Special Order

A spectacular Rhode Island site overlooking both ocean  and river gets an equally extraordinary house that binds past and present and joins indoors to out.

Text by Lisa E. Harrison Photography by Lisa E. Harrison

The search for the perfect piece of property took these homeowners four long years. A weekend getaway to Newport initially sold them on the idea of summering in Rhode Island. “We fell in love with the whole area: the stunning waters sprinkled with sailboats, the casual atmosphere and the down-to-earth people,” remembers the wife. The couple had their hearts set on waterfront, but not just any old parcel. They wanted something spacious, secluded—in short, special. The kind of property that gets passed down from generation to generation and rarely comes up for sale.

Just when they were about to throw up their hands, they found it, a 1,500-square-foot summer cottage with plenty of mice and no heat. It was the land, a private, three-and-a-half-acre spit with 270-degree water views that captured sunrise and sunset, that drew them. “We didn’t even look at the house that was on the property!” exclaims the wife. “The land was so unique, with the ocean bordering the property on one side and the river and beach on the other side.”

They enlisted veteran Rhode Island–based architect Jim Estes to helm the project. No stranger to creating stunning seaside escapes, even he was impressed with the vantage. “It is one of the most spectacular views we’ve ever worked with,” he says.

No surprise, then, that the landscape would serve as the driving creative force behind the build-out. Down came the tattered cottage. In its place (and then some) went a 3,100-square-foot house that simultaneously pays homage to the land and breathes new life into the stunning surroundings. “It’s a prominent site,” says Estes, “so we wanted a low-profile house.” The goal was a “minimally two-story house—no big attic spaces and as low as possible.”

It also had to be fairly maintenance-free in terms of exterior up-keep and bulletproof when it came to salt air and snowy winters. That’s where Wes Deane of Highland Builders came in, executing Estes’s plan and building a house so solid he’d welcome the opportunity to ride out a hurricane in it.

Hipped roofs, large red-cedar clapboards and a generous amount of New England fieldstone help anchor the structure to the land and set up a seamless transition between the new construction and the rugged, natural landscape.

True to Estes’s genius, the house defies easy labels. It’s not a contemporary, per se, nor a straight Shingle-style. And that’s exactly the point: the aim was to cast aside monikers and design to the site, creating a harmonious space that’s in sync with its natural setting and has an equally seamless flow indoors.

The house comprises three rectangles: the first-floor living area and guest suite; the upstairs sleeping quarters with a master suite, laundry room and kids’ bedrooms; and a two-car garage-plus that incorporates a playroom and bathroom accessible from the pool. Efficiency was an important part of the design process. “There’s not a lot of redundancy,” says Estes. “We wanted to do it once…and do it right.”

The main living space brings kitchen, dining and living rooms together in one open, airy expanse. Three sets of nine-foot-tall sliders run the length of the room on each side, successfully joining outdoors and in. An eye-catching fifteen-foot-tall exposed-beam ceiling with vertical-grain fir beams and cypress planks lends loft and plays nicely with the reclaimed yellow-pine flooring underfoot.

A stone fireplace with a thin arched Southern yellow pine mantel, designed by Estes and executed by master stoneworker Kevin Baker (who also gets credit for the exterior work), offers textural appeal and some heft to the breezy space. Just beyond the fireplace sits the husband’s study to the left and a screened-in porch to the right.

When it came to the overall vibe, the wife wanted to retain a casual beach-house feel. And with four children ages three to thirteen descending for summer vacations, the house had to be able to withstand some wear and tear.

Interior designer Kathie Wheaton took the couple’s wishes to heart, creating a space at once practical (the dining chairs are slip-covered—just toss them in the wash; the sofas wear Sunbrella indoor-outdoor fabric) and aesthetically connected to the surroundings. Small touches throughout—cobalt-blue chair fabrics, sheer draperies that billow with the breeze, a prudent use of wicker—say quintessential beach cottage. A palette of whites, blues and grays recalls New England waterways.

Wheaton took a subtle approach. “The site is such a strong site that you don’t want to interrupt the incredible peacefulness,” she says. “Interiors, I wanted to ensure, became secondary to views. My job is to move the eye to where you want it to be, which is the outside.”

Playing off the push between new construction and the ageless seascape, Wheaton added accents that travel back in time. The living room’s side tables are fabricated from petrified wood, and a large antique trunk with plenty of cubbies and drawers for storage doubles as a coffee table. The technology, however, is decidedly present day; all of the windows and sliders are equipped with automated blinds that let in watery vistas with the flick of a switch.

Outside, understated landscaping plays up the coastal feel. “I wanted to keep everything very minimal, very beachy,” says landscape architect Sharon Mooney. She turned to local favorites like hydrangeas, rosa rugosa, bayberry and lavender for optimal pop at the height of summer.

A heated pool designed by Mooney gives the beach friendly competition. The right side of the L-shaped pool has a lap lane, at the husband’s request. There’s a raised spa for soaking and stargazing, a waterfall feature for visual and sound effect (and kid-friendly splashing) and an area beneath a pergola with a built-in grill for family gatherings.

Mooney elevated the pool a couple of feet so swimmers can soak up an uninterrupted sightline straight to the Atlantic. And that is, in fact, what it’s all about at this house: taking in the view, from dozens of different, equally compelling, angles. No small feat on Estes’s part, it turns out every single room—save for a half-bath on the first floor—has a water view. It’s an impressive detail that makes the home exactly what the owners desired: special. •

Architecture: James Estes, Estes/Twombly  Architects
Interior design: Kathie Wheaton, Design Collaborative
Landscape design: Sharon Mooney, Mooney Landscape Architects
Builder: Westall Deane, Highland Builders

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