This old house: What were we thinking?

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, December 20, 2020. Above, Rose Cottage as depicted in the 1891 East Greenwich Academy catalog.

The for-sale sign had stood on the front lawn of Rose Cottage long enough for the elm towering overhead to shed its leaves twice, we would later learn. But the mid-19th-century home with its Italianate façade beckoned my wife, Deb, and me as though it had been built just for us.

What were we thinking?

We broke every commandment in the home-buying bible, starting with Thou Shalt Not Be Seduced By Fluffy Ad Copy. “Gaze at the stars from the romantic cupola!” read the kicker line in the listing. I should have known better. As a copywriter, I’d been writing stuff like that for years.

Sure, the painted lady’s gray clapboards looked as drab as a cloudy December day, which is when we first saw her, and the kitchen was a train wreck. But where others had detected deal-ending pitfalls — missing roof shingles, windows with no storms, an electric panel as old as Edison — we only saw potential. We walked through Rose Cottage’s high-ceilinged rooms with, it must be said, rose-colored glasses.

A week later, the real estate agent skipped to her office copier with our offer in hand, and soon Deb and I became Shelley Long and Tom Hanks in “The Money Pit.” Unlike the movie’s characters, however, we were not alone. We had two little boys, ages 3 and 1, and a third child on the way.

What were we thinking?

The romantic cupola leaked during storms. That first spring, a mama possum and her newborns took up residence in a basement closet. Soon, a clay sewer pipe choked with tree roots overflowed the second-floor toilet, and water poured into the TV room below. Our son Peter’s description of the scene became family lore: “Mommy, it’s raining inside.”

Deb navigated the almost-daily cataclysms and do-it-yourself projects better than I did, even as she referred to our abode as “Rose Thorn Cottage.” To get a respite, I took to raking the front lawn. People walking by, unaware of the chaos within, occasionally told me how much they admired my house.

“Want to buy it?” I would reply, only half-kidding.

Still, Rose Cottage had obvious charms. The views from the cupola, now watertight, were magnificent. At night, a necklace of lights on the Mount Hope Bridge twinkled from across Narragansett Bay. During the day, sunlight poured through stately 8-foot-tall windows in our kitchen and living room.

For many years, the house had been the residence of the principal of the East Greenwich Academy, which was located right across the street, and a popular gathering place for school meetings, receptions, socials, and teas. After the academy closed in 1943, Rose Cottage became, for a time, a nursing home. During one of my front-lawn raking escapes, a passerby pointed at the second floor and told me her grandmother had died up there.

“Sorry to hear that,” I said, wincing a little. I wanted to tell her I might be next to go.

A parade of contractors saved us, making badly needed heating, electrical, and plumbing upgrades. The dreary gray clapboards were painted a deep plum red, befitting the house’s name. And then came the more eye-catching projects: a sparkling new kitchen, a bathroom redo for the kids, and a master suite with access to the cupola and those starry-night views.

On a door jamb in the kitchen, names and lines chart the rising heights of our children and a dozen or so of their friends. It’s a sacred record of the passage of time, from grade school to college graduations, and all the life lived in between.

Someday, a new owner will paint over that history, and the next chapter in Rose Cottage’s story will be written. But for now, the house is ours, an old, memory-filled, comforting place.

What were Deb and I thinking? I’m pretty sure it was just that.

14 Comments

Merry Christmas to you and Deb!

A great house with a lot of stories in it, and you’re great at writing them both ways. Thanks!

I have loved that house since I was a kid, long before you made it your beautiful home. Great story, as always, John!
Merry Christmas!

John great house… great writing. I’ve admired both for years!
Merry Christmas to you and your family!

Ernie

Hey John:
Great writing as always. I am glad I had a chance to visit you at your home before the pandemic. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Ready to kick 2020 to the curb.
JOe P

John, great house filled with many stories and wonderful memories… love the article!

Looks like a beautiful old house, and I’m happy you and your family gave it some love. My family hopes to do the same thing one day. Love your write-up.

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