Left abandoned and long neglected, this once-modest house in Narragansett, a town where properties are hot under almost any circumstance, is rotting nearly everywhere the eye looks outside it.
Blue-painted wood siding droops, brittle black roof shingles are torn off in various places and expose even older wood underneath, shattered clear glass windows line up alongside yellow and blue intact stained-colored glass windows.
Through them a look inside reveals what seems like a frenzied tornado smashed up walls and ceilings, pulled up floors, and tore into it with apparent disregard for any preservation of its history or memory of a home to so many over the last 133 years.
Some beams even showed charred edges from a fire long ago that somehow quite never burned down the entire house. This 80 Narragansett Avenue property simply invites the pity of the wrecking ball to relieve the misery from this dilapidated condition.
But that’s not its fate. Burying the bones of this place isn’t even remotely close to what awaits this New England-architecture styled house with a steep-pitched roof and triangular gables.
For sure this 1887 Queen Anne Victorian is an old house, but it’s also This Old House.
An investor, a builder and television show have come to its rescue. At the center is Jeff Sweenor, owner of Sweenor Builders, Inc., of Wakefield, who will oversee this restoration — his fifth project accepted by “This Old House” in recent years for its annual series.
Making it livable — and more — here in Narragansett is this special builder incorporating reverence for details in a challenging revival. There’s also an historically-conscious young buyer who now owns the decrepit structure. He was born 95 years after the house was built by labors without cell phones, electric saws and stud guns.
Bringing attention to this restoration effort is a popular nationwide television show that ironically is a throw-back to the do-it-yourself era when the house was built.
“Over 130 years ago there was some unbelievable craftsmen doing this project,” Sweenor said last week looking at the beat-up structure where his crew has already begun work to bring the inside down to bare boards.
“To do that kind of work without the sophisticated tools we have now is just amazing,” he said, pointing to bridge rafters with rosettes carved into them by hand more than a century ago. “They didn’t just go to Home Depot and buy them.”
Standing nearby was homeowner and real estate investor Michael Campopiano of Cranston. He bought the property knowing he could gut the inside, but would be required to surgically repair with precision the outside to satisfy town standards for historic renovation.
“What did I get myself into?” the 38 year-old said with a laugh when giving a tour of the old house. His wife, Kassiane, 37, was with him and commented that when she pulls up and looks at the house, “There is a lot of detail in that house and wow, it’s old.”
The essence, though, of the situation for themselves or anyone inhabiting it was captured, she said, by their six-year-old son, Giulian, who told his father after seeing the run-down structure before his mother, “Daddy, you cannot show mommy this place. She won’t live in it.”
Sweenor said he annually handles about 20 building and renovation jobs in his 50-person company, with many done in the South County region where he grew up in Wakefield.
Among his other projects “This Old House” accepted have been a renovation and addition to the “Beach House” in East Matunuck (2017), the “Beach-Town Bungalow” built from the ground up in the heart of Narragansett’s historic district (2018) and a renovation and addition in Jamestown to a 1920s Rhode Island shingled cottage (2018-19).
For another “This Old House” segment, he also recently completed a renovation and addition to a classic shingled 2,000 square-foot ranch style house built in 1949 in Westerly and transformed now into a Dutch Colonial (2019).
This current project, named “Seaside Victorian,” focuses on nearly all historic preservation work for the exterior, he pointed out. Located in Narragansett’s Pier neighborhood and not far from the town beach, the 133-year-old house has been vacant the last few years.
Sitting prominently along one of Narragansett’s main thoroughfares, the 1,700 square-foot home will be captured in various episodes of this year’s 42nd season of the show.
It will detail efforts to preserve period architectural details such as decorative columns and brackets, sawtooth and fishscale shingles, eyebrow siding details, a “rising sun” patterned clapboard gable and more.
It will keep windows, improve the foundation and footings, address a deteriorating porch and rotting roof. A new 800 square-foot addition will include a two-car garage and mudroom on the first floor, and master suite on the second floor and will match the existing structure without overpowering it, Sweenor said.
However, the overall project is complicated, detailed and exacting — all the demands sought after by this builder who is 57 and was also a national champion rower at the University of Rhode Island and afterwards.
Rowing and building go together, he said with a laugh.
“I spent the better part of three years trying to be the best in the world at rowing. When you spend that much time trying to be the best in the world at something, you get some carryover to how you do anything in your life,” he said.
He’s also someone who understands true grit for summoning a focus on details to complete a task well and then create the foundation for more success.
Making candy and making houses also go together, Sweenor said. His connection to business and running a good one is rooted in the sweetest of places -- his family’s well-known fourth-generation candy making shop and retail store in Wakefield.
“Clearly it was the experience during the first 20 years of my life. It had an impact in creating this inner belief, now add that rowing component to it, and you get a pretty powerful mixture of ingredients,” he confided about his ethic guiding him and his own building company that he started 32 years ago.
“We want to build houses that last a hundred years. To do that, you have to have extraordinary work at every level,” he explained.
In the first half of his career, he said, he worked on learning to build a good house and use that experience. “Then I became aware that I wanted to build a great company that builds great houses,” he said.
“So, the second half of my career has been about trying to put all the pieces in place and people in place who all have that same passion, that same desire to excel. So that’s where the magic happens,” he said.
He said that he hand-selects each new employee who works for him. He looks for traits similar to his own.
“They all are craftsmen, they all strive for excellence in everything they do. The cumulative effect of all the focus by everyone throughout the year is good products produced all the time,” Sweenor said.
“It’s a lot easier to build an amazing house than it is to build an amazing company,” said the builder whose friendly demeanor in the television episodes of “This Old House” is as genuine in person.
“An amazing company is all about people and it’s hard to assemble great people because there’s so much interpersonal connection and they all have to work well together and they have to complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses,” he said, taking a long pause.
Then he quickly added in a shy way, “I’ve built some pretty nice houses in my career, but I’m most proud of the company I’ve built more so than a structure.”
It’s an attitude that certainly pleases the producers of This Old House, who also prize his construction skills just as much.
The TV Show
Chris Wolfe, the show’s executive producer, said that Sweenor is an expert home builder and everyone on his team is committed to doing things right.
“He also looks for new techniques and materials that will improve the construction process and make his projects more comfortable and efficient. And he knows the value of hard work, which has always been an important part of ‘This Old House,’ ” Wolfe said.
“This Old House,” started in 1979, has become a popular home improvement television series and continues to inspire homeowners across the county who never knew they could do it themselves.
”Who could have imagined that the home improvement television idea would develop into an entire industry,” said Russell Morash, its creator and first producer, in an interview on its website. “But given the fact that a person’s home is likely his or her most valuable asset, it may explain why so many viewers still depend on ‘This Old House.’ ”
Its shows capture millions of viewers and also brings dream renovations to life for them as they watch contractors, like Sweenor who was selected by “This Old House” to be a regular, undertake projects with all kinds of designs and intricacies.
Wolfe said, “When we tackle projects across the country, we work (also) with other world-class builders, drawing on their knowledge of local architectural styles, building codes, and construction methods.”
“Rhode Island obviously offers a wealth of scenic locations that provide great backdrops for our project houses, and Narragansett — with its beautiful waterfront views — more than fits that bill,” he said.
Reputation is what was important to homeowner Michael Campopiano, who won’t disclose the exact price for saving the old Queen Anne from demolition, but said “it’s a significant sum.”
“We met at his (Sweenor’s) office, met his whole team and left with a good feeling that this is the builder and the team to go forward with and that was before purchasing the house and only looking at preliminary sketches of potential work,” he said, adding, “We’re going all out with the design budget on it.”
Campopiano said he has other rentals in Narragansett, but this is his first large-scale historic renovation.
Sweenor has been a reassuring partner as they both faced restrictions and suggestions for how the outside of the house needs to look. It must meet various town historical requirements due to its location in an historic district.
Kristen Connell, spokeswoman for the Narragansett Historic District Commission, said, the project combines a meticulous exterior restoration with a new addition that adheres to the NHDC’s guidelines by complementing and not overwhelming the original structure.
“The town is fortunate that a sympathetic buyer came along while the house could still be saved. As the saying goes, this house has good bones, and we look forward to its completed restoration,” she said.
Campopiano pointed to the expense people face when preserving old structures and “you’re trying to preserve a piece of history and you’re spending almost double what you would normally.”
However, the personal injury and workers’ compensation lawyer said, he understands and appreciates the reasons for a pinpoint interest in renovation and expansion details.
“Aesthetically, I thought the house, the exterior, the intricately carved moldings, like on the gable and on the house, and above the Queen Anne windows, were absolutely beautiful. We loved those. My wife and I have always loved a house with a farmer’s porch, too,” he said.
“The house had so many architectural details on the exterior that we didn’t really care too much about work required on the inside. The location is a couple steps from the Pier and Narragansett beach is where we want to live,” Campopiano added.
In addition, memories of the house’s heyday still linger in community. For instance, John Miller, 88, of Narragansett, recalled when his grandparents owned and lived the house from 1895 until 1948 when his grandmother died.
“My grandfather Miller, a failed pharmacist, apparently had only one talent — siring children. He had eleven of them in that tiny little house. Meantime my grandmother Mary Jane Wright Miller, ran a seamstress operation, which put food on the table,” he said.
“One fond memory (is when) my father, who was born on the fourth of July, 1887,” he recalled, “would bring me to visit my grandmother. They would usually bring out a toy to keep me quiet,” Miller recalled.
“The toy was a tiny replica of the battleship Maine, which you might appreciate was most likely my father’s originally, when the Spanish-American War was fresh,” he said.
Miller said he feels elated about the renovation and preservation of the property and “it’s another step in the town’s desire to recapture the excellence of the past rather than simply build to fill space profitably.”
This kind of history — still close for a few, but distant for most others — is part of the reason for helping this house survive the brutal winds of time and neglect, Campopiano said.
“Restoring this house will bring value to my wife and me that cannot be measured in dollars and cents,” he said.
He said that people often drive by the house and comment, when seeing a sign about the renovation project, “’My God, this place is going to be amazing, how beautiful, it’s so great they are saving this rather than knocking it down.’”
“We’re restoring 80 Narragansett so all the people can continue to love it. Purchasing an historic home helps keep history alive,” he said.