This Chic Guest House was Once an Abandoned Power Station

An abandoned mini power station in Watch Hill gets a graceful recharge as a sleek family guest house.
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This former substation skirts the entrance to an estate once owned by Andrew Mellon. Its historic designation precluded any exterior changes and it couldn’t be razed or enlarged. Photography by Nat Rea.

Electrical Attraction
Camped out in the middle of a wealthy ocean playground with its mega-mansions and boldfaced names, this little brick house built in 1914 nevertheless holds its own. Despite humble beginnings as an electric substation for a trolley that ran from Westerly to Watch Hill, the current owners, George Rose and Frances Ricci, recognized its potential under the peeling paint and a massive concrete slab that covered a big chunk of dirt floor. “It was a mess,” Rose says. A complete renovation meant working with an architect savvy to the requirements of a building on the National Register of Historic Places — in this case, Michael McKinley of McKinley Architects. It could make a sweet guest house for the family, who lives nearby, they realized. “It had cool, curved windows and the light was exceptional,” says Ricci, “plus it was very sturdy looking.”

Efficiency Expert
One of the biggest challenges with a building that’s only 800 square feet is creating a living space that feels comfortable, not overstuffed on one hand or too drafty on the other. Every inch must be used skillfully. “With very little furniture, we wanted a piece that makes a statement,” Ricci says of the chef-worthy Ilve gas range in the galley kitchen. The overhead copper hood vents out to the double chimney and the backlit cabinets, custom made by the project’s builder, Randy Gardner of Gardner Woodwrights, provide maximum storage. Good working light for cooking isn’t a problem; adjustable Tech Lighting pendants run along a monorail system from one end of the kitchen to the other. Another puzzle was how to hide all the mechanicals as well as a washer and dryer; they’re tucked away behind the two doors in the hallway. “The flow is a major accomplishment,” the couple agrees. The low-slung couch in the living room is a special order from Pompanoosuc Mills in Vermont. It’s upholstered with Ricci’s favorite Scalamandre and its streamlined profile makes it more compact. When not in use, the TV disappears behind the wall’s bifold doors, built by Gardner from birdseye maple.

Saving Face
The renovation took a good year and a half to complete and required strengthening the bones of the house. Part of that included sprucing up its scruffy exterior. The clunky sliding metal front door is now mahogany, and the slate roof, which needed replacing, sports new composite tiles by Boral. The façade itself was pocked and faded. “We didn’t want to remake the brick or remove the patina that builds up over time,” says McKinley. Feole Masonry of Cranston did a gentle power wash, then an old-style lime-based mortar, to preserve the bricks’ integrity. “The art with that kind of cleaning is realizing when it becomes too hard to get out the discoloration, and knowing when to leave it as is,” McKinley adds. Another challenge was incorporating the original steel trusses in a way that’s both functional and pleasing, with a nod to the house’s industrial past. The solution was to clean and paint them a flat black. The roof support beams also dictated the size of the loft. Gardner custom built the sleeping area’s armoire, which has drawers on both the back and front. He also designed the queen size bed and a nightstand on each side.

Running in the Family
A tiny bathroom can still be beautiful; this one is tucked under the sleeping loft. McKinley Architects’ designer, Kathy Calnen, chose the interior paint, Pavilion Blue, from Farrow and Ball’s color chart, matched by Benjamin Moore. She also went with the torch lights, by Justice Design Group, that flank the mirror. Gardner built the rich mahogany base for the quartz sink. Because the house is in a hurricane zone, all the custom made Marvin windows are impact resistant. Rose and Ricci have built and renovated several houses in twenty-five years. They hope when their now-grown kids visit, they’ll stay in what they’ve dubbed the “Little Power House.” Meantime, the couple might just decamp here themselves during the steamy summer months. Unlike their own nineteenth-century house, this one has central air, they say. “Plus, it has good WiFi.”

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