Block Island Bliss

One couple renovated the historic Vail Hotel into a gorgeous summer retreat


Block Island might be best known as a favorite summertime destination – it’s hard to resist its wide sandy beaches, legendary picturesque bluffs and charming, Rockwellian vibe. But it’s also an island rich in history, with many homes and hotels dating back a century or more. So when a visionary couple sought to reinvent a somewhat neglected property that overlooked the sea, they turned to Block Island’s own Josh Redd of North Atlantic Builders.

“The main part of the Vail Hotel I believe was torn down 20 or 30 years ago, and then this was the annex building,” explains Josh. “There were five bedrooms in the house and they all still had the original room numbers on them.”

According to Historic and Architectural Resources of Block Island, Rhode Island, published by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission in cooperation with the Block Island Historical Society, the Vail Cottages were built in 1885 for Dr. Abby E. Vail, a doctor from New York. The pair of 1 1/2-story shingled cottages were built by John F. Hayes – one of Block Island’s preeminent builders during the late 19th century.

The hotel and its ancillary buildings, Josh explains, have transitioned through just a handful of owners since the main hotel was demolished in the 1980s. The current owners purchased the property just over a year ago; though they could have been swayed by the structure’s ramshackle facade and obvious need for serious renovations, the panoramic ocean views were too captivating to pass up.

“It was very tired,” Josh describes. “It’s right on the bluffs, so it really gets hammered by the weather. Pretty much the entire exterior was gone. The rooms, the shingles, the trim – they hadn’t had a lot of love in a lot of years. But the bones were still there – a perfect candidate for a restoration project. The old stone foundation was in great shape, and the building itself was structurally sound. Certainly a good candidate.”

Like many old structures in need of restoration, projects like these take much more than vision. They take substantial financial investment, talented craftspeople and a boatload of patience. During both renovations and restorations, old buildings embody one mantra: expect the unexpected.

“It’s such a cool building and it takes the right owner to want to buy something like that... to bring it back to its glory,” explains Josh. The owners turned to architect Mary Ellen Croteau to merge 21st century conveniences amid old world surroundings. No stranger to homes in need of restoration due to more than a century’s worth of wear and tear, Mary Ellen said she quickly saw why her clients felt compelled to rescue this dated building. “It was exciting to work on a house that was such a great property with such amazing views,” she says. “I had photos from when the house had been built or shortly thereafter, which helped tremendously. I tried to keep the original style of the home and proportion of the building.”

Josh and Mary Ellen saw eye to eye throughout the project and both were equally committed to restoring the property while mindfully making modifications to the home to accommodate 21st century living.

One major modification was the removal of the original stone chimney. When Mary Ellen first heard her clients wanted it removed, her heart sank. A longtime mender of time-weathered homes, the very idea seemed blasphemous. “I love historic homes but when I saw the chimney, I could see why it needed to go,” she says. The stone behemoth was awkwardly placed on the ocean-facing side of the home, obstructing the mesmerizing view. Removing it made way for expanding the size of the bedrooms and allowed more natural light to pour through the many windows. The original wraparound porch railings were evident in the historic photographs, but Mary Ellen suggested to the homeowners to eliminate them altogether for uninterrupted views of the Atlantic. Mary Ellen restored most of the windows back to their original size in addition to recreating a trim piece that runs horizontally around the house. “That master bedroom deck on the upper level was an addition that was put on many years ago,” says Josh.

“We tore it off the house and the architect put up something that would match the original design and blended it in.” Redd tore off all the remaining decks to construct new, study ones that can brave the elements.

“You don’t get a lot of opportunities to do a project like this. New construction is fun but this building is so interesting and worth saving.” Unfortunately, adds Josh, many old homes and structures on Block Island are torn down to make room for new properties. In many cases, a structure is simply not sound and therefore unsalvageable. In other cases, modern day CRMC regulations and other regulatory challenges render a restoration project difficult at best. Josh says one thing that worked to their advantage was that the work didn’t alter the footprint in any way. Other parts were also reconstructed, piece by piece, even though Mother Nature wasn’t always on his team’s side.

“It was pretty rough spot to work last winter – that was tough. We started in the fall and had them ready to move in for the summer in May, so we had to plow through,” he explains. With much experience working on Block Island through the coldest months, Josh and his North Atlantic Builders stayed focused and delivered the five bedroom, 3,088 square foot house by deadline – right in time for the new homeowners to soak up a quintessential Block Island summer.