If friends are the family that you get to choose, what better time to celebrate friendship than during Thanksgiving season? That sentiment was the motivation for a mid-November Friendsgiving party hosted by Sara and Neal Harrell, Jr. “It’s after the summer craziness and before the madness of the holidays,” says Sara. “It’s the sweet spot.”
For the second year running, the couple invited 14 guests to join them for an intimate dinner in the Coronet Shed at the International Yacht Restoration School in downtown Newport, RI. A vital part of Newport’s working waterfront, the hands-on school trains students to become makers, builders, and restorers in the marine industry and beyond.
Though anyone can visit the school’s Restoration Hall (climb up to a catwalk to take a tour through the astounding 18,000-square-foot workshop any day of the week), the space is not open for public events. Neal, however, has an in. As the president of Brooks Marine Group, a management recruiting firm, his office is located in a restored 1831 mill building on the IYRS campus.
Inside the Coronet Shed – a temporary structure built of steel girders with plastic siding that’s used to house its namesake antique wooden yacht during her restoration – the air is thick with the delicious scent of freshly cut oak. Under the massive skeleton of the 131-foot schooner’s frame are old wooden blocks and pulleys, wheelbarrows, buckets, saw horses, and, of course, piles of lumber. Sawdust covers the dirt floor, fallen from the sharp, shiny modern tools that coexist among these vestiges of time of gone by.
So long as your friends don’t mind a little dust or a touch of chill (this is literally a construction site, after all), it all adds up to a perfectly charming, rustic-industrial setting for a party. To set it up accordingly for their get-together, the Harrells follow some loose rules: All decor — except floral arrangements, lighting, and a few extra blankets — must be sourced from from within the confines of the shed, and some iteration of turkey must be served.
After moving some heavy equipment to clear space for the gathering, Neal and friends collected chairs (including a pair of orange upholstered wing backs) and stumps that could be used for seating. A factory cart (Restoration Hardware sells a spendy industrial-chic version) became a cocktail table and a tall wooden work bench was cleared off for the bar, while a wheelbarrow filled with ice did nicely at keeping beers cold. To soften the (literally) rough edges, Sara, a hair stylist, added elegant flower arrangements that she made herself.
Friendship may have been the impetus for the get-together, but the guest of honor was truly the Coronet herself, up-lit with spotlights and serving as the main backdrop to the dinner table. First launched in 1885, the schooner was designed for stylish ocean crossings, with a marble staircase, stained glass doors, and mahogany-paneled staterooms. Few vessels of her ilk remain. Acquired by IYRS in 1995, Coronet was conveyed to a private owner in 2006, but remains on the IYRS campus while she undergoes her makeover. “That’s the cool part,” says Neal about the unusual party setting, “walking around and getting to know the boat.”
To take advantage of the golden light and west-facing views, the celebration started mid-afternoon. A fortuitously gentle wind allowed party-goers to enjoy cocktails and hors d’oeuvres dockside before heading into the shed, where the sun streamed through the “walls,” heating up the interior space. Warm as it was for November, though, guests took turns tossing scrap lumber into the shop’s vintage cast-iron furnace, especially after the sun set and dinner was served.
Though the hosts had had the previous year’s Friendsgiving catered, this time they asked guests to collaborate on the menu in order to foster a sense of homeyness. In proper Thanksgiving fashion, there was an abundance of food: Homemade appetizers included lobster bisque, deviled eggs, beef teriyaki skewers, and candied bacon, while a raw bar supplied by Open Oyster made an appearance, too.
For the main course, Sara followed her self-imposed rules – nodding to tradition without stealing the official holiday’s thunder – by serving Moroccan turkey stew. Dessert followed with apple, pumpkin, and pecan pies, and Sara’s own truffles.
With full stomachs and happy hearts, the group chatted and gave thanks after the feast, toasting with hot coffee (add your own booze) that took the chill off after dark. So did the cozy feeling of being surrounded by good friends – including the charismatic Coronet.
Photos by Maaike Bernström Photography. Click any image below to launch the gallery.