A House to Bank On

Charles Riley is a formidable man— six-foot-two-inches with a solid, muscular body, dark hair cut short and a goatee with threads of silver. His eyeglasses are cobalt blue. His dress is impeccable. Not the person you might imagine living in this red clapboard, 1,500-square-foot former bank just a few houses down from Pizza Haven, Too, in the sleepy town of New Ipswich.

Riley owned a successful interior design firm in Manhattan, plus a well-regarded antiques store on West 14th Street in the city. His clients included such heavyweights as the Hearst Corporation, GQ magazine and Mercedes-Benz.

So why leave the capital of American design to move to a village even many New Hampshire residents know little—if anything—about?

“The attacks of 9/11 collated my thinking,” says Riley. “The lease on my apartment was about to run out, and I had been thinking about moving back to New Hampshire [he was born in Manchester] to be closer to my parents, nieces and nephews.”

In addition to wanting to be close to his family, Riley had two other prerequisites. He wanted to live in an “antique” house, and it had to be within a four-hour drive of New York City, where he still has many clients.

“I found myself frequently returning to New Ipswich, even though my realtor didn’t know the town well. The town had so many antique houses, and when I saw Barrett House [a beautifully restored 1800 mansion owned by Historic New England, formerly the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities], I knew this town appreciated old houses.”

Riley ended up buying the town’s 1847 bank, which, in later years, served as town offices and police headquarters.

Renovating the bank

“It was a mess,” Riley says. “Linoleum floors, cheap paneling on the walls and dropped ceilings. We had to gut the place.”

Eleven months later, with help of builder John Kendall of Antrim, the interior was complete, with gleaming hardwood floors, nine-foot ceilings and handsome new woodwork. In addition, the exterior was re-done. Although the house is in the New Ipswich historic district, no restrictions were put on changing the exterior color of the clapboards. “I called the planning board and asked them if I could paint the outside a tasteful brick red. ‘You can paint it purple if you like,’ I was told.”

Riley stuck with the red and added period white trim, including a splendid door surround.

Designing the interior

Once the house was completed, Riley used his deft decorating touch to transform the interior. ”I strongly believe that houses should change as they age,” he says. “I like to think in vignettes. Rooms should be inviting and comfortable, no matter what.”

The front parlor forms a striking introduction to the house. In the relatively small space—perhaps two hundred square feet — Riley has assembled an array of collectibles that makes the little house a mini-Smithsonian. On one wall is a grouping of the skulls and antlers of roebucks, a small European deer. (“I didn’t shoot them,” says Riley.) In the midst of the grouping is a portrait of Riley as a young man that was done by a friend.

On another wall are a number of tribal drums and baskets and a black basalt bust of the Trojan prince Paris. Fronting the drums is an ornate Rococo Revival Victorian wooden chair clad in reddish-purple fabric.

Against the far wall, there is a day bed covered with a light chocolate-colored alpaca pelt and a number of pillows, including one in a leopard print. “My nieces and nephews battle over the bed” when they visit, says Riley.

On a third wall is a large painting—black is its predominate color—by the American contemporary artist Robert Gober. The windows of what Riley fondly calls the Victorian Hunting Lodge Room are topped by limegreen shades enhanced by colorful paper ribbons and beads. There is a zebra skin pelt covering the floor.

Looking over this eclectic creation and its many vignettes, Riley says: “You can have contemporary furniture juxtaposed with traditional or Old World. You have a bit of each in here. Some of these things I’ve had forever, others just a few weeks.”

The front parlor retains the original bank’s vault, which is lined with massive pieces of granite several feet thick. “When my nieces and nephews come over, I tell them that’s the time-out room,” he chuckles. It’s empty at the moment, but during the holidays it holds a Christmas tree and “may become a wine cellar down the road.”

The wallpaper in the front parlor — like that throughout the house — is Adelphi, made from wooden blocks used to print images on handmade paper. Most of the patterns reflect old ledgers and records. “I thought it was perfect for the house because we found a number of old town records when we did the renovation.” The light pink paint in the foyer is by Olde Century Colors and — like much of the other paint in the home — speaks of past centuries and pays homage to milk-based paints of old.

The kitchen is thoroughly modern (perhaps the only in New England with a bank-vault granite backsplash) and displays a bright collection of cookie jars. There is a pretty little bowl-on-table sink in the step-up guest bath, which highlights another example of the rugged granite of the vault. Riley also added a side porch that serves as an indoor/outdoor room with comfortable furniture and a variety of plantings. He obtained a small garden shed for storage (the house doesn’t have a basement) and is just now beginning to work on the landscaping.

Upstairs, Riley used dormers to make the two bedrooms more spacious and bright, and had custom-made (and whimsical) closet doors installed.

During the chaos of renovating an old home, Riley remains active in his career, working on designs for magazines, completing the decoration and interior details of an eight-thousand-square-foot house in Hollis and looking after his showroom at the Milford Antiques Mall.

Oh, and one more small project — he bought the looming three-story former Grange Hall next door to his house, gutted the building and plans to turn it into his primary residence and, possibly, a couple of apartments.

“For me, life here is great,” says Riley. “I’m close to my relatives, close to New York clients, and I love this little house. It’s good to be back in New Hampshire.”