A Rhode Island Couple Transforms a Rundown Millhouse Into Their Dream House
From our interview with Erin and Jonathan Chapman
Jonathan: We had been looking at homes on Aquidneck Island for a while, and we kept finding little homes for a lot of money. Then we found this property. It was on [3.5] acres of land for what we thought was a good value. The real estate listing had pictures of this wreck of a mill, and pictures of land with a stream on it.
Erin: One of our favorite features of the property when we went to see it was the old stone foundation. I feel like we knew pretty much right away that we wanted to do whatever we could to retain the beauty of that. And once we went inside [the millhouse], we saw the interior was still in pretty good shape. It was a big, wide-open space.
Jonathan: We realized we could renovate the millhouse at a number that was comfortably within our budget, and we’d have more space and a lot more uniqueness than we could ever find anywhere else, which is why we went for it. Renovating it was just as viable as tearing it down and building something new.
Erin: Part of the charm of this area is that the old horse barns are still there, and the shapes of all the buildings here complement each other. Building something new would’ve been detrimental to the character of this neighborhood.
Jonathan: Our stone foundation dates to the 18th century. It’s a dry-stack fieldstone foundation. We have a lithograph of the building that was originally on it. It was a two-story grist mill operated by a guy named Joseph Cundall. That mill was taken down at some point, and the current structure, which dates from around 1890, was put up on the same foundation. It was the first building of this 1,000-acre gentleman’s farm put together by a guy named Henry A.C. Taylor. It was used as a wood mill and a woodshop to build the horse barns and cow barns right across the road from us.
Erin: When we found the mill, it had been abandoned for 25, 30 years. Kids had been using it as a hangout.
Jonathan: There were asbestos shingles on the roof, which kept the inside pretty well intact. We obviously had to pay to get them removed and disposed of properly, but they kept the water from coming in and rotting the wood.
Erin: Before we started any work, we needed a lot of permits. Because we are so close to the water, we had to go to the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council. And we had to get historic approval from the state, in addition to all the usual building departments. That process took around nine months.
Jonathan: And even before that was happening, Erin and I were out there with chainsaws. We had to take back this property. There were invasive vines, prickle bushes, overgrowth. We spent all of our free time for a year and a half of our lives just clearing.
Erin: Knowing this land was something we were able to clear ourselves is very satisfying.
Jonathan: Working with the stone foundation was interesting. It was not structurally able to hold weight. We couldn’t build on it. We brought in a structural engineering firm, and we ended up raising the millhouse off the old foundation and supporting it on a grid structure underneath that has nine steel-reinforced concrete columns. Then we set the house back down [over the foundation], about a foot higher than it was originally, and filled in the extra space. So it looks like our home is sitting on that old foundation, but there’s no longer any weight on it at all. It’s just there for its good looks.
When we were excavating the basement, about 4 feet down, [workers] jammed into a piece of granite. When they took it out, it was a millstone, about 4 feet 9 inches in diameter and almost a foot thick. It probably dates to the 18th century, to the original structure. We had that turned into our front stoop. It’s one of my favorite features.
We worked with Clifford “Jack” Renshaw, our architect, on the design. All the wood beams [except for some new structural framing in the basement] are original. We kept everything wide open and exposed so it looks like it did when we first walked in and looked up. One of the only places that doesn’t have an exposed ceiling is the kitchen, and that’s because upstairs is where we have the plumbing for bathrooms and the laundry room.
Erin: Our builder, Paul Strattner of Southfield Preservation Works, guided us through the process, telling us what wood would’ve been used during that time, things like that. He was a great guide.
Jonathan: We wanted to use the original wood for the floors, but it was too far gone. We found a flooring guy, Allen Moitoza—he actually worked at the stables on the old Taylor property—and he helped us. The floors are Southern yellow pine. Allen customized a stain for them that was just the right color. They look like they’ve always been there.
Erin: Jonathan and I both wanted to retain the character of the old structure, but we wanted it to be modern. As we went along, we put a lot of consideration into things like barstools and the fridge handles and all the hardware.
There were four wheels hanging from the ceiling in the basement on a big cast-iron axel. We had them turned into lighting fixtures. We found a local lighting guy who was so excited to see what he could do with them. Those wheels were [connected] to two pulleys that are still hanging from the ceiling in our living room. We haven’t moved those. We wanted to keep them there.
Jonathan: My favorite part of the house is being inside, when we’re both sitting on the couch, and we have the windows open and can hear the brook, and we’ve got the old-world warmth of the beams, and the patina of everything we’ve retained. This was an industrial structure that we made into a cozy home. It’s exactly how we wanted it.
Erin: Knowing that this is a project that we did together makes it that much more special in my eyes.
Jonathan: People will say to us, “Oh my gosh, you must’ve argued so much.” If anything, we bonded together as a team. Not that I would want to do it again. But I’m not disappointed that we did it for ourselves.
Erin: We had a lot of laughs along the way.
Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.
Support the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll be providing the courage, comfort, and inspiration of historic places now, when we need it most.