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Frank Bernardis House (Casarino)
This house and the two adjacent exemplify ethnic discontent with the perceived ephemerality of American wooden construction, particularly among the many Rhode Islanders of Portuguese and Italian descent, who often modify wooden houses in ways which accord with their Mediterranean stone building heritage. This preference for stone is even more commonly displayed in landscaping, where masonry terracing, gravel, painted stone borders, and statuary replace lawns, while arbors and spare, geometrically positioned plants, often clipped to balls and pyramids, rebuke the Anglo-American tradition of the clumping of foliage left more or less to run wild.
Frank Bernardis, himself a mason, modified his own wooden house and the two adjacent for his children. (Number 19 does not seem to have been quite completed, and, anyway, is the most conventional. The middle house was radically re-renovated, in part, back to wood. So number 9, Bernardis's own “little castle,” provides the focus.) Bernardis favored stone veneers in varied colors, set up in what are sometimes referred to as “crazy” patterns, reminiscent of broken crockery, with the linear ramblings of the joints (here tinted in bright blue) as important as the stone. This typically Mediterranean love of flat pattern and intense color is very much at variance with the dour naturalism of traditional New England approaches to masonry. The crazy-patterned stone surface spreads upward and outward to conceal the shingled house raised close to the road against a precipitous slope. Eventually it spreads beyond the bounds of the house as a freestanding masonry screen. On one side, it becomes a garden wall punched with pointed and round-arched openings.
Bernardis countered the drooping amorphousness of the outer boundaries of his facade by a fierce assertion of vertical symmetry up its center. At the ground, he gave the main entrance more importance with a projecting masonry frame between existing windows. An axial element rises from its stone lintel, topped by a ceramic plaque emblazoned “Casarino,” like a sign on a post. This projects into a field of plain stucco at the second-story level, an island in the surrounding sea of crazy masonry. Its mostly rectangular shape takes its dimensions from outside cues: horizontally, from the width of the original house; vertically, from the desire to “sit” the second-story window pair and the attic balcony above on its lower and upper boundaries respectively. But then the lower corners of this stuccoed field are also charmingly drawn down to give a pedimented aura to the principal entrance, while also echoing the cross gable over the attic balcony. Toward the periphery, other openings are fixed by more occult symmetries (if a little askew) within their own territories. So the flat patterning of the crazy masonry is echoed in the flat patterning of fields drawn across the original elevation, like the tailor's cut of a suit from a bolt of cloth on a table. In the process Bernardis's work reorders the prosaic ordering of the original elevation in accord with a grander vision for his Casarino.
Meanwhile, oblivious of this upgrading, doors and windows maintain their commonplaceness, and oblique views reveal the ordinariness of the original shingled house behind the stage-set frontispiece. One senses here the endlessly expanding dream of the weekend craftsman, whose ambition grows with every completed phase of his project. Bernardis's ambitions extended to masonry conversions inside as well as out. Thus the Old World critiques the New.
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