NEW LIFE FOR AN
"It was in very bad shape," says builder Fred Dallinger of the mid-19th-century Newport, RI mansion his company bought for $450,000 in 1985. "It was almost beyond repair."
Built in the Italianate style for New York industrialist Joseph H. Hart, the mansion, Bienvenue, had descended from the height of fashion to a more prosaic status as dormitory and, finally, into a sad state of disrepair.
But like a grand old dowager who refuses to pass away, the house defied the ravages of time. Under the care of builder Dallinger and architects John Grosvenor and Michele Foster from The Newport Collaborative, Bienvenue has assumed a new life as a luxury condominium with eight units under its roof and five more in a carriage house and garden shed next door.
"The biggest challenge was devising a workable floor plan, while maintaining the integrity of the original design," explains Dallinger.
The solution lay in reconstructing a side porch that had long ago disappeared and then enclosing it so two bedrooms, two baths, and a kitchen could be housed within.
By placing practical rooms in the porch, the architects maintained the elegantly detailed public spaces on the first floor as living rooms, studies, and a grand entrance hallway for the building. "We didn't want to lose the glamour of the first floor," explains Grosvenor, who was the partner in charge of the project.
Rebuilding the porch allowed the architects to get two more units into the house than they would have otherwise. "You work with the fabric of the building," explains Grosvenor. "It's the only way to fit all the units in."
With three floors to play with, the architects combined flats with duplexes and one apartment that rises to a third level in the house's tower. No two units are the same.
While Dallinger and The Newport Collaborative had originally planned to rehabilitate the old carriage house next to the main building, it turned out to be beyond salvation. Instead, they reconstructed its exterior and kept some old windows and a couple dormers, and built an entirely new interior for four apartments. One more apartment was created in what had once been an old potting shed.
The architects selected colors for the buildings only after analyzing scrapings of the original paints. "We were a bit surprised," remembers Grosvenor. "The colors were bolder than we had expected."
| Because the project required a zoning variance and lay within a historic district, Dallinger had to lead it through a rigorous approval process.
To make things even more complicated, the project needed tax credit to make it feasible financially. So strict guidelines by the Department of the Exterior had to be followed as well. Tax credits came to about $275,000.
Meeting several different sets of guidelines, some of which occasionally conflict with one another, was no easy task. "You have the building code on one side and historic preservation guidelines on the other," states Dallinger, sounding like a man caught between a rock and a hard place.
"We had some beautiful old wooden doors in the entranceway," says Dallinger, "but to keep them, we had to install an expensive sprinkler system."
The units in the main house range in size from 800 to 1,200 square feet and sold for between $110,000 and $225,000. All of the units sold quickly, reports Grosvenor.
The four carriage house condos range in size from 800 to 1,000 square feet and were priced lower than units in the main house. While the carriage house units sold less rapidly than those in the main house, they did sell out in the same year they were built.
Historic preservation doesn't come cheap; it cost $800,000 to renovate Bienvenue. Hard costs ran about $90 per square foot.
But, Grosvenor has found, people are willing to pay more for the kind of home that can only come from rehabilitation. "There's the illusion that this great mansion is their castleeven though they have to share it with other people."