If a property can be said to have pedigree, then Lauren and Ralph Plumb’s Portsmouth parcel is descended from local royalty.
Once part of a sprawling county estate owned by the Vanderbilt family, the 3-acre lot boasts the ruins of a greenhouse where flowers were presumably grown to grace the family’s tables. The property next door housed the Gilded Age stables where Cornelius Vanderbilt’s son, Reginald, raised horses and hosted equestrian notables.
Horses still occupy the adjoining lot, and you might be greeted by a friendly whinny as you pull into the driveway of the modern farmhouse the Plumbs share with their three young boys. The dream home they created represents a design collaboration between Lauren, a real estate agent; Ralph, a general contractor and real estate investor; and architect Spencer McCombe, principal of Cordtsen Design Architecture in Middletown.
Ralph was still in high school the first time he met McCombe, who was working for a firm that Ralph’s father had hired to redesign his Newport restaurant, the Brick Alley Pub. McCombe became the elder Plumb’s architect of choice and went on to design three homes for the family. Once Ralph went into the construction business, the two collaborated on numerous projects, so it was a given that “Spence” (as the family calls him) was going to be in on this project.
The fact that the Plumbs and McCombe know each other so well allowed them to design in shorthand. “We didn’t have to have a lot of heavy lifting,” McCombe says. “Lauren was able to articulate what she wanted, and my role was to get it down on paper, to augment her vision so that Ralph, as contractor, could work from it.”
Lauren knew she wanted cedar on the home’s front elevation, so McCombe used the wood to articulate a bay on the board-and-batten façade. “The exterior material choices and massing make the building unique — but not so different that it feels like it shouldn’t be here,” McCombe says. “It’s a matter of using traditional materials in fresh ways.”
Lauren also wanted the interior to feel clean and uncluttered. “My style is super-minimalist,” she says. Her wish list included high ceilings, a soaring stone fireplace, an open-concept great room, and judiciously placed wood accents to warm it all up and create a sense of coziness. McCombe ticked off all the boxes. The result is an especially pleasing Big Sky-meets-Coastal-New-England vibe.
Honey-colored trusses straddle the top of the vaulted great room, warming the space and making the height feel less imposing. “The bottom beam of each truss sets a plane in your eye — a kind of secondary lower ceiling line,” McCombe says.
Shiplap paneling makes the main spaces feel less stark and is a boon for a family with three boys who could all too easily ding or otherwise bang-up drywall during raucous play. “Another reason I really wanted to do shiplap throughout,” says Lauren, “is that I felt a lot of wall decor would detract from the clean, spare look. The shiplap lends its own design element, quietly.”
McCombe also heeded Lauren’s call for mostly one-level living. “I’ve always wanted a sprawling ranch,” she confesses. The architect largely complied by putting everything on the first floor except for ancillary spaces like a playroom that doubles as a home theater, a workout room and Ralph’s office, all of which are upstairs. The main bedroom is in one wing of the ground floor, and the boys’ bedrooms are in the other. None of the bedrooms is right off the living area, a detail that was important to the owners. “You don’t feel what’s public and what’s private are encroaching on each other,” observes McCombe.
The two wings embrace a patio that is sheltered by an overhang extending from the back of the house, making the patio feel like another comfy room. McCombe made sure you don’t have to go up or down any stairs to reach it, easing the transition from indoors to out. “It doesn’t feel like you’re going someplace else to have your outdoor meal,” McCombe says,” but to a room that just happens to be outside.”
Furnishings are generally a mashup of solid-color pieces from Pottery Barn, Wayfair and Ben’s Furniture Co. in Newport. Because the home sits far from the road, window coverings aren’t necessary, allowing sun to pour in from all directions through the oversized panes. Ceiling fixtures and sconces (many from Hubbardton Forge) take the place of conventional lamps, contributing to the home’s clean look. All of the lighting is on dimmers, so the owners can manipulate the atmosphere according to their mood. “It’s so cozy at night,” Lauren enthuses.
In a house filled with boys, Lauren used some of the light fixtures to exert her female influence. “Everything in the house is straight lines,” she says. “I wanted something a little feminine and round.” So for the entryway, she chose a spherical crystal chandelier from Greyleigh. “Its sparkle is as feminine as its shape,” she says, “and it looks really fabulous as you approach the house from outside. It glitters all around the walls in the evening.”
She also hung a Pottery Barn chandelier draped with painted wooden beads over the tub in the main bathroom. “That was the first thing I picked out for the entire house,” she says. “I wanted some warmth there, something with style.” The adjoining wall is covered in a type of reclaimed wood called mushroom board, offering a rustic counterpoint to the sleek floating tub below. (The same wood appears in Plumby’s Restaurant in Middletown, which Ralph opened with his brother and McCombe designed.)
If you asked the Plumbs or McCombe who came up with which design element, they might not be able to tell you. “The design process was so collaborative that no one can quite remember who did what,” McCombe says. “But we’re all really proud of it.”
Photography by Elaine Fredrick
Architect: Spencer McCombe, Cordtsen Design Architecture
Contractor: Plumb Building
Landscape architect: Pamela Rodgers, Verde Design + Horticulture