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Living in the Matunuck Schoolhouse

When the Schwabs bought the 1905 Matunuck Schoolhouse five years ago, they saw potential in the historic property – but didn't expect to have to make changes so soon. Mother nature had other plans...

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Four years ago, we introduced you to Richard and Kristin Schwab, two academics at the University of Connecticut who serendipitously made the former Matunuck Schoolhouse their home. The couple had long term plans to reinvent parts of the 1904 schoolhouse both inside and out. In the winter of 2012, those plans took an unexpected turn when the Schwabs came home only to find burst pipes, a flooded basement, unsalvageable ceilings and walls and a severely damaged kitchen. “It was a nightmare,” Richard says bluntly.

“It was awful at first but, then… we might as well embrace it,” reflects Kristin, conceding that while there were home improvement plans on the horizon, the couple had no intentions of doing them so quickly. The couple’s insurer had a disaster team, Westerly-based ServiceMaster by Mason, in place right away. The team spent nine hours bailing out water and tearing out water-soaked ceilings and walls. When the couple had a blank – but finally dry – slate, they took inventory of everything that needed to be replaced, and things they wanted to replace. “We decided to bite the bullet and make the kitchen of our dreams,” says Richard. “It was a 1980s kitchen, but they had done it nicely,” explains Kristin. “That’s why we were reluctant to do it [initially].”

The couple turned to Matt Davitt of Davitt Design Build of West Kingston, a longtime advocate of preservation and restoration. “Davitt was in there for almost six months to do work from the repair on top of design we wanted to do,” explains Richard. Along the way, the couple continued to merge modern conveniences with architectural consideration, as the more-than-acentury- old building is not only a local landmark but a community treasure. “A lot of the folks that went to school there were working on the house,” says Richard with a laugh. In the painstaking restoration process, it was clear the Schwabs weren’t the only ones emotionally invested in the project.

One of the home’s features the family had long hoped to address was the windows. “It always kind of bothered me, because the ones from the old house had so much character,” explains Kristin. “We worked with Arnold Lumber and they found windows that matched pretty much identically except they are modern and energy efficient,” says Richard. “We had photos of the original windows from the exterior of the house so we used the same dimensions,” adds Kristin. The couple also replaced all the bi-fold doors in the home with period-inspired five-panel Shaker style doors. “[They] are more in keeping with the craftsman style,” says Kristin. With the finish work, all the damaged trim was removed and replaced with custom cut trim that seamlessly matches the original wood detail.

In So Rhode Island’s 2010 feature of the home, we revealed the couple had planned to make the basement, which a century ago served as the school’s cafeteria and indoor playground, and included both girls and boys lavatories, into a “man cave” and casual family room space where their two collegeage children could equally relax and unwind. Another blessing in disguise as a result of the pipe disaster was the opportunity to finally finish the basement, which has evolved into a multi-purpose entertainment space. “It’s really a young adult cave now because my son is a senior in college and my daughter is just starting grad school,” says Richard. “It’s where they and all their friends hang out and play ping pong, foosball, darts and the TVs are down there.”

But the space that underwent the most dramatic change was the kitchen. “We tried to keep things as authentic as possible. It more honors the history of the home – it has a historic feel with contemporary flair,” says Richard. “We put in a Wolf stove and apron sink. We found this really unique tile that has small cracks in it, so it looks old, but it’s new, in teal. It looks really great against the cabinets.” The style, created by Kitchens Direct of New England in Wakefield, reflects a 1920s mission style and opens up to the living space. The smart floor plan allows for these wo enthusiastic cooks to whip up dishes and entertain guests simultaneously. The couple put the space to the test when they hosted family, friends and the folks who helped put the schoolhouse back together again for a holiday party during a roaring snowstorm. The weather didn’t stop a thing and the celebration continued into the night.

The surrounding property has seen improvements, too. Kristin, an Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, finally had the opportunity to reinvent an old toolshed out back. She worked alongside local landscaper Mark Masson. “We built it as an outdoor screen house and repositioned it overlooking the property… right next to the patio where we have the fire pit and barbeque. There’s outdoor seating and the gardens… we have a lot of color. My husband keeps saying ‘more color, more color!’ We have a plant palette: hydrangea, coneflowers and ornamental roses. We originally just started to put a hedge in… and clean out over grown trees but the more I got into it, I was just licking my lips saying ‘We need to get into this!’” explains Kristin. “I kept saying, ‘Just a few more things.’”

While the Schwabs have even more plans for the old schoolhouse, right now they’re basking in how far it’s come. “It’s one of those things where it was three-quarters of a year and a real challenge… I can’t say enough about the Davitt team and the Service Master team… everyone worked together to help us out,” says Richard. “The take away is that we look forward to the next adventure with this,” adds Kristin, adding that ideally the next chapter is on their terms, not a disaster’s. “We’ve fallen in love with the place; it’s even more special.”