A Light-Filled 1772 Colonial House in Rhode Island

updated Feb 20, 2019
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(Image credit: Jacqueline Marque)

Name: Jim and Laura Nelson
Location: College Hill, Providence, Rhode Island
Size: 3,400 square feet
Years lived in: 4 1/2 years; owned

There had been no talk of moving in the Nelson family when a house in Providence caught Laura’s eye in the newspaper one Saturday in 2009. Pictures of the sun-drenched kitchen and unusually large backyard jumped off the page. And the charming College Hill colonial, built in 1772, was a mere two blocks from Laura’s childhood home. “It reminded me of the house I grew up in, but re-imagined in a much fresher, more modern way.” Thinking ahead to the urban life they planned to resume in retirement, Laura said to her husband Jim, “When we move to Providence, that’s the house I want to buy.”

(Image credit: Jacqueline Marque)
(Image credit: Jacqueline Marque)

The couple had been living in a wonderful Dutch colonial in the suburban community of South Kingstown for 16 years. Situated near the University of Rhode Island and within close proximity to both the woods and beaches and thirty minutes away from Providence, the Nelsons had access to a lot of resources. While they loved the life they had built raising their four children in South Kingstown, Jim, a high school principal, and Laura, who works at a marketing communications and public relations firm, are urban dwellers at heart. In addition to the five years they lived together in Manhattan before spending a year traveling the world, the couple lived in a Greek revival they gutted and renovated in Providence’s Armory District. When they eventually moved to suburbia to satisfy their need for better schools and more open space, they always knew they would one day find their way back to the city. They just didn’t imagine it would happen so soon.

Laura was planning to visit her parents in Providence the day the newspaper article was published. Unable to resist the urge to see the house, she called the agent and asked if she could take a look even though it was a day before the open house. “I saw it and fell in love with it that day.” The next day, she and Jim went to the open house. They made an offer that night.

“We just loved everything about it. It was impulsive,” Laura concedes, “but we don’t regret a single bit about it. We loved it exactly the way it was…Even though it retains all of the charms of the period, it feels modern at the same time.” After listing all of the things that won him over – the light, the openness of the main floor, the kitchen, the yard, the radiant heat in the master bathroom – Jim simply states, “It’s the perfect house.”

Four-and-a-half years later, Jim and Laura couldn’t be happier with their decision. “There’s nothing in New York that we can’t get here and it’s really just more manageable here,” Jim explains. Their expansive back yard, surrounded by a picket fence, offers them the kind of privacy and open space you don’t often find in an urban setting. Great food, theater, art and cultural events are just footsteps away. It seems that Jim and Laura’s impulse was spot-on; they have landed exactly where they belong.

(Image credit: Jacqueline Marque)

Apartment Therapy Survey:

My Style: Clean and simple, with a side of quirk

Inspiration: I love going to open houses to see what other people are doing, and checking out sites like Apartment Therapy, Houzz and Remodelista for ideas.

Favorite Element: The natural light.

Biggest Challenge: We love the cobblestone driveway – not just for the aesthetics, but for the fact that it’s permeable, so it absorbs water that would otherwise run off into the sewers – but keeping it weed-free without using environmentally poisonous solutions is a nightmare.

What Friends Say: People comment most about how unexpectedly big and beautiful the yard is.

Biggest Embarrassment: Getting down on our hands and knees to turn the Jotul gas stove off and on manually for the first four years we lived here – then finding out there’s a switch at the top.

Proudest DIY: Putting in the raised garden beds in backyard. There were four rotting wooden beds overrun by weeds when we bought the house. We replaced them with new beds, and framed them with Belgian blocks and stones so it looks much neater. It is such a treat to be able to harvest fresh vegetables and herbs all summer.

Biggest Indulgence: Hiring a professional gilder to redo the gold lettering on front door transom.

Best Advice: Use what you love and what has meaning for you.

Dream Sources: Plain English, Brimfield, Leonard’s Antiques

(Image credit: Jacqueline Marque)

Resources of Note:


  • Paint: Great White – Farrow & Ball
  • Paintings throughout first floor are by Sarah Howland, Laura’s grandmother
  • Rugs in living room and den were actually one big carpet that we inherited from Jim’s parents and cut in half.
  • Couches in living room came from Jim’s parents’ New York City apartment – they’re 30 years old. We had them restuffed and cleaned when we moved in.
  • Coffee table from Pottery Barn
  • Round metal side table from Comina
  • Oil painting over fireplace mantel is mid-19th century maritime scene by unknown Dutch artist – purchased at Leonard’s.
  • Moroccan side table purchased in NYC.
  • Dining room table is an antique French pine table that was bought on Craigslist without knowing that it belonged to the house’s previous owners.
  • Windsor dining chairs are from Leonard’s Antiques.
  • “Great Gatsby” and “Hound of the Baskerville” posters from Spineless Classics.
  • Refurbished dry sink is from Jim’s parents.
  • Counter stools were handmade by a previous owner
  • Ceramic sun is by local RISD artist Diane Jackson.


  • Paintings by Sarah Howland
  • B&W equestrian photo is by Norman Fortier
  • Antique chest from Jim’s parents
  • Big oil moonrise painting is by maritime artist Wesley Weber.


  • Stony Ground – Farrow & Ball
  • Watercolor is of Laura as little girl, painted by Sarah Howland
  • Pen sketch is of Laura and Jim’s oldest son, Caleb, by local artist Bay McClure.
  • Curtains from Ikea
  • Bureau from Laura’s parents
  • Rug from Laura’s parents
  • Bedside tables from local antique store


  • Unknown paint color
  • Under-sink baskets from Ikea
  • Bathtub accessories from West Elm


  • Dimity – Farrow & Ball
  • “Bugs” pen and ink drawing in bedroom is by local graphic artist Rob Walker, and represents three of the four Nelson children (Caleb, Hope and Silas)
  • Pen & ink drawings of fox and hedgehog by Sarah Howland
  • Bed from Laura’s parents
  • Rug from Building 19
  • Curtains from Restoration Hardware


  • Skylight – Farrow & Ball
  • Bed is from Laura’s parents
  • Bureau from Laura’s parents
  • Rug from Building 19
  • Paintings by Sarah Howland
  • Ship print from Laura’s grandparents
  • Pencil sketches in back upstairs hallway are by marine painter Emile Gruppe, and were bought by Laura’s mother from the artist in Gloucester for 50 cents each in the 1950s.
  • Bureaus from Laura’s parents
  • Painting over bureau from Jim’s parents
  • Rugs from Building 19
(Image credit: Jacqueline Marque)

Thanks, Jim & Laura!

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