Tara Conway had longed for a New England beach house since she was a child, when her family would annually spend summer vacations in Hampton Beach, N.H. So when Tara and her husband, Jim, began searching for a spot to escape the stifling summer heat of Texas, it was no surprise that they gravitated toward Rhode Island’s picturesque coastline.

Although the couple both work in the real estate business, Tara knew that building a home was beyond their scope. “I know how to sell them, not build them,” she said. So they relied upon Alec Tesa of A. Tesa Architecture and Horan Building Company, both located in Newport, to turn their dreams into reality.

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The home was designed to both reflect the look of Newport’s Gilded Age while not overwhelming the immediate neighborhood.

Photography: Chris Vaccaro
Written by: Rob Duca
Design: A. Tesa Architecture
Tiles: Weatherly Tile & Stone
Appliances: Gil’s Television & Appliances

Creating a home that fits

“We trusted our architect and chose a well-respected builder, they knew what they were doing, and we didn’t change things along the way,” she said. “It was a very smooth process.”

The resulting 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-and-a-half-bathroom home in Middletown, R.I. overlooks Newport’s magnificent Cliff Walk and the extravagant mansions of the Gilded Age and, on a clear day, offers views of Block Island.

“Every place you look you see water and greenery,” Tara says. “We told Alec that we wanted a house that would work now and into the future. He listened and designed the absolute perfect house for us.”

Set on a small lot amongst modest cottage-style houses, Tesa’s challenge was to design a home that would reflect Newport’s glorious past, yet not overwhelm the neighborhood. At the same time, it had to be spacious enough to accommodate Tara and Jim, and visits from their two adult children, spouses and grandchildren. Of course, it was also essential to maximize the location by taking advantage of the dazzling views.

The finished product features a gabled roof with a three-story tower, multiple decks, a deep porch, and an assortment of windows that harkens back to the 19th century.

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A comfortable sitting area is at the center of the first floor; three guest bedrooms open off the space.

A classic beach house

“I love the simplicity of it,” Tesa says. “If you remove the tower, it’s one big gable and a deep porch house. Back in the Gilded Age the windows were more a function of the room. For instance, it didn’t make sense to do casement windows in the tower because they wouldn’t be big enough to open, so we did sliding windows.”

The upside-down design of the interior has three bedrooms with private baths, and a common lounge on the first floor. The main living space is on the second floor, where the kitchen, dining room and great room flow together without a single wall as separation. The third floor includes a master suite and a romantic reading room in the tower.

Tesa designed the tower to taper at the top to mimic a lighthouse, a visual that thrilled Tara. “It’s so ironic that he did that because I love lighthouses,” she said.

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RIGHT: A vintage claw-foot tub was restored and set under the unique stacked windows in the master bath. LEFT: The master bedroom, located on the third floor, has French doors opening to a private terrace overlooking the water.

Beachy in an ‘un-gimmicky’ way

With an eye on the future, Tara made sure an elevator was installed. She was also adamant that nothing in the home be cookie-cutter or gimmicky, and that it was functional and practical. Wall colors, tiles, countertops and lights were all selected with the ocean surroundings in mind, while carefully choosing materials that were unique and striking.

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The kitchen is part of the second-story open floor plan; the light fixtures over the island are vintage.

The kitchen island countertop was molded from shards of lacquered green, blue and turquoise glass, while the decorative tiles on the backsplash and in the bathrooms are also various shades of blue and green glass. “Glass is made from sand, so it all comes together,” says Tara, who selected all the home’s tiles from Weatherly Tile & Stone in Portsmouth, R.I.

The two hand-blown blue lights hanging over the island were made in the 1930s and came from Mexico. Blue and green plates on the kitchen wall further accentuate the surroundings, while 1950s-style table lamps from Italy complete the beachy, cottage theme. Over the dining room table hangs a Parisian light that is shaped like an ocean wave. The couches and chairs in the great room are from the 1960s and ‘70s, and were found by the Conways in consignment shops in Rhode Island and Texas.

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A soaring cathedral ceiling with beams and bead board was incorporated into the living room.

The great room has a cathedral V-groove bead board ceiling and local beach stone framing a gas fireplace. Built-in shelving accommodates assorted art, sculptures and sports memorabilia. The hard pine flooring throughout the house is more than 100 years old and was purchased not far from the Conways’ Texas home. “My husband went onto the Internet and typed in ‘Old wood floors’ and this lumber yard just 10 miles away popped up,” Tara said.

The personal touch extends to a restored 1920s free-standing tub in one of the bathrooms, while the exterior lanterns were all handmade by Sandwich Lantern of Cape Cod.

“This house is all about seeing the water, because we are land-locked in Texas,” Tara said. “It’s a comfortable, cozy house. I would not change a single thing.”


Article published in 2013-14 annual issue. 


Want to read about another Rhode Island house project? Check out this whole-house re-do by The Damon Company after the home suffered an unfortunate house fire.