A Five Star Bed & Breakfast with Five Star Service

 

 

In 1876, Maryland Congressman and former Baltimore Mayor and Maryland Governor Thomas Swann began construction on a summer home in Newport, Rhode Island. Situated a mere stone’s throw up the cliffside from Easton Bay, the house was dubbed Swann Villa, and established as a place of refinement and quiet peace. At the end of 2010, Nancy and Bill Bagwill finalized their purchase of the very same building. They removed hundreds of paintings, dozens of pieces of antique furniture, and directed the demolition crew to begin their work in accordance with a detailed plan for the Cliffside Inn, a lodging of refinement and quiet peace.

 

Several occupants held the home in the intervening years. Some were noteworthy, some were just passing through. Regardless, each added to the history of the house, enriching its very spaces with life and meaning. The Bagwills are proud, even fascinated with the lineage that eventually begat the Cliffside Inn, and they have allowed it to speak, in moderation, from the very walls. The Cliffside Inn is a product of the hard work and vision of the Bagwills, but many of its attributes come from older sources, stretching back, through history and upheaval, to the formative years of America.

 

 

Nancy Bagwill has been a practicing attorney for some time. Though the inn is her primary preoccupation now, she still does work – mostly pro bono – with the American Bar Association on issues of women’s rights in Africa. Bill Bagwill worked previously in hospitality, but at a paradoxical distance from his current job. Bill worked on the corporate side of things, in real estate development for large hotel companies. In 2008 the financial crisis arrived, slowing hotel development. Nancy and Bill, then living in Atlanta, decided to look for an entrepreneurial project they could embark on together. They traveled around the Southeast looking at properties and learning all they could about the small-scale hospitality business.

 

One day Nancy found the building that would become the Cliffside Inn “quietly being marketed online,” as Bill tells it. “They were very careful not even to mention the name of the property,” he says. However, the veil was not impenetrable. “Online, it’s pretty easy to figure out,” Nancy says. Bill’s retired parents were already living in Newport, within a couple miles of the property, and this weighed in the project’s favor. However, there was a catch. “We came up and looked at it – and it was too good to be true,” Bill says with a laugh. “It was in pretty tough shape, but we recognized it as a diamond in the rough.”

 

 

Though the exteriors and interiors were a little dilapidated, the “bones” of the house had weathered its century-plus with stolid dignity. “We figured if it lasted that long, it was good basic structure,” Bill says. No one could argue with the location. With Easton’s beach and the northern terminus of the famed Newport Cliff Walk within a half-mile, and the rest of Newport and Middletown right there, guests would be within convenient distance of many sights worth seeing and activities worth doing.

 

Nancy and Bill enlisted a local bank that believed in their vision and closed in on a purchase. A mere four days after the deal went through, the new owners closed the building for a complete renovation. Though the building was being used as a Victorian-style inn before they bought it, Nancy and Bill were not quite keen on the aesthetics. “It was more of… a Disney interpretation of Victorian,” Bill says. “It was just over the top, over the top… So we tried to tone it down a bit, soften it in its Victorian character and maintain the elegance of the period… but still bringing modern amenities for today’s traveler.” This was a key selling point. “We wanted to position ourselves as a luxury inn, so we wanted guests to have all the comforts that they would expect at a four or five star property,” Bill says.

 

But there was an artfulness to the melding of history and modernity. Much of the renovation was an effort to make the modern touches integrated and unobtrusive. There were at least a few places where the Bagwills felt they could improve on the previous design. “When we bought the inn, they had the old rickety window [air conditioning] units. In some cases they actually cut a hole through the wall to stick the unit in,” Nancy says. “That wasn’t gonna fly.” Split units were installed instead, for a much more elegant look. That wasn’t all. “We wanted to – soften the interiors a little bit,” says Bill. “They were pretty harsh in their Victorian presentation before.” He describes a miasma of “heavy floral wallpaper,” “patterns on patterns,” and “three or four colors in a room.” The décor was not conducive to the couple’s vision of the Cliffside ambiance. “We wanted people – when they woke up in the morning in an unfamiliar place – to feel relaxed as opposed to sensory overload,” Bill says.

 

The previous owners only took one lamp with them. Much of the furniture was suitable to be reused, but introduced another dilemma of modernity versus preservation. “[The furniture pieces] have character and they’re old, but they don’t need to look shabby,” Nancy says. “That was a fine line also, to walk. Do we want to completely restore everything, or – freshen it up?” Bill recalls. “We decided to touch things up and freshen them up, so they didn’t look like they came out of a garage sale. [Laughs]”

 

There was also the matter of the porch. At the time of the Bagwills’ purchase, the porch only stretched across the front side of the house. The couple had a photograph of the house from the late 1890’s, featuring a wraparound porch. They rebuilt the porch, and put a new door in as well, at the end of the porch’s new wing. All these changes required an ongoing dialogue with the Newport Historic District Commission, including deals and concessions. For example, the porch addition and new door were approved on the condition that the Bagwills replace an oddly placed picture window (facing away from the bay) with a more suitable double-hung window. Bill says the relationship generally went well. “For us, it was very comfortable,” he says. “They were very happy to see us come in with a plan to restore the building.” No doubt heartening to the HDC were the Bagwills’ plans to reinstitute the porch, to banish the odious window-unit air conditioners, and remove things like a white picket fence that had somehow sprung up on the property. “When they saw that we were… taking off some of the sort of – silly details that had been stuck on the building, that just weren’t part of the original building, they were very cooperative,” Bill says.

 

When Bill says the Bagwills had a plan, he means it. Buying the inn took about six months, from the first visit to the final signature. During that time, Nancy and Bill created a detailed architectural and interior plan for renovation, detailed down to the quantities for building materials. “We were acting as our own general contractors for the project,” Bill says. Everything was in place by the time the house was bought, which allowed the renovation to begin a mere four days after purchase. “We boxed everything up and took out all the furniture,” Nancy recalls, “put it into storage, and [the demolition crew] came in a couple days later and started tearing it apart.”

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