Click on the link above to see Restmere restored.
Restmere is located in the beautiful island community of Middletown, Rhode Island. RI PBS recently produced a program that showcases Middletown’s proud history and gorgeous scenery.
We are very proud that our restoration project is featured in the segment. What an honor to work with dedicated PBS professionals including Nicole Muri, Jodi Mesolella, and Gretta Jacobs. Thank you for your time, talent and friendship!
You may view Our Town Middletown here: https://www.ripbs.org/our-town/towns/middletown/
We hope the program will keep you dreaming about better days.
Looking back on the closing, we’ll never forget when Restmere’s previous owner casually mentioned that she left a few things for us in the basement.
A few things turned out to be four large rooms chock full of worn and torn furniture, dusty and musty kitchen wares, and environmentally-unfriendly paint cans and cleaning agents.
Donating the basement’s accumulation was not an option. A local charity surveyed the ramshackle inventory and proclaimed that they maintained standards, which did not include our inherited junk piles.
Left with no other choice, we filled seven, 30-yard dumpsters with stuff that was recklessly relegated to the basement for more than half a century.
Fortunately, we saved all of Restmere’s old house parts that included shutters, windows, doors, fireplace inserts, hardware and sconces.
One of the rooms in the basement was built in 1857 to house the original kitchen. The space features a three-basin porcelain sink, brick fireplace, dumb waiter, closets, and a pair or arched windows. Fear of fire prompted the Van Rensselaers to hire their brother-in-law, noted architect Richard Morris Hunt to build a new kitchen wing and firewall in the late 1800s. The original basement kitchen became a catchall and was forgotten to time.
When the morning light streams through the windows, we can’t help but image transforming the basement kitchen into an artist’s studio. We envision a place where John could sit at his father’s easel and capture Newport’s beauty with his artistry. John promises to teach me to paint too. What a romantic adventure!
To make this creative space happen, we plan to use leftover lumber, sheet rock, tiles, and architectural salvage.
A whimsical oil painting of Venice’s Grand Canal that John’s father Richard Grosvenor painted will serve as our muse for the color scheme and overall decor. Notice the plug?
Want to see John’s studio come to life? Stay tuned….
Welcome spring! Want to explore Newport’s rich architectural history? Begin by staying at Restmere. Our recently restored home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the recipient of the Doris Duke Preservation Award and the Rhody Preservation Award.
Gracious guests from around the world enjoyed staying in the Restmere Penthouse. They explored Newport’s mansions, strolled on the Cliff Walk, relaxed on our beaches, savored local cuisine, smelled flowers at the Newport Flower Show, tapped their feet at the Newport Music Festival, Newport Folk Festival, and Newport Jazz Festival, and marveled at the Audrain Automobile Museum’s exhibits.
It’s never too early to start planning your 2020 Newport Getaway. Book the Restmere Penthouse before April 1st to receive a discounted early bird rate. Just mention this blog. Here’s the link: https://www.vrbo.com/1327491
Here’s what our guests have to say:
“As advertised, the “coastal chic” penthouse has three very spacious bedrooms, each with a well-appointed, nice bathroom and comfortable bed. The overall feeling is pretty high end, with nice personal touches, including toiletries, towels, etc. The hosts are very friendly and responsive. Would stay again.”
“The Restmere Penthouse compares to some of the nicest boutique hotels I have stayed in. What a great value!”
“The pictures don’t do the Restmere Penthouse justice. Each spacious guestroom is luxurious appointed. No detail is overlooked.”
Book today: https://www.vrbo.com/1327491
Color is magical. Certain hues leave indelible marks on our souls. Particular shades recall poignant memories. And subtle tints trigger profound emotions.
(Watercolor by John K. Grosvenor)
For me, the most beautiful color in the spectrum is blue. From light to dark, I love all variations. Robin’s egg blue. Wedgewood blue. Sapphire blue. Van Briggle blue. And I’m especially fond of the decorating mantra….Blue and White is always right!
But if I were hard pressed to pick my favorite shade of blue, I would choose Thomas Hardy’s description of Elfride Swancourt’s eyes in his classic novel a Pair of Blue Eyes:
“These eyes were blue; blue as autumn distance–blue as the blue we
see between the retreating mouldings of hills and woody slopes on
a sunny September morning. A misty and shady blue, that had no
beginning or surface, and was looked INTO rather than AT.”
Porch Ceiling Blue
When we bought Restmere, we immediately fell in love with the porch. The expansive space retained its original columns, arches, and Swiss Chalet fretwork.
However, something was amiss. The porch ceiling was painted a purplish blue that reminded me of the Crown Royal velvet bags from my childhood that we used for storing marbles.
The porch ceiling was not the traditional sky blue that New Englanders use to deter birds and bees from nesting. Nor was it the ethereal Haint blue that Southerners use to protect their homes from evil spirits.
This dark mottled color challenged centuries of historic precedent and morosely weighted the space.
Looking to History for Inspiration
Green Animals Topiary Gardens in Portsmouth, Rhode Island is one of my favorite retreats. Maintained by the Preservation Society of Newport County, the seven-acre estate overlooks Narragansett Bay and features the oldest and most northern topiary garden in the United States.
Every summer we enjoy strolling through the gardens, admiring flower beds framed by English boxwoods and 80 trees sculptured as animals and geometric shapes.
The main residence was built in 1859, two years after Restmere, and is distinguished by a wrap-around porch. The highlight of our visit is relaxing on the porch.
As we gently shift back and forth on the rocking chairs, we look up and are greeted by the most heavenly shade of sky blue. And in those brief moments gazing down the lawn towards the bay, seated beside a love one, life is grand.
Recreating that same precious color at Restmere was a liberating experience. The lighter blue makes the entire porch seem more spacious. The serene color can also be appreciated when viewed from the dining room and living room windows.
When selecting a suitable color for your porch ceiling, be mindful that paint manufacturers offer a variety of traditional colors. Some blues may be a little too green or a little too grey for your liking.
Before you commit to a color, paint samples on separate pieces of cardboard and then adhere the cardboard to the ceiling with painter’s tape. Study the color at different times of the day to see how daylight plays with the hues. Then pick the color that speaks to your heart……..hopefully that color will resemble blue skies.
(Restmere’s Porch: Benjamin Moore: Clear Skies)
As the days grow warmer, take time to explore antique venues near and far. Treasures are waiting for you at auctions, estate sales, and antiques malls.
Prices have dropped significantly on many vintage wares and now is a great time to invest in pieces that celebrate Old World Craftsmanship.
Mass produced furniture may be chic for the moment. However, trends change. Soon exquisitely hand-crafted pieces will become prized again.
We discovered this antique conversation seat….also known as a tete a tete at an antiques show in Swansea, Massachusetts. The current depreciated price was equivalent to the cost of a gourmet dinner-for-two at an elegant restaurant.
We spent a snowy day rejuvenating the relic. We cleaned and polished the intricate woodwork with elbow grease and orange oil. Then we replaced the 1980s mauve tapestry-ish fabric upholstery with a classic white matelassé. For a finishing touch, we added two rows of blue and golden fringe. Oh the magic you can create with a bit of patience, a staple gun and a hot glue gun!
The chair now occupies a place of honor at Restmere. And we have a new ritual. We invite loved ones to sit at the chair for a quick painless Smartphone portrait session.
The souvenirs are priceless.
So much joy is now associated with the former orphan.
I hope you will uncover some treasures on your own sentimental journeys into the antiques world this summer. Let nostalgia tug you.
Stay at the Restmere Penthouse this summer. Click on this link to view photos of the private guest accommodations: Restmere Penthouse Guest Suites
Call it a guilty pleasure. We can’t help ourselves. We binge watch home improvement shows. Whether set in Waco, Texas or British Columbia, we know the script. The show opens. Our favorite host guides eager homeowners through an outdated structure that desperately needs a makeover. As if on cue, the host waves his arms and boldly declares, “We’ll tear down this wall and create an open concept kitchen.” Soon the host and the giddy demo crew are swinging sledge hammers, exposing studs and tossing debris out the window.
This scenario couldn’t possibly happen at Restmere. Architects Richard Upjohn and Richard Morris Hunt and their client Alexander Van Rensselaer carefully planned every detail of this significant Italianate home built in 1857. They created a formal dining room that was connected to a butler’s pantry and kitchen. They designed a space where loved ones could gather around a table set with china, silverware, crystal and linens, partake in a home cooked meal, savor conversations and make memories. A large wall and swinging door were strategically positioned to hide the stove, sink, ice box, cookware, and ingredients from the dinner guests’ view. The layout was theatrical. The dining room was the proscenium stage and the kitchen and pantry were back stage.
We couldn’t alter this historic arrangement. Even though we live in an age when hit television series such as The Big Bang Theory popularize eating habits where friends plunk down on sofas and balance Styrofoam take-out packages on their laps. They then happily poke plastic cutlery into meals that were prepared by strangers, stashed into delivery vehicle trunks and carted a couple of miles to their doorstep.
Instead, we decided to preserve the formal dining room and design a new kitchen with an aesthetic that honored the past. Before we embarked on the kitchen project, friends would enter the butler’s pantry, place their right hand over their heart and proclaim, “A butler’s pantry, I just love a butler’s pantry.” Sometimes love is blind. And sometimes love cannot smell mold, mildew and dry rot. A leaking sink and dishwasher had taken their toll on the space and the original sills and studs were a crumbling disaster. A succession of owners had also attempted to modernize the kitchen with builder’s grade cabinets and ceramic tile counters. We had no choice but to take down the existing kitchen and pantry and start anew.
Heart of the Home
When Restmere was built in the mid-19th century, a fireplace was installed in the formal dining room. Sometime in the early 20th century the fireplace was decommissioned, closed up with bricks and concealed behind plaster. Fortunately, the chimney remained intact and we were able to build a new gas fireplace on the kitchen side of the masonry. Rather than have the hearth near the floor, we raised the fireplace, so we could enjoy the fire glow while seated at the kitchen island. The new fireplace served as the focal point of the kitchen and guided us with the layout.
The new kitchen still connects to the original formal dining room, which features antique parquet flooring. To form a seamless connection, we installed new hardwood flooring in the kitchen and stained the planks to match the dining room floor. Hardwood floors are ideally suited for kitchens because their tone helps warm the space and they are easy to clean and maintain.
A large island that seats four was centered beside the fireplace. The island boasts a white quartz counter that recalls the look of Carrera marble commonly used in 19th century homes. Quartz is just as beautiful as marble; however it is more durable and impervious to stains and bacteria. Also, the surface’s grey veining pairs beautifully with stainless steel appliances.
The island is equipped with a black Blanco crushed granite sink and a pair of LG dishwashers. One dishwasher is dedicated to cleaning glassware (no more broken wine glasses) and the other dishwasher handles dinnerware, cookware and cutlery.
The refrigerator is located near the end of the island and is also centered on the fireplace. We opted for a LG stainless steel French Door model. Tap the glass and the door will illuminate to reveal what’s inside the fridge.
Stainless steel appliances remind us of the command deck on Star Trek. So we’re always fearful about installing them in an antique home.
To strike a balance between old and new, we try to incorporate some architectural salvage and period details into the space. For example, an antique leaded glass panel was inset above the refrigerator. The original antique glass fronted doors and brass hardware from the butler’s pantry were reclaimed for the new cabinets. An original entry door we found in the basement became a pair of pantry doors. We simply cut the door in half lengthwise, reframed the sections and added door pulls. A trio an antique pendant lights were hung above the island. An antique walnut sideboard with marble top was retrofit with plumbing and a glass vessel sink and faucet. And an antique wrought iron fireplace screen with brass ornaments was affixed to the gas fireplace.
The original kitchen windows suffered from rotting sills, broken panes, lead paint, and malfunctioning weights and ropes. Their odd placement did not add enough light or ventilation to the space. By working with a blank slate, we had the opportunity to remove the old windows, close the openings and add four custom, energy efficient Marvin Windows with screens.
Opposite the island, we installed our favorite 36-inch wide, five burner gas range with dual fuel double ovens. The Verona range is manufactured in Italy and boasts form, function, and a price tag that’s too good to be true. A pot filler……perfect for adding water to a stock pot was installed above the range. Classic white subway tiles define the backsplash. And beside the range, we installed a space-saving Sharp microwave drawer.
Luck of the Drawers
Speaking of drawers, we worked closely with our cabinet maker to incorporate many drawers into the design. Drawers offer more storage than lower cabinets and can easily be accessed to retrieve items.
For finishing touches, we dressed the windows with bamboo blinds, placed antique Oriental runners on the floors, filled the cabinets with heirloom ceramic bowls and white dinnerware, and graced the walls with art painted by family members. The new kitchen happily coexists with the old house. And every time someone enters the kitchen for the first time and says, “Oh, you kept the original kitchen,” our hearts are glad.
Stay tuned for the next installment which will feature antique plumbing.
“I despise that chair. Take it out of my sight!” These words spilled from a haughty antiques dealer’s lips over 30 years ago; the fateful day that I purchased my favorite chair and fell hopelessly in love with Old World craftsmanship.
I remember browsing in an antiques shop on Bellevue Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island. The curated wares were close to museum quality and sported price tags with numerals that resembled my last college tuition bill. I don’t recall what that dealer looked like. However, I do remember that she was well rehearsed at ignoring unqualified buyers like myself.
To spare each of us further embarrassment, I planned my quick escape. As I reached for the door knob, a Gothic Revival chair in a state of serious disrepair stopped me in my tracks. When I admired the graceful anatomy of the barley twist legs, I couldn’t help but mutter aloud, “I love this chair.” That’s the moment Madame Dealer perked up and made her infamous proclamation. To which I replied, “Please let me pay you something, anything.” She chortled, “Fine. Give me 20 bucks.” Soon I was nudging that barley twist chair into the open hatchback of my Mercury Lynx. I pulled away from the curb that afternoon feeling euphoric.
There was one thing my father loved more than restoring furniture. And that was teaching others how to restore furniture. With great ceremony, I brought the chair home to Lynnfield, Massachusetts. Dad met me in the driveway and gently pulled the chair from the car. His compassionate gesture reminded me of an EMT pulling a patient from an ambulance. He set the chair down on the lawn and carefully examined every inch of torn embroidered upholstery, bulging copper springs, and stray pieces of loosened fretwork. “Prognosis?” I asked. He looked over his eyeglasses and said, “This is a great chair. We can fix it.”
That weekend I received a crash course in the art of furniture repair. There were spirited discussions about linseed oil, turpentine, triple zero steel wool, wood glue, clamps, batting, jute, staple guns and gimp. There was a blissful excursion to the hardware store to find a hammer with a magnetic end to hold tacks. And there was a mandatory hunt through the remnant section at the rear of a local fabric store. “Whenever you reupholster a chair, always check the remnants first,” Dad said. When I reloaded the born-again barley twist chair sporting an ivory damask fabric into my car on Sunday evening, I thought to myself, “Who uses the word despise?”
Through the years, the barley twist chair has always occupied a place of honor in our home. The upholstery has changed with decorating trends. Today it dons a precious fragment of 60-year old Egyptian cotton that previously enjoyed life as a jib on a vessel that sailed along the Chesapeake Bay.
Twist of Fate
All these years later, we are restoring Restmere. While delving into this home’s extraordinary history, we learned that when Adolph Audrain lived here during the early 20th century, most rooms were decorated with Gothic Revival furniture that he purchased in France. When Prohibition prompted Audrain to move to France, he sold Restmere and all of his furnishings. Maybe the barley twist chair was among the collection and has returned home to Restmere? Who knows? As a nod to Audrain, the barley twist chair presides on the stair landing beneath a stained-glass window depicting a knight.
A Worthy Companion
On a recent visit to our favorite antiques store in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, we found a hall table with barley twist legs, brass claw feet, and four brass griffins that support a shelf. The price tag attributed the table to furniture maker George Hunzinger. But we think the table may have been made by the Merklen Brothers.
Needless to say, the chair and hall table stir a great deal of curiosity. We are still trying to learn more about barley twist furniture made during the Victorian period. All information is welcome.
In the meantime, here is what we know…..
Barley Twist Furniture History
Although barley twist conjures image of sugar candy, the classical sculptural form applies to architecture, sculpture and furniture. Here is a blog that does a wonderful job detailing the History
Historians believe that hand-carved barley twists legs have Spanish, Portuguese and Moorish origins. Barley twists became a popular design element during the Jacobean period from 1603-1688. In the 18th century English craftsman learned to use a lathe to create the intricate twist and soon William & Mary chairs, chests and tables featured a variety of open, closed and double spirals.
Barley twists experienced a revival during the Victorian period from 1830-1890. American furniture makers including the Stickley Brothers, George Hunzinger and the Merklen Brothers were producing chairs, tables, beds, mirrors, and clocks with barley twists crafted from walnut, mahogany, and oak.
Today variations on the barley twist furniture continue to serve as statement pieces. Whether newly constructed or crafted a century ago, I hope that you will add a piece of barley twist furniture to your home.
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.
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:
- Move dragon chandelier from dining room to library. Remove ceiling fan. Center dragon chandelier in front of the Medieval fireplace.
- Move crystal chandelier and sconces from spare bedroom to dining room.
- 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.