Called The Playhouse, the building began life serving the 1902 Wildacre mansion next door. The captivating location just a few feet from the lapping water of Prices Neck Cove, an inlet of the Atlantic along Ocean Avenue in Newport, Rhode Island, gave the structure its utility as a boathouse but also exposed it to years of water damage.
When homeowners David and JoAnn Vieau fell for the building in 2010, The Playhouse was on its own ½-acre property, having long been independent from the Irving Gill-designed mansion and its sprawling grounds. Converted to a house by previous owners but unoccupied for a spell, The Playhouse was in need of attention.
The couple — he’s a renewable-energy executive, she’s an interior designer — knew it would be challenging. “We had already done two carriage house restorations in Newport, but the chance to be near the water was irresistible, and we were committed no matter what the obstacles,” says JoAnn, who turned to Middletown, Rhode Island, builder David Jenkins of Jenkins Construction to do the rebuild.
Jenkins recalls the challenge with a no-nonsense assessment: “The house was pretty much collapsing. Between the bugs, animals, weather, and water, it was rotting away.”
Although the Vieaus initially thought they would mainly need to focus on interior spaces to make the structure a gathering place for their family, which includes three married daughters and four young grandchildren, the team first had to address site work and structural issues.
Not only did The Playhouse have ocean water at the southern edge of the property, it also had granite ledge on the northern perimeter, hard against a sloped curve in the road. Both areas needed work. A new stone breakwater at the ocean’s edge was built to keep as much saltwater as possible from entering the yard, where a pool and patio area form the main outdoor living spaces on the front, cove-facing side of the house.
Of equal concern at the back of the house (near the ledge and the road) was the accumulation of years of mud and dirt spilling off the street. Debris filled the area beneath a stone bridge that connected the second floor of the structure — the area thought to have once been the carriage house — to the road. “That meant there was no air circulation at ground level, and that had contributed to the rot,” says Jenkins.
His team dug away the debris, revealing an enchanting stone archway and creating a pathway around the house, which meant access to every part of the property and more options for the homeowners. For example, in rethinking the mechanical systems, the couple dug deep, literally, and chose a geothermal heating and cooling system, and they found a spot for an underground tank for propane for the kitchen stove and water heater. Jenkins rebuilt parts of the foundation to address water issues and wrapped the bottom 3 feet of the house — stretching from the below-grade foundation up to just under window height — in a sheet of copper to give the structure an extra layer of water resistance behind the shingles. He also added blown-in foam insulation to help make the house weather-tight.
In updating the look and function of the house itself, the owners kept the original architectural style, footprint, and roofline but replaced the materials. “The design of the house is the same, but I wanted something more natural for the exterior materials,” says JoAnn. Jenkins replaced painted white shingles with Alaskan yellow cedar (“I like the way it weathers to gray,” says JoAnn) and installed new energy-efficient solid wood windows that are mahogany on the exterior, painted white, and sugar maple with a natural stain on the interior. He milled salvaged antique cypress into new front doors whose arched shape mimics the original doorway, and built a pergola from the same cedar to mark the entry from dining room to patio. “The cypress doors make a nice accent and play up the indoor-outdoor connection,” says JoAnn.
Indoors, the spaces were reconfigured to suit a family that likes to gather for holidays and summertime visits, with most of the first floor becoming an open-plan kitchen-dining-living area. Key to the new kitchen scheme is an original fieldstone doorway to the yard. JoAnn’s design has it located in an enclosed entry, part of an addition the couple had built. The homeowners hired a mason to build a pizza oven with a look similar to the old stone doorway to separate the working section of the kitchen from the pantry area. “I didn’t want wall cabinets in the kitchen, so adding a pantry was important,” says JoAnn. “It meant we could keep the main kitchen area simple and light-filled.” A wall of windows above the kitchen sink overlooks the yard with a view to the sea, and a handcrafted wooden table acts a prep island.
The designer also used stonework to create a focal point in the living area, adding a fieldstone fireplace, especially appreciated when a storm rolls in from the sea and a wood fire makes the house cozy.
Large windows give the living area plenty of natural light, plus a stunning view to the water.
Another defining element is wood, used not only for floors but on ceilings as well. The second-floor master bedroom, for example, features peaked ceilings, which reach 18 feet and are sheathed in antique cypress, and a master bath with a teak floor. Elsewhere, the house has maple floors and maple interior trim. “We were very intentional in our desire to make the house look natural, or even rustic,” says JoAnn.
A second-floor guest bedroom was added, and a rebuilt freestanding garage holds a home office and additional sleeping quarters.
Throughout the house, both inside and out, bits of serendipity add the final touches in keeping with JoAnn’s love of odd finds — and her tireless spirit for reinvention. Examples include using an old piece of wood found on the property as the fireplace mantel, turning two pieces of travertine into a dining table that seats 14 by adding a midsection of teak, using five boulders offered from a nearby estate to fill in a bit of landscape at the northwest corner of the property, turning an extra cedar beam into a garden bench, and finding a couple of pieces of ledge in a rubble pile in Tiverton, Rhode Island, that were just right as garden path markers.
“That’s how I drive everyone crazy,” says JoAnn with a laugh. “Not only do I find these things, but then we have to go figure out how to get them back to the house or make them work.”
With their most challenging carriage house renovation complete, the homeowners are not looking for another project.
“This is our year-round home,” says JoAnn, “and we now have room for the entire family to gather. That’s saying something.”
See more images of the Newport home: