“We found it on Zillow, just like everyone did during the pandemic,” musician Vanessa Carlton says of her charming Federal post-and-beam house. She and her husband, fellow musician John McCauley, even purchased the Rhode Island home—which was built during the first few years of the 1800s—without ever seeing it in person. “We did a FaceTime walk-through,” Carlton says. “I know, it’s crazy.” And yet the house, which the couple share with their seven-year-old daughter, Sidney, has led to their “next life” in the Ocean State.
The blind commitment to a centuries-old abode is a bit more understandable considering that Carlton and McCauley, whose renovation projects have grown larger over the years, are enamored with aged dwellings. “People associate so many headaches with historic homes,” Carlton says, “but we want those enormous wide wood plank floors you can’t find anymore, the artisan work that went into these mantles, and the true divided light windows with the old glass that bends [sunrays] just so.”
When the trio arrived, they found a resident family of “intense, amazing turkeys” inhabiting the one-acre property, which abuts natural wetlands. (“This house is theirs, make no mistake!” Carlton says of their avian neighbors, who are known to sleep on the roof.) As for the house itself, “I saw an enormous amount of potential,” Carlton reflects. “[But], to be honest, it felt a little bit like a funeral home. There was a sort of austerity to everything. You felt like you were walking into a movie set, which is not how we were going to live in this house.” Soon, Carlton and her husband hired ESHI Builders to do a carefully considered renovation.
As for the decor, the first thing the singer selected for the home perfectly sums up the spirit the couple envisioned. “I’m a wallpaper freak,” Carlton admits. She picked House of Hackney’s pink Dinosauria design before even hiring Kate Gray of Brooklyn-based interiors firm Hamilton Gray.
If Carlton’s strength was identifying exactly how she wants to feel in the space, Gray’s were creating a composition to elicit those feelings and problem-solving. The musician first met the interior designer through an artistic friend, but the pairing felt karmically right when she discovered Gray was a native Rhode Islander. As for the designer, she immediately sensed her client’s vibrant imagination and collaborative energy. “I could tell it would be a really fun process,” Gray recalls.
Carlton had plenty of references of her own, as she makes “ridiculous” mood boards and mines Pinterest for old magazine clips. But Gray enjoyed turning her client onto designers such as Rosie Li and finding key new pieces Carlton could obsess over (such as the floral bed from The Inside). The designer also helped distill not only Carlton’s ideas, but also her deep stash of vintage finds and antique furniture. “It’s a beloved building up of our precious things over time,” the musician notes. She adds, “Welcome to Vanessa and John’s flea market!”
The vast majority of the furnishings are pieces Carlton has carried through her life with McCauley, which Gray was tasked with jigsawing together. “I love when I walk into a house, and I can feel [its] history because I know how much the items mean to the owners,” Carlton says. Unsurprisingly, Carlton’s home is replete with nostalgic personal touches, such as artwork made by her grandfather, a vintage brass horse sculpture identical to one her best friend owns, and an “unbelievable” Yamaha piano that was custom-made for her to play at the 2003 Grammy Awards.
The latter has a significant presence in the living room, which is undeniably the soul of the home. It’s where the couple writes music, listens to records, and eats meals. Though they’ve cozied it up to fit their modern existence, Carlton says she feels a Colonial energy when the sun begins to set, and they light the home’s many candles. “Everything doesn’t have to be electrical, you know? Trying to maintain that low glow is key to a house like this.”
That romantic notion is probably also a vestige of Carlton’s time spent in England, working on records out of Georgian farmhouses whose moody paints always stuck with her. Here, redolent paint colors such as Farrow & Ball’s Mole’s Breath and Down Pipe and Benjamin Moore’s Wrought Iron set the tone. Beyond gravitating toward old English houses, Carlton says her homes always need something resembling The Shire. “I don’t think that’s an official aesthetic, but Lord of the Rings is my happy place.” For her, that ethereal magic comes from the trees whose wood makes up the wide floor planks. “I feel those trees in the floors and the size of the mantles—the living room mantle is so tall that I do feel like a hobbit!”
Somewhat surprisingly, this latest chapter of the storied house took just five months to create. Carlton’s collections, curated just so, feel right at home in the 200-plus-year-old structure. “One of the most beautiful things about a house like this is that you can make it so warm and comfortable and cozy,” Carlton says. “And that…is, for me, the magic.”