From Shack to Spectacular

Building a dream house on the cove


When Mary and Jim Sullivan bought a tiny, one bedroom fishing shack on Wickford Cove Inlet in 1997, they agreed the term “diamond in the rough” to describe the property was a gross understatement. “It was really a mess,” says Mary, explaining that the plot was such a disaster, that the surrounding neighborhood had taken up a fund to somehow improve the indisputable eyesore. “Of course my husband thought it was the best thing ever.”

After signing on the dotted line, the couple stood in the yard, entrenched in overgrown grasses, bramble and thicket with a garden of tires, a mobile home and a broken down chicken coop in their sights, they knew they had their work cut out for them. “It was more a Stephen King movie,” describes Jim.The couple says the only indication they had that they were close to the water was the clanging sounds made by ships’ rigging against masts in the distance. They rolled up their sleeves and foot by foot, started clearing the land which was riddled with poison ivy and poison oak among other invasive species. Plenty of discoveries — good and bad — were uncovered along the way. “There was this beautiful old stone wall we didn’t even know was there until two years later,” says Jim, laughing.“It was completely covered.”

Within a year, the landscaping was manicured and the fishing shack turned into
a cozy, coastal cottage. Thank you notes came pouring in from neighbors. For a
dozen years, the couple and their two children would visit the cottage during the summertime and relish in simple living opposite Wickford’s charming downtown
village and steps from the town beach. “It was maybe 400 square feet and we loved it,” says Mary.

The Sullivans rented the cottage during the academic year, and it was an ideal arrangement until an incident occurred where the cottage was vandalized to the extent it was unable to be restored. “There was nothing left undamaged,” says Mary. “[But] we always knew we needed a bigger home on the site, so we tried to see the silver lining.”

The couple turned to award-winning builder Matt Davitt of Davitt Design Build based in West Kingston as they had seen his work around the region and in magazines. Davitt is also known to have a particular métier for navigating zoning and permitting challenges that inherently face coastal and waterfront properties. Regulations presented by the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) and Department of Environmental Management-type bureaus in Rhode Island can be daunting when it comes to coastal construction projects and the Sullivan home was no different.

“The project required many variances from the town for building setbacks,” says Matt. He worked closely with CRMC and the DEM to ensure the project stayed on track throughout each building phase.

Mary says she and Jim were looking to design a home that offered a modern
aesthetic while making smart use of space and celebrated its unique locale – all the while keeping everything affordable. Over the course of nine months, the couple collaborated with Davitt to deliver a home that met that wish list and so much more. “We had the advantage of taking our time,” says Jim. “We weren’t against a deadline and that was a gift.

The two bedroom, one-and-a-half bath, two-story house seems substantially
larger than it’s approximately 2,000 square feet, thanks in large part to the open floor plan, modern furnishings and streamlined design. “Open floor plans allows for small spaces to appear larger,” explains Matt, who says room sizing, views, light and traffic flow are similarly critical considerations when it comes to merging space and style. Jim and Mary also took the lessons realized from their former cottage.

“What we learned from living in the small space was you don’t need a ton of space for quality of life and simple living and how to utilize the space so every inch works,” explains Jim. He was also cognizant of the “cold and uninviting” feel sometimes associated with contemporary designs, which is why they chose soft fabrics and warm tones throughout.

“Mary had a big hand from day one on interior design,” says Matt. She was also
resourceful. Mary found a bathroom vanity by international German glassware
manufacturer Villeroy & Boch that was listed on eBay by an upscale bathroom
showroom in Boston that was going out of business. She tracked its decreasing
asking price and when it became affordable, snatched it up at a bargain. Porcelain
plank tiles that look much like wood in a modern, upscale way make up the
entrance floors – a find Mary located on Craigslist. “I wanted to try and make the
house affordable, but still everything we wanted it to be,” explains Mary. “Everything has a story, which I like.”

One of those pieces is an “American Union Jack” flag dating back to 1944, all blue with 48 white stars, the couple traced back to California’s Mare Island Naval Shipyard that hangs in son Luke’s room. “We wanted something nautical but not traditional nautical,” explains Jim. “It flew on a ship during World War II.” Even more meaningful, the piece is an homage to both Jim and Mary’s fathers, both of whom served in WWII. In fact, each piece of art was carefully selected, but none may be more eye-catching than a life-size mannequin seemingly swimming in air over the kitchen created by Mary, a talented but humble artist, reveals Jim. “She decoupaged a swimsuit on it using local nautical maps of the area and over the heart, it’s the map featuring our property.”

The placement and angle of the house is equally crucial, says Matt. A screened in porch and multiple decks take advantage of the million dollar views and inside, design elements like a floating staircase allow uninterrupted panoramas. “The view is absolutely incredible,” remarks Mary. “I never knew we were on such a beautiful property.”

You know how people say if you build a house it will be the end of your marriage?
Well, we had so much fun!” she exclaims. “We built our dream house.”