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House For Sale: Newport, Rhode Island

House For Sale: Newport, Rhode Island
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Residents of the Newport’s Top of the Hill section feel it is the most heavenly neighborhood. And we recently found out why.

For one thing, the Top of the Hill neighborhood is just an easy 10-minute walk to the downtown area with all those wonderful shops and restaurants along the harbor.

Then, if you walk 15 minutes in the opposite direction, you’ll find yourself at Newport’s primary beach, Easton’s, and a bit farther south, the famous Cliff Walk. If you’re feeling really frisky, you could even walk down Bellevue Avenue to all those incredible mansions you’ve heard about. Or if that’s too far, they’re only five minutes away by car. Then, after touring one or two, you could head on over to Ocean Drive, ending up at Fort Adams, with the Dwight D. Eisenhower summer White House (he’d golf at the nearby country club) and the beautiful state park where the Newport Jazz Festival is held every August.

In other words, Newport’s Top of the Hill neighborhood is ideally located in one of America’s most popular tourist destinations. Even better, its lovely old homes, dating back to the 1850s — many designed by famous architects — create a quiet, tree-lined residential area, away from the hustle, bustle, and, yes, noise you’d have to expect in other areas of town during the busy summer and fall seasons.

“When we decided 20 years ago that we wanted to live in Newport, we simply waited for something in the Top of the Hill section to come on the market,” said Claire Ball to us one recent summer morning as she and her husband of 40 years, Charlie, chatted with us over coffee and cinnamon buns. Their three-story, five-bedroom Colonial Revival home is number 26 Greenough Place, right in the heart of the Top of the Hill neighborhood. Turns out they were both born in the Boston area, but had lived all over the world while raising their two children. Charlie worked for the National Security Agency — doing, as he put it to us with a smile, “spy stuff.”

Eventually, he found himself teaching at the Naval War College in Newport, and that’s when the Balls decided they wanted to settle down in this famous New England town. “We simply fell in love with living here,” said Claire. When 26 Greenough Place came on the market a few months later, they grabbed it, and then, over the next few years, they replaced walls; rebuilt the kitchen (complete with gorgeous granite counters), all three full baths, and the half bath; put on a new roof; restored both fireplaces; installed a central vacuum; replaced the old furnace — and on and on. “In the past 20 years,” said Charlie, “we’ve rebuilt and/or painted every square foot of this place.”

In the early 1990s the Balls found themselves to be “empty nesters.” Both their daughter, Carolyn, and son, Brian, were off to college and then on into the professional world — which left both their rooms, each with its own bath, empty. Thus was born what became well-known in the area (and, through the Internet, around the world) as “Claire’s B&B.”

For the next 13 years, until a year ago, Claire cooked a full breakfast for her guests every morning. Then, over coffee, she’d tell them what to do that day, where to eat, how to get there, and so forth. “She was their mother,” Charlie said. Guests came from all over, many about to be married, just married, or attending a wedding. Apparently, in part because you can rent some of those mansions, Newport is a very popular town in which to be married (visit for details).

“So what restaurants would you usually recommend?” we wanted to know. Claire was very specific. “For the view, The Mooring,” she said. “For the food, Brick Alley Pub. For both view and food, well, there are many, but Fathoms in the Marriott would certainly be one.”

And, besides shopping, which goes without saying, her “to do” list? “Well,” she said, “you must do the Cliff Walk, and go out on Ocean Drive, and, for a history lecture as well as fun, I’d recommend taking one of the sailboat tours around the harbor.” Her final piece of advice: “Walk. Parking downtown can be impossible.”

Several years ago, Claire’s B&B was named one of the three best places to stay in all of Newport (and there are lots of them), which certainly indicates that she was doing a fabulous job. But, we wanted to know, didn’t she become weary of having “strangers” in her house all the time?

“I never had a problem with anyone,” she said, but added that most B&B associations indicate that “owner burnout” usually happens after seven years. So how was she able to go for 13 years? Again, her answer was specific: “First, have only two rooms. I tried doing three for a while, and it was too much. Second, don’t be open all year.” Claire’s season was May through October.

By this time we’d finished our coffee, downed two cinnamon rolls, learned a lot about Newport, and discovered the secrets of running a B&B. So it was time to tour the house. Charlie led us up steep but nicely carpeted stairs to the third floor, where we came upon a bedroom, full bath, and sitting room — all part of Claire’s B&B — as well as another bedroom and a walk-in attic. Back down on the second floor, we found the large, sunny master bedroom with the master bath, a good-size dressing room, Charlie’s corner office with his computer, and a second bedroom and bath for the B&B. In back was a laundry/storage room with a washer and dryer.

The first floor has a handsome entranceway area and a living room with fireplace, at one end of which is a sliding door opening to the family room, also with a fireplace. Then there are the dining room, a powder room, and the large eat-in kitchen, where we were introduced to Astro, the Balls’ friendly greyhound — relaxing there, Charlie told us, after a long working session the day before. Turns out Astro is a member of Therapy Dogs International, Inc.; he visits as many as a dozen elderly or hospitalized people several times a month.

Updated Wednesday, August 8th, 2007
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