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Exploring Wm. K. Vanderbilt’s Firehouse

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Vanderbilt's Fireplace 1

Town&Country, long one of my favorite magazines, just gave Living Newport another shout out…so to celebrate I’m featuring a chapter from my book to help kick off summer. Cory and Matt Plumb truly represent all that is young and fresh about our town. Enjoy their story and their one-of-a-kind firehouse.

They met in 1989 at St. George’s Prep School in Middletown, Rhode Island, with its hilltop view of the dramatic crescent that is Second Beach–arguably one of the most exceptional settings of any prep school in the Northeast. No wonder they chose to stay in Newport through their St. George’s summers, and then always found reasons to return as summers evolved when pursuing their careers after college. Cory and Matt Plumb could have lived many places after they were married in 1998. But Newport exerted its pull. The catalyst must surely have been one of those lovely bits of serendipity. Unbeknownst to the other, each had separately admired an old firehouse (erected by William K. Vanderbilt in 1890) one block over from Bellevue Avenue.

Vanderbilt's Fireplace 3
Photo Credit: Alexander Nesbitt

In a typical Newport weekend scenario, they were lunching at the Black Pearl with a childhood friend who said, “Hey, there’s this really neat house that just came on the market; let’s take a quick drive over before I take you to the train.” After many turns and enough shortcuts to have them both disoriented, they stopped in front of. . . the old firehouse. We all know those house-hunting stories, prefaced by “we had no intention of buying…” So, of course, they bought it, despite not having plans to move to Newport. Nor did they have children yet, which probably made it easier to overlook the impracticalities of trying to turn a three-story, narrow, box-of-a-firehouse into a family home. But the grand feeling to this small but very unique package was compelling.

Vanderbilt's Fireplace 2
Photo Credit: Alexander Nesbitt

They worked from the top down — redoing the bathrooms, organizing the third floor into an office (doubling as a guest room) and two other small rooms, honoring that Newport tradition of “filling the house with friends,” as Cory reminds us. By the time they officially moved in, four years later, they had first son, Bayard, and the second floor became the “family floor”—“a very cozy existence where each can hear the other’s cough, cry, snore,” Cory adds.

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Photo Credit: Alexander Nesbitt

But aside from the firehouse’s uniqueness, the draw that had eluded them was the reality of the setting within a dense neighborhood of small houses (originally staff homes for the Bellevue Avenue mansions just one block away).

In short order, Cory and Matt applied their talents, taking this “box-of-a-firehouse” and chic-ing it up on three facades — creating a pebbled courtyard, perfectly sized for two cars, at the front door; adding an English conservatory to the north side and extending the living space to the west with an outdoor, blue-stone terrace overlooking the pastoral setting.

Vanderbilt's Fireplace 6
Photo Credit: Alexander Nesbitt
Vanderbilt's Fireplace is 7
Photo Credit: Alexander Nesbitt

All-weather draperies and awnings were added, a visual that Cory held onto as a “decorative element you always see when you first drive into Newport.”

Vanderbilt's Fireplace 8
Photo Credit: Alexander Nesbitt
Vanderbilt's Fireplace 4
Photo Credit: Alexander Nesbitt

Cory and Matt Plumb’s careers are as romantic as the firehouse they now call home. Its renovations coincided with Cory’s decision to pursue jewelry design. In short order she earned her Graduate Gemology degree, founded her firm PLUMB, and began offering her own designs at Sotheby’s Salon Prive, as well as  high-end jewels to private clients and collectors. She then began selling jewels online, and to retail customers at Neiman-Marcus. After some time out for early motherhood, Cory is now selling through Mandarine “Bijoux” in St. Bart’s.

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Photo Credit: Alexander Nesbitt

If Cory’s chosen career lets her play into fantasy, then Matt’s as a race-car driver also enjoys some of those same elements. After graduating from college, he took the three-day Skip Barber Racing course. He was immediately hooked and, with new license in hand, competed in their Skip Barber Championship. In his first season, he won 13 of his 15 races. In quick succession, he moved into sports cars (Porsche, Ferrari, prototypes) and he’s now the driver and manager for a team that’s part of Grand Am Road Racing Series, owned by NASCAR. Matt’s record speaks for itself–he has won back-to-back championships in the series with over 20 victories.

And there’s another challenge in the wings: resurrecting the “Vanderbilt Cup,” a race-car event initiated by William K. Vanderbilt in 1900 (coincidentally, the same Vanderbilt responsible for the existence of Matt’s current home). The sportsman was the first to bring car racing to America. Since Mr. Vanderbilt was also a fixture on the Newport social scene, the little state of Rhode Island was one of the first in the country to host auto racing (the Cup was subsequently moved to Long Island). With his sharp eye, Matt appreciates that a motor sports event, like his “Vintage Grand prix,” would attract business to Aquidneck Island…and many friends to fill their firehouse.

Photo Credit: Alexander Nesbitt

Featured Image Credit, Alexander Nesbitt.

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About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

2 thoughts on “Exploring Wm. K. Vanderbilt’s Firehouse

  1. Young couples living a good life make us all know the world is in a good place. So attractive and well placed. Love this Bettie!

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