plaques always seem to grab our attention. Whenever we stroll through historic neighborhoods in New England, we always pause and take notice of a wooden or bronze sign displayed near a main entrance that reveals bits of history as to who built the house and when.  Sometimes an occupation such as sailmaker, barrister, or reverend graces the sign. As we stand on the sidewalk admiring the lettering, we can’t resist imagining what life was like for the original occupants so long ago.


Oddly enough, one important element is often missing from historic house markers. Namely, a woman’s name. Historians explain that women’s names did not appear on deeds unless they were the primary owner of a house. As a result, only the owner is immortalized on a historic house marker.  Putting all bureaucracy aside, we all know that women have always played a pivotal role in domestic affairs.

house While researching the Sherman House, we learned that the house was built for Isaac Sherman and his bride Elizabeth Sherman in 1811. Isaac worked as a butcher and his shop was located in the Brick Market.  The Shermans raised ten children in their lovely Federal home located in the heart of Newport’s Historic Hill neighborhood.

brickmarket1772newportrhodeisland_full Brick Market

The house remained in the Sherman Family for about 70 years. Every time we run our fingers across the intricate detailing on the mantels and chair rails, we cannot help but think a woman’s touch was involved in their selection and care.


To honor dear Elizabeth Sherman, we decided to break from tradition and craft a more fitting sign. When people pass by the rejuvenated Sherman House they no longer have to cherchez la femme.  Now they can simply take notice of a custom sign that proudly states:


We hope our sign will inspire other historic house owners to put more brave women in their place…..proudly on a plaque.

Ode to Old Brown Furniture



Should Old Acquaintance be forgot……..

Happy New Year!

On New Year’s Day thousands of kind hearted and adventurous people gather at Easton’s Beach in Newport, RI to take the Polar Bear Plunge and help raise money for A Wish Come True.

polar bear plunge

Another popular New Year’s Day tradition is Lighthouse Promotions’ annual antiques show held at the Venus de Milo in nearby Swansea, Mass. Rather than brave the frigid Atlantic and those treacherous mimosas, we marked 2016 by fighting the crowds at the cozy, warm indoor antiques show.

antique show

Booth after booth was brimming with this year’s must-have treasures including blue and white pottery, Asian antiques, vintage jewelry…….and believe it or not……old brown furniture.




For those of you who still love antiques, you may share my concern that brown furniture has been deemed an endangered species.

The Economist recently published an article entitled “Out With the Old” proclaiming that the bottom has fallen out of the antiques market. Experts blame the downfall on millennials who advocate a less is more lifestyle, celebrate the tiny house movement and cherish mid-century modern furniture. As the mother of two twenty-somethings, I’ve seen them wrinkle their noses and roll their eyes when I bring another piece of brown furniture into our home.


Truth be told, I do go a little weak in the knees when I see a Danish teak credenza that was crafted during the Kennedy Administration.

But I have not completely given up on antique brown furniture. Neither should you.

These mahogany, rosewood, walnut and maple relics embody Old World craftsmanship that cannot be duplicated. Their inlaid and hand-carved designs serve as vestiges of our past. And at this very moment in time, brown antiques are shockingly affordable.

Many dismiss antique brown furniture because they prefer light, bright and airy decors; the kind you find in hotel lobbies. Flip through the pages of decorating magazines or browse Pinterest and you’ll have no trouble finding exquisite details camouflaged by gallons of white latex paint.

Why not give brown furniture a second chance? Attend an auction.  Visit an antiques mall.  Explore a flea market. Experience a nostalgia tug. Be Detective Brown.

Your family’s health is another good reason to buy brown. Highly toxic lead paint plagues antique and vintage furniture. Chipped, peeling or cracked lead paint will release poisonous lead dust into your home and put your loved ones at serious risk.  Before you consider buying a shabby antique, conduct an instant lead test.  You can purchase lead test kits at your local hardware store.

lead check

lead paint

The chipped lead paint on this cupboard is highly toxic.

Go Brown!

Here are some brown antiques that look on the bright side…….so to speak.

empire mirror

Antique Ogee mirror with mahogany frame. The glass reflects light and brightens the room.


mirror detail 2

Antique Federal mirror. The pediment, urn, flowers, carvings, and inlaid detail are lovely.

marble table

Antique marble top table.

sail chair

Antique mahogany chair. The seat is upholstered with a vintage cotton sail.


Antique Stickley Rocking Chair…..an icon of the Arts and Crafts Movement.


chest detail

Vintage chinoiserie chest of drawers. The decoration is so romantic.

cropped inlaidAntique inlaid table.  Each piece of wood painstakingly set in place.


Let’s make 2016 the year that beautiful brown furniture becomes fashionable once again.  Cheers!

Before & After

Rejuvenating a home takes time.  During the journey, we always hope that projects could be completed as quickly as they seem to happen on home improvement shows … in one hour’s time with three commercial breaks.

Since July 2014, we have been working very hard to bring an 1811 Federal home back from the edge of ruin. The major structural improvements include new windows, roof, siding, insulation, plumbing, electrical, heating and cooling systems.  Now as the crew paints the exterior we are nearing the homestretch. Perhaps the best compliment we received was from a contractor who said, “You just gave this home another 200 years.”

Our hearts are glad.

I hope you will enjoy this series of dramatic before and after images.

Some of the exterior improvements include the roof, chimneys, downspouts, siding, windows, porch, entry door, lighting, fence and formal garden.

before sherman

sherman exterior

sherman garden 1

sherman garden 2

sherman garden

Awkward 19th Century Addition That was Replaced with a Kitchen and Dining Area

New kitchen features island designed around original summer board, antique chandeliers, antique corner cabinet, and antique transom window and sidelights.


addition 2


antique windows and ceiling clerestory windows kithcen

dining and windows

Family Room

New chimney was built, original hand hewn beams were exposed, original floor was restored, and antique glass-fronted cabinets were added.

den before

Den 2

den vertical

Front Parlor

Original molding, wainscoting, mantel and flooring were restored.  Antique sconces were installed.  And a new bookcase was built.

front parlor b4

front parlor

Entry Hall

Original stairs were reinforced. Original balustrades, newel post and railings were painted.  Flooring was refinished.  New grass cloth and stair runners were installed.

1st stair b4

1st stairs

1st stair before

2nd stair

Master Bedroom

A gas fireplace was added to new chimney.  Original mantel and flooring were restored. Antique windows serve as the new headboard. We also added a dressing room and master bathroom.  We rescued a claw foot tub from the addition.

mb b4 mb before

antique glass

mb 1

master bedroom

bedroom and dressing room

dressing room


Sitting Room

Gas fireplace was installed in new chimney.  Original moldings, mantel and flooring were restored.  A new closet was added.

sitting room beforesitting room


Flooring, moldings and mantel were restored. Wallpaper was removed.  Original chimney brinks were painted black.

guest room be4 guest room before

guest room


Original unfinished attic was transformed into a home office.  New railings, skylights, bookcases and window seat were added.

stair from attic

attic stair


Why History Matters



The interiors of the 1811 Federal are complete. The new porches have been constructed. The landscapers are now working feverishly building hardscapes, laying sod and planting gardens. The house painters are on standby, ready to redefine the exterior. Each day the house looks and feels more and more like a home.


Throughout our rejuvenation project, so many people have wondered why we would invest so much energy in rejuvenating a 200 year-old home that we found precariously close to ruin. Couldn’t we build a new house instead?  Wouldn’t we prefer a modern open floor plan? Why connect with the past?  Why does history matter so much?


Many of the answers can be found in this wonderful documentary from the Newport Historical Society.  I hope you’ll take a few minutes to understand why rejuvenating homes of the brave is rewarding on so many levels:

I look forward to posting images of the finished project in the coming weeks!

Saving Steps

The first time we visited the 1811 Federal with our real estate agent, we entered through the front door and found ourselves standing in a foreboding foyer. Over the course of 200+ years, a succession of occupants defined and redefined the narrow passage with layer upon layer of wallpaper. The most recent residents attempted to brighten the space by painting the multi-layered walls with a distinct shade of avocado. Unfortunately, the time worn pine green hall runners and stair runners worked in tandem to darken the space’s horizontal and vertical aspects.

stair before 2

stair before

To create welcoming hallways on the first and second floors, we removed the carpeting, reinforced the original staircases with under-mounted supports, painted the treads and bannisters black, painted the risers, balusters and stair brackets white, installed blue board and plaster veneer over the wallpapered sections above the chair rails, added grass cloth wall covering, painted the chair rail and wainscoting white, refinished the hardwood flooring in the halls, installed recessed lighting and an antique pendant light. We also replaced a metal entry door that was painted red.  Our new wooden entry door will be painted black to match the bannisters and risers.




For the finishing touch, we turned our attention to hall runners and stair runners. In keeping with the Federal period, we originally planned on installing blue runners with yellow stars. We determined a budget and headed to a local carpet store known for their reasonable prices. We were excited to find a star patterned carpet; however the $12 per square foot cost of the stair runners and installation exceeded our budget. When we factored in the cost of adding matching hall runners we were crestfallen. How could carpet be so expensive?


Then I remembered that stair runners and hall runners could easily be cut and bound from discounted carpet remnants. So next we visited a nearby high-end carpet retailer. When we entered the store we immediately headed to the rear section where the remnants are displayed. As luck would have it, a large blue remnant distinguished by a golden oriental star pattern stood out among the stacked rolls of carpet. The salesperson explained that the remnant was left over from another client’s expensive custom carpet order. We mentioned that we needed stair runners and hall runners for a Federal home and the salesperson offered to follow us home to measure the spaces and provide an estimate. He spent about one hour in our home measuring and punching numbers on his calculator. When the moment of truth arrived, the cost of creating our carpeting from the remnant and installation was $6 per square foot.


stair 3

stair 2

stair 1

stair 4

By working with the remnant and carpet professionals, we now have superior quality runners that were expertly installed for a fraction of the cost of standard carpet. If you are considering new carpet for your home, please explore the affordable solutions waiting for you in the remnant section.

To read more about trends in stair runners, read my column for The Daily Basics:  http://thedailybasics.com/2015/08/02/step-by-step-the-latest-trends-in-stair-runners/