“We found her in Zillow, just as everyone did during the pandemic,” musician Vanessa Carlton says of her charming Federal home. She and her husband, fellow musician John McCauley, purchased the Rhode Island home—built during the first few years of the 19th century—without seeing it in person. “We did a FaceTime tour,” Carlton says. “I know, that’s crazy.” However, the home, which the couple share with their seven-year-old daughter, Sydney, led them to their “next life” in Ocean State.
A blind commitment to a centuries-old dwelling is all the more understandable given that Carlton and McCauley, whose renovation projects have grown over the years, are fascinated by the older dwellings. “People associate a lot of headaches with historic homes, but we want those massive, wide wood floors that you can’t find anymore, the craftsmanship that went into these mantles, and the real light-up partitioned windows in that old glass bend,” Carlton says. [sunrays] Thus only.”
When the trio arrived, they found a resident family of “strong and amazing turkeys” inhabiting the one-acre property bordering a natural wetland. (“This house is theirs, make no mistake!” Carlton says of their avian neighbors, who are known to be rooftop sleepers.) As for the house itself, “I saw a huge amount of potential,” says Carlton. “[But]To be honest, it did feel a bit like a funeral home. There was a kind of austerity in everything. It felt like you were walking into a movie set, which is not how we would have lived in this house.” Carlton and her husband soon hired ESHI Builders to do a carefully thought-out renovation.
As for the decor, the first thing the singer chose for the house perfectly sums up the spirit that the couple imagined. “I’m obsessed with wallpaper,” Carlton admits. She chose to design House of Hackney’s Pink Dinosauria before renting Kate Gray from Brooklyn-based interior design firm Hamilton Gray.
If Carlton’s strength determines exactly how you want to feel in space, Gray’s has been creating a formula to elicit those feelings and solve problems. The musician first met the interior designer through an art friend, but felt graciously connected when she found out that Gray was a Rhode Islander. As for the designer, she immediately sensed her client’s vibrant imagination and collaborative energy. “I can tell it’s going to be a really fun process,” Gray recalls.
Carlton had plenty of references of her own, making “ridiculous” mood boards and Pinterest miners for old magazine clips. But Gray had fun turning her client into designers like Rosie Lee and finding new key pieces that Carlton could grab (like the flower bed from The Inside). The designer also helped distill not only Carlton’s ideas, but her deep collection of antique finds and antique furniture. “It’s a beloved build of our precious things over time,” notes the musician. She adds, “Welcome to Vanessa and John’s Flea Market!”
The vast majority of the furnishings are pieces that Carlton carried her whole life with McCauley, and which Gray commissioned to pick up together. “I love when I walk into the house, and I feel it [its] History because I know how important the items are to their owners,” says Carlton. Unsurprisingly, the Carlton home is filled with nostalgic personal touches, like artwork made by her grandfather, a matching antique brass horse carving of one of her best friends, and a “cool” designer Yamaha piano Specifically for her to play at the 2003 Grammy Awards.
The latter has a great presence in the living room, which is undeniably the soul of the house. It’s where the couple writes music, listens to recordings, and eats meals. Although they grouped them to suit their modern presence, Carlton says they feel the colonial energy as the sun begins to set, and they light the house’s many candles. “Not everything has to be electrical, you know? Trying to keep that low glow is the key to a house like this.”
This romantic notion may also be a relic of Carleton’s time in England, working on recordings from the Georgian farmhouses whose moody drawings have always stuck with her. Here, fragrant paint colors like breath and downpipe from Farrow & Ball’s Mole and Benjamin Moore’s W wrought set the tone. Besides being drawn to Old English homes, Carlton says her homes have always needed something akin to The Shire. “I don’t think this is a formal aesthetic, but Lord of the rings is my happy place.” To her, this ethereal charm comes from the trees whose wood forms the broad floorboards. “I feel those trees in the floors and the size of the mantle—the living room’s mantle is so tall that I feel like a hobbit!”
Somewhat surprisingly, this final chapter of the storied house only took five months to create. The Carlton Collections, curated in this way, feels completely at home in the 200-plus-year-old structure. “One of the nicest things about a home like this is that you can make it cozy and comfortable and cozy,” says Carlton. “And that… to me, is magic.”