The best part of the project was that little had been done to the house. And the worst part of the project was that little had been done to the house.
I’ve grown accustomed to this refrain that is common among those who’ve restored or renovated old homes. Having spent 25 blissful years writing about architecture and interior design for magazines, I’ve met many architects, builders, designers and homeowners from around the country who agree that rescuing historic architectural details and adapting antiquated structures to suit modern lifestyles is a feat likened to walking on a tightrope. Striking the perfect balance between capturing yesteryear’s romance and incorporating today’s necessities is always challenging.
The Sherman House is a fine example of the Newport Federal style. The home boasts original millwork, wide planked floors, six fireplaces, two parlors, several bedrooms, spacious attic and a pair of staircases. However, when we happened upon the property, the home was on the brink of ruin. A succession of families lived happily in the home for many decades. However, over the course of time they made little alterations and improvements to the home. The first time I saw the house in its sagging condition, the ghosts of magazine-articles-past echoed in my head.
Sherman House, Newport, RI
Not surprisingly, the house failed inspection with flying colors. I think the structural engineer may still be shaking his head in disbelief. To bring this Historic Hill District house up to code, the short list includes replacing the asphalt roof with cedar shakes, replacing vinyl windows with true divided light wood windows with energy panels, adding new plumbing, installing new heating and cooling systems and rebuilding the chimneys and front stoop. John and I cherish Rhode Island’s rich architectural heritage and advocate preservation; but we do not envision having a docent greet family and friends at the door and then guide them past rooms cordoned off with red velvet rope. Our aim is to rejuvenate the Sherman House, preserve as much character as humanly possible, and reconfigure the spaces so the home is a joy to live in for the next two hundred years. Some may think this odd, but we often try to imagine what future stewards of the Sherman House might think of our design decisions.
We’ve all watched HGTV. (If I knew how to program the DVR, I would definitely record Fixer Upper — Joanne and Chip make ship lap look so beautiful!) Anyway, our favorite programs usually begin with a reciting of a dream home wish list. The mantra for most house hunters, remodelers and flippers includes: a modern kitchen perfect for entertaining, a quiet space that serves as a home office or retreat, spa-like bathrooms, rooms that connect to the outdoors, ample storage, and a first floor master bedroom designed for aging in place. John and I have these same aspirations for the Sherman House.
Our rejuvenation project entails removing the awkward three-story addition on the back of the house and building a new kitchen and dining room; converting the front parlor into a first floor guest room with access to an ADA bathroom; adding closets to a home that has none; creating an attic studio; using antiques and architectural salvage to form transitions from old to new spaces; building a wrap-around porch; and planting a traditional boxwood and perennial garden.
Sketch of new floor plan in the original house by John K. Grosvenor.
Some of the new design elements are not considered Federal but they respectfully accentuate the original house with contemporary ideals. We will certainly strive to restore the original floors, horse hair plaster, mantels, chair rails, crown moldings, window brackets, stair brackets, and newel posts. These vestiges will continue to serve as poetic reminders of the brave Sherman family who chose to make Newport their home during the early 19th century. We hope to complete our rejuvenation project by next spring. Stay tuned to see how we progress.
Coming next….Architectural Salvage to the Rescue