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 Our favorite host guides eager homeowners through an outdated structure that desperately needs a makeover.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.
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
(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
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.
(Andrea Hansen Photo)
(Andrea Hansen Photo)
(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
(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.
(Andrea Hansen Photo)
(Andrea Hansen Photo)
(Andrea Hansen Photo)
An adventure is unfolding. Stay tuned as we post pictures of this rejuvenation project.
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 …
Source: 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.
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.
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.
Source: 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.
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.
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.
The chipped lead paint on this cupboard is highly toxic.
Here are some brown antiques that look on the bright side…….so to speak.
Antique Ogee mirror with mahogany frame. The glass reflects light and brightens the room.
Antique Federal mirror. The pediment, urn, flowers, carvings, and inlaid detail are lovely.
Antique marble top table.
Antique mahogany chair. The seat is upholstered with a vintage cotton sail.
Antique Stickley Rocking Chair…..an icon of the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Vintage chinoiserie chest of drawers. The decoration is so romantic.
Antique 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!