Modernizing a Middletown Home Becomes a Family Affair
A couple weaves their love of family, history and beauty through their home in the East Bay.
Family Memories, Framed
John Grosvenor and Cheryl Hackett love projects. And early American homes.
So it was only fitting that they were smitten by Restmere, an 1857 Italianate villa that had seen better days.
“We’re very project-driven,” Hackett says. “As soon as we saw it, we said, ‘We’ll take it.’”
They found the Middletown estate after the New York Times featured their former “forever home” — the 1811 Sherman House in Newport they’d renovated — in 2016. It sold quickly, and the couple soon found themselves in need of a new place to live.
They purchased Restmere in July 2016. It was one of the first mansions in the area, designed by Richard Upjohn as a summer retreat for Alexander Van Rensselaer. Hackett, an author and writing instructor, dug through letters and historical records, looking for clues about the home’s provenance.
Grosvenor, an architect and principal at Newport Collaborative Architects, was raised in an artistic family in Newport. His father, Richard, was an artist who taught for forty years at St. George’s School and loved to paint alongside his four children as they grew. Grosvenor and Hackett wanted to fill their home with those happy memories, so the front foyer is lined with a colorful collection of landscapes and buildings, all painted by family members.
A newly renovated basement gallery — nicknamed the “Brick Gallery Pub,” a nod to Newport’s famed Brick Alley Pub — holds more of Richard’s artworks, and John’s easel and his father’s sit side-by-side in a studio just outside the entrance.
French Treasures, Vintage Finds
Antiquarian Adolphe Audrain, who owned Restmere from 1909 to 1919 before retiring to France to protest Prohibition, left behind countless treasures: French doors, a Baccarat crystal chandelier, a medieval limestone mantel and rare antique lighting fixtures.
“I like to say we bought the antiques,” Hackett says, “and they threw in the house for free.”
Perhaps the most amazing find was a ribcage shower made of nickel, which they found in pieces in the master bathroom. It took a team of three plumbers three weeks to put the rarity together.
Whenever they needed an element during renovation, the couple first went shopping in the basement, where old doors, shutters, windows and various pieces of hardware were stored. They complemented the French treasures and salvaged pieces with a mix of vintage finds and antique store treasures.
“Some people rescue dogs,” Hackett says. “We rescue china and linens.”
Call it serendipity: Hackett discovered Audrain’s ownership of the house during her sleuthing. Turns out, Grosvenor had just helped transform Newport’s Audrain Building, which Audrain commissioned in 1903 to house his antiquities shop, into the Audrain Automobile Museum.
During the renovation, the couple discovered how previous owners added a bit of their personalities to the structure.
Original owner Alexander Van Rensselaer commissioned its Italianate style, while Audrain added French flair and Colonial Revival elements, like a gently curving main staircase and Corinthian columns. U.S. Navy Admiral Kalbfus and his actress wife Silvia owned the home for thirty years. During his two terms as president of the Naval War College, he drove straight down Miantonomi Avenue into work. (Just over the Newport line, Miantonomi Avenue turns into Admiral Kalbfus Road.)
The renovation project took eighteen months. Grosvenor and Hackett fixed cracked walls and ceilings, updated the home’s mechanical and plumbing systems, replaced the roof and refinished the distinctive wood floors. But the biggest challenge was the kitchen: It was rotting off the house.
The space is now bright and cheerful, facing east and filled with plenty of light. A new quartz kitchen island that seats four serves as a gathering hub; a gas fireplace built into an existing chimney bathes the room in warmth. The space has new stainless steel appliances, two dishwashers, a microwave tucked under the counter, and a pantry, the doors of which were crafted from an old entrance door salvaged from the basement. An antique leaded glass panel from a china cabinet sits atop the refrigerator, letting in even more light.
During the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, co-founder George Wein needed to house several blues performers. Enter Restmere. Wein rented the home (then vacant) for a week to artists like Mississippi John Hurt, Willie Doss and Fred McDowell, who jammed there with fellow festival headliners Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Peter, Paul and Mary.
The resulting album, Traditional Music at Newport 1964, Part 1, features a photo of the artists gathered on Restmere’s porch.
Now that the main project is complete — “It was a blast,” says Grosvenor — they’ve turned their attention to landscaping. In crafting the exterior look, they pored over the home’s original landscape plans and tried to recreate its former majesty by adding paths, walls and several plantings.
River birches and sugar maples dot the lawn, with dozens of rose bushes planted in memory of Hackett’s mother, Roseann, who loved the showy, fragrant blooms.
Their efforts paid off: The home is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and in 2019 won both the Doris Duke Historic Preservation Award and the Rhody Award for Historic Preservation.
But Grosvenor and Hackett aren’t yet done. They’re already working on their next project, renovating a historic home in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, at the base of Mount Monadnock. They hope to make it as inviting and warm as their home in Middletown, where they love to host their blended family, including five children and three grandchildren, as much as they can.
“Everyone says it’s a happy home,” Hackett says. “That’s the best compliment.”