Featured House: The Merrill and Virginia Cottage
When I step into the former house of Merrill and Virginia Slate, I feel like I’ve turned a page back in a history book.
“What you’re looking at now is almost exactly how it looked like when they first came here,” said John “Doc” Willis, who served as a caretaker for and was a close friend to the Slates for many years.
As Willis provides me with a tour of this cozy three-story house, he tosses in anecdotes of the place’s history, and the personality of the couple that called it home for much of their life — Merrill and Virginia Slate resided at the Old Town Road property for over 60 years before they passed away.
It is clear that the house was cherished by the couple, who spent their time on the island, as Willis described them, “minding their own business” and partaking in various hobbies.
For example, while we’re touring the warmly-lit living room, which is decorated in welcoming, rich browns and classic wood paneling, Willis notes that this used to be filled with “birding stuff,” as Merrill and Virginia were active birders.
“Merrill and Virginia tagged seagulls for years and years, mostly at the end of the Great Salt Pond and by Andy’s Way,” said Willis. “They would get reports of the gulls coming up as far away as Columbia, South America.”
Also a hobby, especially of Virginia’s, was afternoon tea parties, at which their neighborhood friends would come enjoy each other’s company, as well as the property’s beautiful views. A front porch, which was recently rebuilt by Willis, is a great spot to relax and look at Old Mill Pond across the street. And the views from the back of the house, seen from several of the upstairs bedrooms, are sweeping ones of town and beyond that, the ocean.
While Willis has fixed up various parts of the house — such as new appliances, siding and roofing — he kept its natural character intact. Original porcelain light fixtures, ceramic doorhandles, an original bathtub (“I never saw a tub like that before,” remarked Willis), and even small details like a rotary dial phone pay a tribute to a history of Block Island.
“This house was a real dollhouse when I first met the Slates,” said Willis. “They had no children, so this house didn’t see the abuse that it could have. It stayed very much the same way.”
The place was built in 1913 by a local builder named John Hayes, who constructed several houses on the island, including rebuilding the National Hotel. And still original to the house are many wooden cabinets built by Merrill’s brother Albion Slate.
Also on the property, next to the house, is a garage with an upstairs studio. It is now set up to function as an artist’s loft, but Merrill Slate used this area as his personal lockshop — locksmithing and cracking safes were one of Slate’s biggest hobbies, said Willis.
The garage is from around the 1920s, said Willis, and it was moved to this spot from an old Coast Guard station on Corn Neck Road. Inside it, the heavy wooden floorboards speak a tribute to the garage’s solid construction, and the light filtering in from a few windows and casting shadows on a plush sofa make it easy to see why this could become someone’s sanctuary of peace.
“He would go up there and never let anyone into it,” said Willis. “It was so cluttered. It was his hideout.”
Many people will remember Merrill Slate in fond ways, often sitting outside his garage and watching the island as it goes by. “Merrill was always a gentlemen,” Heather Sniffen, a friend of Willis’s, told me during our tour of the house. “I’d come to visit him, and he’d look around the property to pick a flower. He’d say ‘a gentlemen always gives a lady flowers.’”
Despite the fond memories, Willis knows it’s time to find the house new owners. A sign that Willis hung inside says it all: “They were always happy here, bothered no one and no one bothered them. If you are able to spend a day, a week, a month in this house, some of this might just rub off on you, and you will be better for it.”
The Merrill and Virginia Cottage is listed at $730,000. For information, call Block Island Realty at (401) 466-5887 or visit www.birealty.com.