When the Wardle family moved back stateside from South Africa 14 years ago, finding the ideal home for the family of five proved challenging. “We were looking by schools, and we were in between South Kingstown, Narragansett and East Greenwich because my kids were in middle school and high school at the time,” explains Lynn Wardle. “It seemed like every time we found a house, it went into purchase and sale.”
One afternoon, a friend was driving Lynn down Caswell Street, not far from the Narragansett Towers, en route to a listing, when the busy mother insisted she stop the car. Set back from the street behind a stone wall stood Althea Cottage, circa 1884, a two-and-a-half story gable-roofed Victorian with a stone chimney, wrap- around porch and “For Sale” sign in the yard. When she and husband John were finally able to get inside, well, they were quickly reminded to never judge a book by its cover.
“Pink shag everywhere,” she laughs. “It was amazing! The kitchen was – I can’t even tell you. There was a wood stove there with plastic up the wall, it had a border in black with pink roses. Everything was really dark. It needed a ton of work.” The previous owner had tended to the exterior quite nicely; but the interior, from floor to ceiling, was lost somewhere in time.
The bones and benefits, however, were solid. The porches were in perfect condition, the proximity to the beach was ideal and the school system was first-rate. The swing vote belonged to the children, who were less concerned about the shag and more enthralled with the back staircase that led to the top floor. Lynn explains: “I think they saw fun, like We’re gonna run up and down on the staircases and the third floor is going to be the bunk house.’” The couple wanted to make sure the kids were serious that this was the place. “So I asked the kids why they really wanted it,” Lynn says, “and they told me that it looks like home. So, John got into negotiations with the owner.”
“My friends came over and they were horrified – horrified!” says Lynn, with a laugh. She had made a deal with John that if they bought the home, they could renovate the kitchen right away, so after the movers (who brought belongings from South Africa and from Minneapolis, where they lived previously) got them settled, the first major project got underway. “We brought a contractor in and people from Arnold Lumber because I do all local,” says Lynn proudly. The contractor gave her a number, “And well, you know, that doubled,” she smirks. The end result is an elegant and equally functional kitchen boasting sage green kitchen cabinetry by Plain & Fancy, appliances to suit the cooking couple, strategically placed cubbies for storage (including cookbooks and serving supplies), marble countertops, an expansive island and a breakfast bar.
After the kitchen was completed, all three of the bathrooms were renovated while keeping their historic integrity in mind. Original fixtures were used whenever possible, and some were relocated including a porcelain pedestal sink with single basin taps that was originally built into an upstairs bath and reconfigured to the first floor. In the master bath, the floor comprises wide plank wooden boards in white (that need annual painting) and a claw foot soaking tub, one of Lynn’s favorite features. In the same space, a closet was transformed into a stand-up shower to accommodate John, who is 6’5”.
Every room in the house was painted – about a dozen – and Lynn had an injured rotator cuff to prove it. In the living room, a rug from the Wickford Collection with an interpretive floral pattern in blues and greens became the inspiration for the wall color that marries both the living space and the kitchen.
Soon, the owner of the Wickford Collection, Deb Aaron, became a trusted confidant and close friend who was tasked with defining the home’s aesthetic. “I had to say to Deb, ‘There are grandkids all over the place.’ Everything had to be kid-friendly; that’s why even with the light colors, everything washes right off,” says Lynn.
Atop the rug is a utility cart coffee table where Lynn and John’s grandson, Nolan, learned to walk (and, subsequently, smashed a blueberry into the rug that was quickly washed away thanks to Lynn’s demand for durable pieces). A birdbath with a glass top acts as an end table (“A girl can’t have too many birdbaths,” she quips). A beloved photograph by Rhode Island photographer Richard Benjamin (which belonged to Lynn’s dear late friend Ann) is a personal treasure. An oversized, blue tin sign takes center stage with a single message: Embrace. “This is where all of our family gathers, all of our extended family,” says Lynn warmly. “They came to South Africa, they came to Minneapolis. We have a big family – and we always have our family together.”
The epicenter of the first floor is the dining room, which merges century-old sentiment via architecture and antiques with modern day convenience. Not long ago, Lynn shocked her husband by hiring a carpenter/furniture-maker friend to make use of an otherwise underused (in her words, “bizarre”) space by building a bar with a wine cooler, small refrigerator and cabinets for stemware. The construction took all of two days since the project had to be wrapped before the big reveal. “When they found out this was a surprise for my husband, they said, ‘You’re the best.’ And I was like, ‘I know.’”
The library/office/media center is anything but pretentious with family photos peppered throughout the shelves of books, trinkets from continent-hopping and treasured mementos. A storefront-size red neon sign above the doorway simply reads: BOOKS. “It adds a little whimsy, doesn’t it?” Lynn asks rhetorically. The quietest spot in the home is in the sitting room, a bright and cheerful space awash in yellow with stunning architectural details “This is the longest we’ve been in any house, and while I don’t get attached to houses, I’m attached to this one now.”