Design & Décor, Living with Style, The Newport Diary

Inspiring Architectural Design: “Commodore” James’s Boathouse

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Count on Newport, one of the yachting capitals of the world, to have a singular example of historic nautically-inspired architecture. A hundred plus years later, “Harbour Court” (now the New York Yacht Club) would be just up the way from the subject of this post. Intrigued? The histoire is well worth sharing here.

Yachtsman Arthur Curtiss “Commodore” James’s name was not only associated with one of Newport’s largest estates and gardens, but also with his railroad empire that covered more than a quarter of the country. His magnificent yacht Aloha was built in 1910 for ocean cruising; at 218 feet she was the only bark-rigged steam yacht of her size afloat, justifiably famous as the height of luxury. “Aloha Landing,” his boathouse, served as an excuse for what could be described as an early “man cave,” and is arguably the only structure of its kind on the entirety of Narragansett Bay where the water literally laps against the building.

To add to the romance, the boathouse is reachable on land by only a very narrow, and hidden, cobblestone driveway between two large estates. A circular, motorized turnstile was created in the cobblestones to facilitate turning a car to head back up the driveway.

A decade ago, the weather-worn boathouse underwent what was supposed to be just a restoration…but soon turned into a complete renovation. To add more allure to our tale, the contractor was Jerry Kirby, a two-time America’s Cup winner. As he opined to the new owner,” 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 “Commodore” James’s former boathouse.”

But first, some not-so-minor details needed tending to…two-thirds of the underpinnings were lifted off and replaced (with each stone numbered) while the four corners of the house were re-bolted and the roof beams reinforced. At that point, the well-respected Langan Design Partners joined the team to tap every boat design vernacular appropriate to the small–and about to become, two story–interiors (note the antique chestnut timbers on the interior ceiling).

With every view you truly feel as though you are inside a yacht. Even the settees and built-ins all take their inspiration from nautical design favorites, many lacquered to a mirrored finish; the unusual window shapes are original to the house.

The interiors were duly enhanced with the decorating talents of Kim Kirby. The mantle is Belgian black granite with the half hull of a sailboat carved on its face.

Two resources were integral to the success of this project; first, the participation of craftspeople on this island, oftentimes third and fourth generation. Metalworkers, stone masons and carvers, woodworkers—all supported the call for custom work of the highest quality. Searching on line also provided many unexpected surprises, among them the signal flags, compass and bell from the old Aloha. The original compass from “Commodore” James’s famous sailing yacht, housed in a binnacle serving as a newel post, provides a decorative reminder of the boathouse’s past life.

Drawings for the yacht Aloha were transferred to tiles that accent the backsplash in the laundry room (a reminder that no essentials were overlooked in this getaway spot).

In the one stateroom, the owners can enjoy the comforts of being on land, while still hearing the waves laping outside.

Who says living in a small space has its drawbacks?

All photos credit, Mick Hales.

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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".

12 thoughts on “Inspiring Architectural Design: “Commodore” James’s Boathouse

  1. Bettie strikes again with an unusual and gorgeous posting today! What fabulous work was created by all who were involved in that project. Now, THAT’S a boathouse!

    1. Truly it is!!! What fun to be there to record it years back for my book, Living Newport!xB

  2. A nautical lover myself, I find every detail perfection! You truly would feel you’re on a luxurious yacht. Thank you for sharing this unique home, Bettie. Hugs and best wishes for a lovely Thanksgiving.

  3. Exquisite in design, breathtaking in view, and indeed a Newport Treasure. Thank you for sharing.

    1. Thank you for your wonderful descriptive!! May I quote you? Cheers, Bettie

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