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Walking Through History

A look inside the historic Emma Ivins House

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Chris and Cynthia Whalen Nelson had loved the small Victorian cottage in Wakefield they restored throughout the 1990s. They planned to stay there for quite some time and enjoy the fruits of their labor, but when their third child came along, they agreed they had outgrown the charming space and needed something with a little more room to grow.

Chris is a general contractor who builds new homes and renovates old ones through his company, Nelson Brothers Construction. He concedes he has a soft spot for restoration projects. “I’ve always taken a shine to older structures,” he says with a laugh, adding that Cynthia also has never backed down from a challenge.

The young family looked at several homes throughout South County, finally stumbling on a craftsmenstyle guest cottage in Narragansett’s Earlscourt Historic District. Named for the prominent New York attorney Edward Earle, the neighborhood once included several grand villas, many owned by wealthy families who summered in the sunny South County colony. According to an article published in the New York Times on July 28, 1912, a “disastrous fire” broke out around noon that day that caused such a commotion, “Women in bathing suits rushed to the scene.” The fire was exacerbated by strong winds and inadequate water pressure, and many homes were completely destroyed or seriously compromised. The article continues, “There was considerable excitement at the Casino and clubs.”

One of the casualties, a two and a half story Victorian named The Breezes, belonged to William Ivins of New York City. Though the expansive home was a complete loss, the guest cottage, named the Emma Ivins House after Ivins’ daughter, survived. More than a century after the house was built, it was welcoming new inhabitants.

The Emma Ivins House is located near the well-known Earles Court Water Tower. The cylindrical stone tower, completed in 1887, once supplied water to homes in the Earlscourt development. It originally had an additional wooden structure on top, but according to the South County Museum, it was lost in a hurricane.

When the Nelsons looked at the home, they decided the 1903 charmer had heaps of potential, anchored by an impressive great room that turned out to be the selling point. “It was right up our alley,” describes Chris.

Despite its well-heeled history, the house is better known as “The Hut.” “I don’t know who nicknamed it,” adds Chris, “but it resembles a hunting lodge to a degree.” Both he and Cynthia had heard musings The Hut was an actual hunting lodge that was moved to the locale from New Hampshire — practically an urban legend in Earlescourt. “But that’s just not true,” laughs Chris.

The couple bought the home in 1998 with a long wish list of renovations and nothing but time to tackle each. They drew inspiration from other homes also on the National Register of Historic Places nearby, including the Sherry Cottages, a group of four similarly designed shingle style dwellings built circa 1889. According to the South County Museum, they were built by famed architectural trio McKim, Mead and White for Louis Sherry, a New York restaurateur and caterer who managed the Narragansett Casino.

Though it survived the huge fire of 1912, the Nelson’s approximately 3,000 sq. ft. home did fall victim to fire damage some time during the 1960s. Chris believes a wing that extended along the back of the home likely housed additional bedrooms and a common living space that made the house’s total square footage somewhere between 4500 and 5000. Today the space is home to a garage and pool.

The first renovation the house needed was evident. “It had a 1970s Brady Bunch kitchen,” Chris says, laughing. The space obviously needed to be reinvented, but where they could, the couple kept the home’s architectural integrity intact. “We modernized a lot of things, but we kept its older character,” says Chris, adding that visitors can find quirky elements in the nooks and crannies.

As the couple entertains frequently, the great room is a space that is especially useful and comfortable, and the two were careful to restore most of its original elements. Chock full of fireplaces, the family restored some and added others. “We got an old fireplace from Aardvark Antiques in Newport and it was an old slate faux marble piece and it’s probably 1875-ish,” says Chris. Some features he built from scratch, including oak built-ins, while others are original, like the hardwood pine flooring throughout. “They could probably use a good old fashioned sanding – it’s a lived-in home,” he says.

Cynthia, an accomplished artist and RISD alumna, is an illustrator, painter and sculptor. From expansive murals to stunning framed landscapes to eyecatching statuary, her work gives the home a creative and original appeal. “She’s extremely talented and we enjoy her work throughout the home,” says Chris. One of the home’s bedrooms has been repurposed as her studio. With a balcony leading to the outdoors and letting the warm air in during the summer months, it’s an inspiring space.

Chris, a Wakefield native, enjoys living not too far from his old stomping grounds, as he calls the area. Their high school and college age children have many friends and as Chris puts it, “Growing up in Narragansett, a lot of people have been in the Nelson house.” And all have walked through a piece of history.