While the weather may not seem very summer-y, the Memorial Day weekend is (somewhat) the official beginning of this season. Of course, there is much activity in Newport Harbor, especially at its southern corner near the New York Yacht Club — which is right up from the historic Arthur Curtiss James “Boathouse.” As an intro to summer in our town, I wanted to give you a little peek at this singular residence, straight from the pages of my book, Living Newport: Houses, People, Style.
Yachtsman Arthur Curtiss “Commodore” James’ name was associated not only with one of Newport’s largest estates and gardens, but with his railroad empire that covered more than a quarter of the country. His magnificent yacht Aloha, built in 1910 for ocean cruising, joined the ranks of many equally large boats built by industrialists and financiers who stoked the economy of turn-of-the-century America – names like Harold Dodge, JP Morgan and Harold Vanderbilt. At 218 feet she was the only bark-rigged steam yacht of her size afloat, justifiably famous as the height of luxury.
A chance conversation between homeowner, Sam Mencoff, and his builder, Jerry Kirby (who share a passion for preservation) resulted in the recent complete renovation of Commodore James’s iconic boat house, “Aloha Landing.” Named after his famous yacht, the boat house is reachable on land by only a very narrow, and hidden, cobblestone driveway. To compensate for the challenging turning radius, the original owners had employed a novel idea…a turnstile, using the same cobblestones, that can turn a car around and head it back in the direction of the uphill driveway.
For Jerry Kirby, a builder as well as two-time America’s Cup winner, the opportunity to work on Commodore James’ singular boat house held great allure. The Aloha is now a thing of the past, “but why not recall her memory, in carefully and meticulously executed details, within the new interiors of Mr. James’ former boat house,” Jerry Kirby posed to Sam Mencoff. And just coincidentally, Ann Mencoff had decided this summer that she wanted to take up sailing. So it’s no surprise that despite her loss of patience with all of Sam’s building projects, it was actually Ann who found the boathouse and called him immediately, saying “we have to do it.” Like many restoration projects, this one had its share of surprises. The site is arguably the only one of its kind on the entirety of Narragansett Bay, where the water literally laps against the building. While this adds a romantic note, it wreaks havoc on the foundations. As a remedial effort, two-thirds of the underpinnings were lifted off and replaced, each stone numbered, while the roof beams were re-enforced and the four corners of the house re-bolted.
But soon this project moved from restoration to renovation, when well-respected yacht designer Langham Yacht Design group joined the team to tap every boat design vernacular appropriate to the small (and now two story) interiors. With every view you truly feel as though you are within a boat; even the petite “powder room” is configured to look like the pilot house to a classic yacht. The settees, the built-ins, the master bed all take their inspiration from nautical design favorites, duly enhanced with the decorating talents of Kim Kirby.
Two resources were integral to the success of this project; first, the concentration of craftspeople, oftentimes third and fourth generation, on this Island and in the marine industry, in particular. Metalworkers, stone masons and carvers, woodworkers, supported the call for custom work of the highest quality. Second, as old and established as the crafts community might be, the Internet is a very new resource, one providing product and materials that would otherwise have languished away in an old barn or someone’s attic. Searching on line also provided many Eureka moments, among them the signal flags, compass and bell from the old Aloha, decorative reminders of the boat house’s past life.
In the one “stateroom”, Ann and Sam Mencoff can enjoy the comforts of being on land, while still hearing the waves lap against the house.
Now completed, the only item left to determine? What boat the Mencoffs’ will choose to pair with their new-old boathouse. Where’s “Commodore” James when you need him?