House Lust: The Lavish Sanford-Covell Villa in Newport is on the Market
Now a B and B, the museum-quality Victorian has been in the same family since 1895.
Sixty thousand dollars.
That’s how much Anne Ramsey Cuvelier paid in 1980 for the incredible Sanford-Covell Villa, a 7,644-square-foot estate on the Newport harborfront.
Eighty-five years before that, Cuvelier’s great-grandfather, William King Covell II, also got it for a steal: $16,500 (around $500,000 today) at a public auction, when the previous owners paid more than $100,000 to build it.
For years, William King Covell II and his family lived on nearby Farewell Street — where, unrelated juicy tidbit, they hosted friend Lizzie Borden after she was acquitted of murdering her parents in Fall River — and used the villa as an unheated summer house. The home passed down through the generations, but when a matriarch required nursing home care amid the Great Depression, the family could no longer afford to maintain it.
“My Uncle King, who was here all of his life, wanted to live here but the taxes were going up,” says Cuvelier in a telephone interview from the villa. “He was just a schoolteacher.”
And so King Covell deeded the villa to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, now known as Historic New England, with a couple of stipulations: that he could retain lifetime tenancy and, if it had to sell, the family would have first right of refusal for $60,000. The SPNEA also ran the house, with its elaborate decorative arts interior, as a museum for a few years and helped it earn a coveted spot on the National Register of Historic Places.
Cuvelier says she always loved the house. So when the time came, she exercised her mother’s right of refusal and bought it.
“My mother grew up here,” she says. “I’ve been coming here since 1934, when I was six weeks old.”
But Cuvelier, who had a home on the West Coast at the time, couldn’t afford to pay the taxes on her own so she transformed the villa into a bed and breakfast. Within the first few years of her ownership, Cuvelier installed the heated saltwater pool with water pumped from the harbor — a treat for the lifelong swimmer who, at age eighty-six, still breaststrokes from her pier to the Newport Harbor Lighthouse every year, “Just to be sure I still can.”
For decades, Cuvelier welcomed guests to the villa for swimming, sunsets on the wrap-around piazza, continental breakfasts, even retreats on UFOs, of which Cuvelier spends her spare time researching. But, amid the pandemic, bookings slowed and Cuvelier decided the time had come to sell.
Yes: Cuvelier is still accepting reservations for the time being. And, yes: She says she’ll stay in Newport. She has a full life here, from her tai chi classes at the Edward King House to the adult education programming through Salve University’s Circle of Scholars. She says she looks forward to the day she can resume her activities.
Until then, you can find her sorting through 900 books that belonged to her forebears in preparation of parting with the villa — a place she says “has a tremendous energy,” proof positive how homes are apt reflections of their stewards.
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