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Living in History: A Steward’s Story

My partner, David, and I feel so blessed and fortunate to reside in a living piece of history – one of the exquisite Newport Restoration Foundation (NRF) historic houses.

We have been living in the John Davis House (c. 1804) at 68 William Street for the last 23 years. It has really been such a unique opportunity and experience. Not only do we reside in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, surrounded by sea, sun and sky, but we are also part of American colonial history.

The John Davis House is one of the over 70 properties restored by NRF, cared for by restoration experts, and stewarded by their tenants. Nowhere else in the world could we be afforded this same opportunity. Doris Duke’s brilliant vision to create this wonderful preservation foundation has made a dream come true for us and preserved the most examples of colonial architecture in America in one city, Newport.

Each of the NRF houses has its own unique history and story. My little house called me away from New York City—a city I never thought I would leave. But, while working on assignments for our specialized lighting business at local Newport museums, David and I were introduced to Newport with its glorious narrow streets, colonial architecture and neighborhoods. We fell in love with the city!

During one of our business trips to Newport, we walked by the John Davis House and noticed a plaque, which included the house name, year and the initials “NRF” on it. Through a window, I saw a man sitting in the living room. We knocked on the front door. The man who answered the door was a Newport historian. I asked him to “tell us about all these houses with the NRF plaques?” He invited us in and told us about Doris Duke and the concept of the NRF.

He found the foundation’s phone number in the yellow pages for us (this was before the Internet!) and said the houses are all rental properties and that one needed to apply.

I returned to NYC and got back into the hurried pace of the city and forgot to apply. Months later, after reading a New York Times article about Doris Duke and her NRF project, I immediately sent for an application, filled it out and submitted it. Within two weeks of applying, I received a call from the NRF offices informing me that a small house, the John Davis House at 68 William Street, was available and asked when I would like to see it. I told them I’d already been in the house and loved it. David and I instantly decided to move to Newport! Just like that. It was the best decision of our lives. It provided us with the best of both worlds—to live and work in Newport with clients in New York, Boston and all over the nation. We have never looked back!

It has been simply a dream come true to live in the John Davis House, which has become our home and working environment. Over the years, there have been unusual connections between this house and the people we have come to know. We have met two previous stewards who lived in the property as well as another couple who actually studied and measured the John Davis House over decades and recreated its proportions in their home in Massachusetts.  This couple have become one of our most treasured friends.  It is amazing the unique connections which have been made, bringing us together through this wonderful house.  There is something gloriously mysterious about how these properties continue to make their own history richer as the years go by.

In addition to living in this beautiful house right in the heart of Newport, we have created a secret garden. Over the past two decades we have gradually planted many trees, perennials and annuals, and built a small koi pond, creating a dreamy little special hidden garden where we can enjoy nature in an urban environment and host magical lunches for friends and business colleagues.

Somehow, these historic houses select their stewards to ensure that their history will be carried on in a lively, loving fashion.

By Sandra Liotus and Sir David Crampton Barden

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