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Back to the Future

The proprietors of Besos Tea House let you into their home


Rollin Mason is a bit of a legend in historic Wickford Village. In a state where great fishermen are about as ubiquitous as chowder recipes, it takes an extraordinary accomplishment to be counted among the revered. According to an article in a recent issue of the Narragansett Bay Journal, published by the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, Mason captained a vessel by the time he was a teenager, learning the family trade from his father who opened the Cornelius Island Fish Oil Factory in the 1860s. “It was infamous because it was... stinky,” says Kristin, who has in more recent history, restored Mason’s home similar to its original circa 1900 state, along with her husband Mike. The small “stinky” island in Wickford Harbor, which Mason eventually owned, sits in clear view of their waterfront Victorian, but when Mason had the home built, the water was the last thing he wanted to look at. Spending nearly 40 years at sea, he wanted his home to take advantage of the street view; when he founded the Beacon Oyster Company in 1907 with fellow sea captain Irving Reynolds, he made sure his home was a short walk to the company headquarters, oyster beds and accompanying fleet. Today the area is known as the Pleasant Street Wharf.

When Kristin and Mike bought the stately, five bedroom home nearly seven years ago, it was spacious, charming and pleasing to the eye – but less authentic than they would have preferred. “It had had some renovations through the years not consistent with its history. We attempted to bring it back to its historic place.” Kristin says she and Mike often talked about restoring a period home back to its original glory, but they weren’t exactly in hot pursuit when they stumbled upon the Wickford home. “We were looking for waterfront and I was driving around Wickford wasting time,” Kristin says. A native Rhode Islander, she admits she didn’t know much about the centuries-old fishing village, but like many first timers, instantly fell for its small town allure. Soon the couple was moving their three children in and enjoying the unspoiled harbor views, but it would be years before they decided to start renovations – and they knew they wouldn’t be going it alone.

The couple turned to Spencer Cordtsen McCombe Architecture and Design, based in Newport, to liken the home to its most original state. Challenges, he says, included reworking the floor plan to accommodate modern bathrooms and a kitchen, in addition to finding much needed closet space. One area of the house had even been repurposed in the 1940s to house soldiers during the war, which meant he was tasked with tearing down walls and opening the space back up. “The third floor gable dormers on the water side were small and narrow,” explains McCombe. “We worked with the town’s Historic District Commission to connect the two existing dormers with an inset shed dormer, which provided views and room for the master bedroom while maintaining the historic character of the roof line.”

The wood doors throughout were restored, and even though parts of the hardwood flooring were still in good shape from previous renovations, the couple sought to return as much of the floor as possible to original inlaid pine hardwoods. They stripped the existing historically-accurate flooring to bring it to prime condition and replaced other sections for one cohesive look. The pine stairwell was also in need of repair, and Kristin considered painting it for a quaint, glossy aesthetic, but after stripping it, saw the beauty in its flaws. “They’re not perfect, but I like that,” she says with a smile.

Another hurdle was recreating the windows to embody their original style, of which there seem to be too many to count. Of course, as any owner of an officially recognized historic home will tell you, the distinction also comes with its own unique set of parameters, which can be equally daunting and costly. Replacing the windows with a more modern, energy-efficient model was out of the question. “We duplicated the windows, even down to the wavy glass,” says Kristin, conceding that new storm windows add a layer of efficiency. Duplicating each window was part of the ongoing effort during the multi-year restoration. “The windows were carefully picked to blend with the original design of the home from the street and they also added windows to capitalize on the water views. The exterior eaves and cedar-clad boards and shingles were replicated to match the original design flair,” says McCombe. “The interior built-ins, woodwork and trim took cues from the original style of the home.”

McCombe worked with Doug Shear from Middletown-based Newport Housewrights and with Joseph Yoffa Custom Woodworking & Milling of Newport to turn hope and vision into reality. Small treasures, including a children’s book from the Victorian era and aged apothecary bottles from a local pharmacy were some of the unexpected finds worked into the home’s dcor. Gary Gesualdo of East Coast Designs in East Greenwich and the Wickford Collection’s Toby Aaron and Deb Mehringer helped give the home an authentic but eye-catching aesthetic.

The most recent renovation occurred outside the Rollin Mason home’s doors. “We just did the yard and again, it’s a waterfront home, but it’s also a Victorian home. We wanted to retain the integrity of the Victorian and not make it too beachy.” Although they added a pool, the couple ensured the look blended seamlessly into the property. “It’s natural,” she says, crediting Aaron again, who also works with Briden Nurseries and Landscape Management, with giving the home and landscape a cohesive look and feel.

Having such a great experience with the team that restored their home, the couple turned to the same team when they renovated the space at iconic East Greenwich landmark, The Elms, and turned it into the much-loved Besos Tea House, which opened at 378 Main Street in October. The upscale eatery features elegant decor and welcoming atmosphere, which may be why it’s been so well received. Exquisite glass light fixtures, baroque mirrors and warm vignettes define the space as sophisticated sans pretension, just like its delicious cuisine.

By all means, both their home and restaurant renovations were daunting, but a good outlook and an even better team made it all possible.