Family memories, framed
John Grosvenor and Cheryl Hackett love projects. And early American houses.
So it was only fitting that they were excited about Restmere, an 1857 Italian-style villa that had seen better days.
“We’re very project-oriented,” says Hackett. “As soon as we saw it, we said, ‘We’ll take it.'”
They found the Middletown property after the New York Times reported in 2016 on their former “eternal home” — the 1811 Sherman House in Newport they renovated. It sold quickly and the couple soon needed a new place to live.
They bought Restmere in July 2016. It was one of the first mansions in the Area designed by Richard Upjohn as a summer residence for Alexander Van Rensselaer. Hackett, an author and writing teacher, ransacked letters and history Records, looking for clues to the origins of the house.
Grosvenor, an architect and director at Newport Collaborative Architects, grew up in a family of artists in Newport. His father, Richard, was an artist who taught at St George’s School for forty years and loved painting with his four children as they grew up. Grosvenor and Hackett wanted to fill their home with these happy memories, so the front foyer is lined with a colorful collection of landscapes and buildings, all painted by family members.
A newly renovated basement gallery — nicknamed the Brick Gallery Pub, a nod to Newport’s famous Brick Alley Pub — houses more of Richard’s artwork, and John’s easel and his father’s stand side-by-side in a studio just outside the entrance.
French treasures, vintage finds
Antiquarian Adolphe Audrain, who owned Restmere from 1909 to 1919 before retiring to France to protest Prohibition, left behind countless treasures: French doors, a Baccarat crystal chandelier, a medieval limestone mantel and rare antique lighting fixtures.
“I like to say we bought the antiques,” says Hackett, “and they threw them in for free.”
Perhaps the most astounding find was a nickel chest shower, which they found in pieces in the main bathroom. It took a team of three plumbers three weeks to assemble the rarity.
Whenever they needed an item in the renovation, the couple would first go down to the basement, where old doors were lockedTerraces, windows and various fittings were stored. They complemented the French treasures and salvaged pieces with a mix of vintage finds and treasures from antique shops.
“Some people rescue dogs,” Hackett says. “We save china and laundry.”
Call it coincidence: Hackett discovered Audrain’s ownership of the house during her investigation. As it turned out, Grosvenor had just helped remodel the Audrain building in Newport, which Audrain Commissioned in 1903 to house his antique shop, in the Audrain Automobile Museum.
During the renovation, the couple discovered how the previous owners added a little bit of their personality to the structure.
Original owner Alexander Van Rensselaer commissioned the Italianate style, while Audrain added French flair and Colonial Revival elements like a gently curving main staircase and Corinthian columns. US Navy Admiral Kalbfus and his wife Silvia, an actress, owned the home for thirty years. During his two terms as President of the Naval War College, he drove straight down Miantonomi Avenue to work. (Just past the Newport Line, Miantonomi Avenue becomes Admiral Kalbfus Road.)
The renovation project lasted eighteen months. Grosvenor and Hackett repaired cracked walls and ceilings, renewed the home’s mechanical and plumbing systems, replaced the roof, and replaced the signature hardwood floors. But the biggest challenge was the kitchen: the house was rotting away.
The room is now bright and friendly, facing east and flooded with light. A new quartz kitchen island with seating for four serves as a gathering place; a gas fireplace built into an existing chimney immerses the room in cozy warmth. The room features new stainless steel appliances, two dishwashers, a microwave hidden under the counter and a pantry with doors made from an old front doorwayvague from the cellar. An antique leaded glass pane from a china cabinet sits on top of the fridge and lets in even more light.
Co-founded during the 1964 Newport Folk Festival George Wein had to host several blues artists. Enter Residual Mere. Wine rented the house (free at the time) for a week for artists like Mississippi John Hurt, Willie Doss and Fred McDowell jamming there with other festival headliners like Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Peter, Paul and Mary.
The resulting album Traditional Music at Newport 1964, Part 1 includes a photograph of the artists gathered on Restmere’s porch.
Now that the main project is complete — “It’s been a blast,” says Grosvenor — they’ve turned their attention to the landscaping. When designing the exterior, they pored over the home’s original landscaping plans, attempting to restore its former majesty by adding pathways, walls and multiple plantings.
River birches and sugar maples line the lawn, with dozens of rose bushes planted in memory of Hackett’s mother, Roseann, who loved the showy, fragrant blooms.
Her efforts paid off: the house is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and won both the Doris Duke Historic Preservation Award and the Rhody Award for Historic Preservation in 2019.
But Grosvenor and Hackett aren’t done yet. They are already working on their next project, the renovation of a historic home in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, at the base of Mount Monadnock. They hope to make it as welcoming and warm as their home in Middletown, where they are happy to host their blended family, including five children and three grandchildren.
“Everyone says it’s a happy home,” says Hackett. “That’s the best compliment.”