The Block Island Times

Featured Property: A Corn Neck house made for entertaining family

By Pippa Jack | Oct 12, 2012
Photo by: Kari Curtis Stone walls and terraced lawns grace the northern aspect of this distinctive, spacious home, with its cedar shingle and blue trim exterior and generous wrap around porch.

The house owned by Tom and Laurie Pickens, set in a secluded-feeling spot off Corn Neck Road, manages to be both solid and gracious, both cozy and ideal for large gatherings, and with its in-ground saltwater pool, it’s the place every grandkid will be angling for invitations to all summer.

It’s a relatively new build, combining, perhaps, the ideal prescriptions for a house made to weather any storm and any extended family: it was owner built in the early 90s by an island carpenter known for his craftsmanship, and later expanded from a home made for a family of four to its current generous dimensions. In its new format, it allows adults to enjoy gracious living quarters in the larger of twin buildings, while the kids get their own space in a separate-but-together addition.

The Pickenses, who also have homes in Florida and New Jersey, both of which are closer to grandkids, are selling with regret, saying it’s time to simplify.

The two sides of the home are linked by a large, bright, three-season enclosed porch that has all sorts of uses: As a staging room for the property’s enclosed gardens, as a mudroom, as a creative space for Laurie, who’s an accomplished oil painter, and as a ground-level laundry room.

Wherever you are in the house, there’s one thing you can’t escape: views. They’re gorgeous, pastoral and serene, framed by big windows that show the house’s designers knew what they were on to. The sea is close — it’s a 20 minute ramble east to the sandy cove at the southern base of the Clayhead trails — but the ocean views are to the north, where a rolling hollow holds a triangle of blue that is capped, on a clear fall day, by the coastline of the southern Rhode Island mainland. On other sides of the house, rises and streambeds are studded by stone walls and trees, and walking trails cut through the brush.

Tom says he and Laurie first came to Block Island in the early 90s, following an itch he’d had ever since he went to school at Brown. They had tried other New England islands, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, but “they were too far away, too crowded, and just too much,” Tom says.

In the late 90s they bought a home on the southern bluffs, but as their girls had girls of their own, the house became too small. “It was difficult to add on to,” Tom explains. “We had all these grandkids, and their friends were coming up too, so we started looking for a house that could accommodate a large group. That’s when Champ was selling this house.”

Champlin Starr had built the home for his wife Lisa — who is now the poet laureate of Rhode Island — and their two kids, but then decided to concentrate on the family’s business, the Hygeia House inn.

With 3.6 acres, Tom and Laurie had room to work with. They bought the house in fall 2007 and employed Block Island Housewrights. Laurie helped Shea Butcher, the principal of Housewrights, design the project, which included reconfiguring the original house’s interior layout as well as building an addition. They put in new floors, new stairs, a new kitchen — “It’s almost, what we didn’t do,” jokes Tom.

But they kept key details of Starr’s, including the distinctive porch railing, which uses boards cut with a star design and painted blue for the vertical supports. In fact, the Pickenses loved the home’s generous porch so much that they extended it even further, asking Housewrights to mimic the original design, and it now wraps three quarters of the way round the house, providing many places to admire the view, the sunset and the sunrise.

Tom likes to cook, so he put in a six-burner stainless steel range with integral cast iron griddle and two convection ovens. Black-veined white marble lines the counters, which provide plenty of space for the marshmallows he keeps on hand for teenage s’more sessions. The marble is carried through to a peninsula that helps the kitchen space flow into the dining room, where the table has room for 10 to 12.

The dining room opens to a fireplaced living room, and from there to a family room, while the porch sits invitingly outside every window of the main living space. There’s a guest bathroom on this level, while upstairs lie three bedrooms and two bathrooms.

Back out through the kitchen and you’re in the three-season porch, and from there, the addition. There’s a comfortable room with a flatscreen television that flows into a second, smaller space with a perfect reading nook set below a window. There’s another bedroom with a king bed, a bathroom with an enormous tub, and stairs that reach the lovely loft space. Laurie at first used the space, which boasts floor to ceiling windows, as an art studio, but the grandkids migrated there — no surprise, since it’s a space that would be the envy of any sleepover party.

The house easily sleeps a gang, says Tom.

There’s another family room in the basement of the main house, Tom’s office, and the door that leads to the saltwater pool.

Why saltwater? “It cuts down on the amount of chlorine you need,” Tom explains. “The water is softer — I can’t really explain it, but it has a different texture. And it’s more gentle on the eyes. The grandkids, I think, spend more time in it than they do in the ocean.”

Everywhere you look, Laurie’s impressive artistic eye is apparent. The couple never hired an interior designer, but you’d never know it: muted colors on the walls show off the bright, eclectic but harmonious furnishings for a look that conjures high-end beach cottage, and creates a feeling of warmth and ease that’s at once inviting for kids and display-worthy for adult guests. Furnishings could be negotiated for a buyer, says Tom.

Next to the pool is a covered area set with flowering vines, a big outdoor grill, lounge chairs spaced around the fieldstone patio and a pool house. Open the big sliding barn doors and you’re in another kid-friendly space that boasts a bathroom and an outdoor shower perched to the north. Walk into the shower stall and you see more stars cut into the wood of the northern wall, revealing peek-a-boo views of the sea to the north. The house has all the modern amenities: integral two car garage, central A/C. But it’s this kind of detail that speaks to the craftmanship, humor and artistic flair that make the property so unique.

The four-bedroom, three full bath and two half bath home, plus pool house, is on the market for $2.59 million. Attwood Real Estate has the listing; call (401) 466-5582 for more information, or visit


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