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Life by the Water

After years of summer rentals, a family decided to make a piece of Westport their own

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Although Joan Slafsky was born and brought up in Providence, she had never been to Westport – not until she and her husband moved back to Rhode Island, and a friend invited her for a summer weekend in Massachusetts. They both loved the beach, and her husband, Dr. Fred Slafsky, a native of Gloucester, MA, gravitated to the fishing docks at Westport Point. Drawn by their love of the beach and the proximity to Providence – 35 minutes door to door – they made their first commitment to Westport with a $50 membership at Baker’s Beach. They became day-trippers, enjoying beach walks and jumping the waves with their children, stopping at the fish market or Moby Dick’s (now Back Eddy) for clam chowder and lobster on the way home.

Buying a house was something they dreamed about, and many hours were spent exploring hidden lanes with the hopes of finding a home with a water view. In the ‘90s they began to rent properties at Westport Point and the East Branch, but little real estate was available at the right time for the right price.

Disappointed after a potential purchase fell through, they told their realtor they would continue to rent, but she urged them to drive by a newly listed house with panoramic views and a unique porch that she was sure they’d find interesting.

“We drove down a road I had never noticed, though we had driven by many times, saw blue water and an extraordinary 18-by-36 foot mahogany screened porch with a soaring roofline attached mid-construction to a small ranch house that came with a mooring!” Slafsky recalls. “The previous owners, boat people, had moved across the river to a house with a dock. Happily, we loved their taste and everything they had started, including a beautiful chef’s kitchen with a large skylight and a fireplace with built in units for media and books. We made a bid on the spot, which was accepted the next day, and immediately called our friend, architect Kip McMahan, who was eager to help us and promised to raise the roof, extend the footprint and make the rest of the house as exciting as the porch.”

They agreed to keep the house simple and let the panoramic views speak for themselves. Some midcentury furniture, bought in the 60’s for their first apartment in New York, was a perfect counterpoint to pieces they purchased locally. “Everything is very organic, as though it just grew there, with every piece filled with meaning for us, from pieces of art and pottery from many RISD sales to things we collected along the way, most recently from artists we met at Dedee Shattuck’s gallery. We knew that Gretchen Dow Simpson’s ‘Flag,’ which we had seen on the cover of the New Yorker years ago, would be perfect for a beach house, and it was the first thing we bought. Serendipitously, many of the pieces we owned had a fish motif, perfect for Westport. And we commissioned sculptor Isabel Mattia to make a fish mobile to install outside.”

The construction started later and lasted longer than anticipated, but by August of 2005 – 14 months after renovations began – the bamboo floors were down, the kitchen was stocked, and the couple finally moved in. They invited their families, who slept in the downstairs area. The guests enjoyed red bunk beds, river views, and their own access to the terrace and gardens.

A V-shaped outdoor deck, resembling the bow of a boat, connects the living room, screened porch and enlarged master bedroom. This deck makes the perfect spot for bird watching, monitoring the osprey’s nest mid-river, and a secluded spot for breakfast and cocktails. “We think we are in our own private tree house,” Slafsky said, “but at times we have been surprised by visits from rabbits, wild turkeys – and on one occasion, a deer.”

“As much as it is a retreat,” she adds, “the house lends itself to entertaining with four outdoor sitting areas, and never-ending surprises - from guests arriving by kayak to a crescendo of fireworks over the river highlighting the Fourth of July. It’s been a great place for drawing old friends and new and to celebrate every birthday and holiday you can think of. Lobster from the docks, fruits and vegetables from the stands, and flowers from the gardens - every day a feast for family and friends.”