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House For Sale: General Lafayette's Hide-a-way

House For Sale: General Lafayette’s Hide-a-way
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You don’t believe anyone could get behind a beehive oven? Well, you have to realize that General Lafayette (you know, that French guy who helped us win the Revolution) was a skinny man. Most histories don’t tell us that. And, well, in all truth, the story that he hid from the British after the Battle of Rhode Island (which we lost) in this house isn’t exactly documented. Let’s say it’s more of a “legend”–
a legend that the house’s current owner, Jody Livingston, a lady who’s very knowledgeable about local history, believes is “probably” true. And that’s enough for us.

We recently visited with Jody in her meticulously restored home, located within sight of Narragansett Bay and the Mount Hope Bridge in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. In 1929 the bridge replaced the ferries that for more than 250 years had carried passengers (for a while on boats powered by horses on treadmills) from this spot over to Bristol, Providence, Fall River, and south to Newport.

“My mother and father bought this house in 1970,” said Jody as we settled ourselves in the living room in front of a gorgeous–and huge–colonial fireplace. “Restoring it became our family project.”

She went on to explain how she and her brother Bruce (now a co-owner, but living in Turkey) learned such things as how to strip plaster down to the original stuff–all under the expert guidance of various masons and carpenters working at the time for Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress. How in the world were they able to obtain skilled artisans like that?

Well, it so happened that the man who rented the house prior to 1970, one Benjamin Reed, director of Doris Duke’s Newport Restoration Foundation, was a friend of Jody’s parents. Also, he was very interested in having this historic old house at the ferry landing on Aquidneck Island restored properly. So, as you can imagine, it was.

For instance, workmen completely restored the entire chimney, uncovered all four fireplaces, put in two bathrooms (and removed the three-hole privy), replaced and painted walls in genuine colonial colors, removed all the false ceilings to expose the old beams, and so on. Speaking of exposing beams in what’s now a cathedral ceiling … Once they did that, they discovered Roman numerals burned into each one. Obviously, the house had once been taken apart and then re-assembled. More research revealed that it wasn’t built in 1790, as most believed, but rather rebuilt that year. Before then, it had been located some two miles away on the Sakonnet River–built around 1710–and brought to its current location by oxcart. So, obviously, General Lafayette had to have hidden behind the beehive oven during the house’s first incarnation.

“But is that beehive oven still here?” we wanted to know, and with that, Jody took us into a hall, opened a small door, and shined her flashlight inside for us. Sure enough, there was a brick beehive oven in there. “That’s where he hid,” she said, smiling.

A highlight of our tour that followed was the “borning room,” now a studio, where children came into the world and where, at other times, coffins were displayed. “One of the past 12 owners had 14 children, most of whom were born in this room,” said Jody. Mind-boggling.

We also looked at the nice eat-in kitchen, the dining room, a laundry room and workshop, and, still on the first floor, the master bedroom and bath. Up steep, narrow stairs are two very large, sunny, fully restored rooms and another modern bathroom. Jody used them as her guestrooms when, for more than six years, she successfully operated The Olde Bristol Ferry House Bed and Breakfast.

Today, with her mother gone and her father living elsewhere, Jody, with her brother’s agreement, has finally, reluctantly, decided to sell. Her asking price: $320,000. She says she’ll move into a condo in nearby Newport, but will definitely miss this old place, in which she and her family have been living for more than 40 years. “I’ll miss this neighborhood, too,” she says wistfully. “Years ago, you know, it was a busy ferry landing, with trolleys going to the wharves, and even a hotel, but now it’s a quiet, close-knit community that’s very special.”

Later that morning, after saying our goodbyes to Jody and Majesty (her kitty), we walked around the property’s spacious lawns (surrounded by old stone walls and gardens), checked out the two-car garage, and then meandered down to the water and the Mount Hope Bridge, under which, at low tide, one can still spot the remains of the ferry wharves.

A right of way to the water will pass to the next owner, who’ll be able to swim there, launch a canoe or kayak, even moor a boat. Not only that, but, according to a 1640 law still on the books, any property owner has the legal right to drive his or her cattle down to the water’s edge. And, hey, that’s no legend. It’s the law.

For details, contact Maggie Elliott, Prudential Prime Properties, Middletown, RI. 401-367-0824; maggie@prudentialprime.com

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