By Andrea E. McHugh
Jamestown, the charming coastal community which takes up the entirety of Conanicut Island, historically served as home to a vast Native American population and later, through the late 19th century, as a quiet farming community. It was not until the Gilded Age that summer homes and hotels were built at a rapid rate, typically accommodating wealthy families from Philadelphia and New York City. Among these grand manses was Miravista. The impressive familial compound, which enjoyed enviable views of Narragansett Bay’s East Passage, included two nearly identical guest cottages.
“The neighboring house was its twin, but they don’t look too much alike today,” says Elena McCarthy about the 1884 Victorian she shares with her family of five. The ornate pair became known as the Estes Cottages and were used as summer homes for many years. In their heyday, the homes had nothing but rolling green lawns leading out uninterrupted to the coastline. “But the state built a road by imminent domain out to Fort Wetherill,” says Elena. Indeed, Walcott Avenue extends to Fort Wetherill Road, which leads directly to the former artillery. (Before the fort was deactivated and turned over to the state following the second World War, it had been occupied by American, British and French forces during various periods of time during the Revolutionary War due to its strategic East Passage lookout point.)
“A lot of people [in Jamestown] tell me they knew people who summered here or knew someone who did, or took piano lessons here. Some people call it the McFadden House because Captain McFadden lived here, or the Murphy House. But no one calls it the McCarthy House, even though we’ve been here 25 years,” Elena says, laughing. “I asked my husband when he thought people might start calling it the McCarthy House; he said, ‘Maybe not ‘til we’re dead.’”
When Elena and her husband, Hugh “Chip” Baertlein, first laid eyes on the home in 1991, it was clear the somewhat shoddy but substantial abode has survived long past its glory days. But there were three reasons they put in an offer: location, location, location. A short walk from the charming village – Jamestown’s main commercial center with shops and restaurants, the home was, at least in terms of the address, quite coveted. “Maybe in the ‘70s too, but in the ‘80s and ‘90s, people didn’t seem to want big, giant Victorian homes. They were white elephants,” explains Elena. And that wasn’t the only reason. Rhode Islanders of a certain age who lived here during the early 1990s likely remember the infamous credit union crisis that functionally collapsed most state-chartered financial institutions. Not only was securing a home loan difficult for some, but for any homeowners looking for additional funds to make home improvements, options were few and far between. “This whole neighborhood was in foreclosure and the house was not in good shape,” Elena concedes.
Elena and Chip were able to jump over any initial “fixer upper” hurdles, as the two engineers are ambitious and diligent when it comes to do-it-yourself projects. Chip grew up building things and tinkering on long-term projects as a kid and those skills served him well. Those childhood experiences also taught Chip that projects typically take a lot of modifications, include unforeseen challenges and demand seemingly endless amounts of patience. He’d need all three, as the young couple’s first project was a humdinger. “First thing we had to do was get it structurally sound,” recalls Elena. “My husband used house jacks to jack it up because we had to get [the foundation] straightened out.”
Inside, the couple says there were many modifications to the original home through the century, and few were good ones. They were also disappointed to see that much of the original character of the home was removed to make way for less than desirable renovations in the ‘70s and ‘80s, including Jacuzzi tub bathrooms. “At one point it was a bed and breakfast called ‘Conanicut House,’” she adds. That may explain some of the dated detailing. But there are benefits to its former role too. The third floor features two bedrooms complete with en suite bathrooms.
“So we have a lot of guests… so much company,” Elena says laughing. With Chip hailing from the Midwest and the couple residing for many years overseas, the space and privacy afforded by the third floor is exceptionally convenient. Plus, as anyone with a home by the water will attest, such gems seem to attract friends and family from near and far.
The projects in Chip and Elena’s home haven’t always been easy. When she reflects on when they were first starting out, Elena say she cannot believe that they lived in the house without a kitchen for a year – which included when they brought home their first son. “I look back and think we were nuts,” she says. Eventually, they completed the kitchen and included an eye-catching antique stove, a nod to the home’s past.
Other pieces also salute the home’s 132-year history. A huge, old cast iron sink anchors the laundry room, antique furniture pieces from garage sales and specialty shops can be found throughout, decades old doors and hardware add authentic charm and reclaimed pine flooring in the kitchen was sourced from an old barn or factory to complement the existing hardwoods. “We kept with what we thought was authentic for a seaside cottage,” says Elena.
While it may not have seemed like a “master plan” as the couple made renovations on demand throughout the past 25 years, Chip and Elena’s home, situated in a town they love dearly, is clearly a celebration of past and present. Now filled with three energetic teenagers (and this time of year, there’s a good chance other family and friends) it’s time for the couple to take a step back and give themselves a pat on the back. “My husband did a lot of this all by himself,” says Elena. “I’m really proud of him.”
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