1800s House Renovation in Providence | Ship Shape

A Providence designer turned a tiny, dilapidated 1800s house into a nautically inspired New England haven.

By Christie Matheson

May 15 2014


In the downstairs hallway, a model ship has pride of place.

Photo Credit : Keller + Keller

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To say that Kevin O’Brien’s house was in a state of disrepair when he bought it is putting it kindly. “I have some scary ‘before’ pictures,” he says. “It’s not like ‘Oh, look how dated it was.’ It’s more like ‘Oh, look at this serial killer’s lair …’” This two-story, 1,000-square-foot house in Providence, Rhode Island, in the Fox Point neighborhood on the city’s East Side, was built in the late 1800s. In the ensuing decades it was subdivided, subdivided again, and abandoned. Nevertheless, O’Brien, a former art teacher turned interior designer and the founder of the Providence- and Boston-based OBrien Design Group, bought it in late 2009.

He started by considering the overall footprint, knowing he had to maximize what was there. “When you have 1,000 square feet,” O’Brien says, “you can’t waste any of it.” He wanted a coastal, nautical feeling to the décor, and he brought a shipbuilder’s mentality to the renovation, capturing space and adding storage wherever he could. He also adjusted the house’s layout to make it seem larger.

He started with the first floor. Over time, it had been chopped up and divided so that five rooms were squeezed into 500 square feet. “I had to open it up a bit,” O’Brien says. But he didn’t knock down every wall. Conventional wisdom may hold that open layouts suggest spaciousness, but in this case, he explains, “it would actually have made the house seem smaller because you’d have been able to see everything.” Now the kitchen covers about a third of the downstairs, and the living room, dining area, and study all flow into each other easily. Alcoves and walls break up the space.

Meanwhile, the home’s second story had been given the one-big-space treatment by a previous owner; O’Brien’s next task was to add walls there. “I turned it into two bedrooms, a bathroom, a walk-in closet, and a hallway, and now it feels much bigger,” he notes.

Once he established the layout, O’Brien looked for every opportunity to carve out nooks. “I had a funky spot created by a chimney in the living room,” he says. “Really, it was just a flue in the wall. But it was big enough to park the fridge in the kitchen and install shelves in the living room. So I used it.” He also turned an easily overlooked corner into an enviable home office.

Upstairs, an odd chimney jog created a spot where O’Brien could add a flush linen closet. And he opened up the stairway and lined it with bookshelves; the book jackets add color and texture to the space. Plus, as he sees it, “your books reveal a lot about you.”

So does art. O’Brien’s eclectic art collection includes his own paintings, his mother’s watercolors, vintage flags, and paintings by Providence artist Anthony Tomaselli and Anne Packard, a Cape Cod artist. “None of my art is of especially high value, but it’s all valuable to me,” he says. The point of art isn’t to accessorize. “Don’t think of it like a throw pillow,” O’Brien warns. “The worst thing you can do is worry about whether your art matches your fabric.” Rather, art should evoke a feeling or a memory of a place or person.

Among the works are plenty of seascapes, and the general aesthetic of the house is decidedly coastal. “My happiest places—Maine, Cape Cod, the islands—are on the coast,” O’Brien says, “and I love the comfortable, casual, light look of beach houses.” To that end, he painted the walls with a coastal-inspired palette of just four soothing shades—super white, linen white, gray, and navy—throughout the house. “The longer I’ve been designing, the fewer paints I use in a given house,” he explains. “I love the simplicity of it. The rooms feel different, but they go together.”

True to the coastal New England ethos, the house feels fresh and clean yet retains the charm of a bygone era. And that’s because O’Brien preserved as much as he could, even in the course of this extensive renovation. He kept the original wood floors, which are worn and patched, and a couple of tiny, asymmetrical windows. “You’ve got to keep some quirks,” he says.

Of the home’s furniture, all but two pieces are refurbished antiques. “I have several pieces that my 96-year-old grandparents bought when they were first married,” O’Brien says. “I’ve stripped the finish and reinforced them a bit, but they couldn’t be more perfect here.” Just the way the house itself—after a good deal more than new finishes and reinforcement—has become a perfect home.

OBrien Design Group, Boston, MA/Provi­dence, RI. 617-869-3734;