Watching over historic homes

A Portsmouth interior designer adds her magic touch to a property’s caretaker’s cottage.

The Wentworth-Gardner House, a Georgian-style mansion built in 1760, first intrigued Portsmouth-based interior designer Lisa Teague, co-owner of Quiet Home Paints, when she spent two weeks there for a photo shoot for her company.

So when she heard the on-site caretaker was leaving, she approached the board of directors of the nonprofit Wentworth Lear Historic Houses group, which oversees the Wentworth-Gardner and Tobias Lear Houses, and was ultimately given approval to rent the space as the caretaker’s replacement.

In April 2013, Teague rented out her Atlantic Heights home and moved into the nine-hundred-square-foot, two-story caretaker’s annex. The space includes a living room, kitchen, dining room and two bedrooms. She was excited to live among the historic homes, and was drawn to the neighborhood.

Teague works from her design studio at 95 Market Street in Portsmouth, which is also the headquarters of Quiet Home Paints. Within walking distance of the Wentworth-Gardner House, the studio used to be a dressing room for a local theater.

“The cottage is within walking distance to my studio and so close to Prescott Park that I can hear concerts in the summer,” she says. The rental comes with caretaker’s duties—Teague walks the grounds and inspects the houses weekly, taking note of any trouble spots and checking for potential problems, such as water leaks, wind, rain and snow damage.

“The houses are closed during the winter,” says Margot Doering, president of the board of directors of the Wentworth Lear Historic Houses. “We need to have somebody keeping an eye on the property.” For example, last winter, Teague alerted the board to ice dams on the ground that were diverting melting snow toward the buildings during an early February thaw. On her own, Teague maintains the garden closest to the cottage.

An antique butcher-block table once owned by Teague’s grandfather in California goes nicely with the refinished wide-pine floors and clean white walls. Teague says the colorful hen painting, purchased at a gallery in Boston, makes her happy everyday.

By the time Teague moved in, the kitchen had already been updated with refinished wide-pine floors, new appliances, and freshly painted cabinets, walls and trim. For the rest of the space, Teague chose paints from her own line to create a light and neutral background for her unique collection of artwork. No structural changes were made to the rental space.

“The space has lovely, soft light and I wanted to see what it was like to live in a neutral palette,” says Teague, adding that interesting art, fabrics and furnishings add texture and color.

“I am known for a love of color, and while this house has white walls, it still feels like a colorful home,” she says. “The color was brought in through the art and other decorative details.”

The cottage’s ceilings are tall, and the rooms long and narrow. Teague says by keeping the walls and the ceilings the same tone, the contrast area is at furniture height and floor level. “This pulls the room down to a more friendly scale,” she says. “Your eye starts at the level of the art and then comes down to the lovely old floors and colorful rugs. Eventually, the eye will wander up to ceiling level, and, at that point, the room simply feels lofty and airy—not easy to pull off in a small space.”

As for what Teague has done to the caretaker’s wing in terms of paint and décor, Doering is pleased.

“It’s like night and day—Lisa has brought a lot of light and color into the space, and the way she organized and chose the furniture is sophisticated,” Doering says. “She has brought in a beautiful combination of a fresh, new look complemented with classic pieces.”

Teague added punches of color throughout, such as the golden bench in the living room and a turquoise hutch in the kitchen. Doering says more color was used during the Colonial period than one might think. She says that during a visit to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, she saw interiors with shades of yellow and turquoise that brought light into the homes.

Steeped in history

This one-of-a-kind dining-room table was once a potting table. Lisa Teague found it in an antique shop.

Located in the historic South End of Portsmouth on Mechanic Street, the adjacent Wentworth-Gardner and Tobias Lear Houses and their mid-eighteenth century warehouse overlook the Piscataqua River. The Wentworth family first built the home in 1760 as a wedding present for their son, Thomas Wentworth. Captain Tobias Lear III—the grandfather of Tobias Lear V, who became President George Washington’s private secretary—built the Tobias Lear House in 1740.

Later owners converted both mansions into tenant houses in the latter part of the nineteenth century, but the homes were both restored to their early Colonial glory after antiquarian and photographer Wallace Nutting purchased the buildings in the early 1900s. Preservationists bought the houses in 1940 and established the Wentworth-Gardner and Tobias Lear Houses Association.

Upcoming season

While the caretaker’s wing is not open to the public, the rest of the grounds are open for tours from Flag Day on June 14 through Columbus Day weekend in October.

Doering says this season’s special events include an exhibit of Piscataqua River-based watercrafts—such as the Portsmouth Wherry, a rowing boat used to cross the heavy river currents—on display in early July through Labor Day.

Planning is also in the works for festivities during the Round Island Regatta on August 23 at the Wentworth Lear Historic Houses’ grounds. “This is a very fun event on the waterfront,” says Doering, with sponsors of the event donating proceeds to the organization.   

The caretaker’s annex, where Lisa Teague lives, is located at the back
of the Wentworth-Gardner House.


Categories: Architecture and Interiors