Sunday, February 16, 2014

The man of the house

On Friday, February 14, 2014, my father passed away. He was 88 years old. I'd talked to him on the phone only a few hours earlier, and though his health was not perfect, his spirits were good, and he still had stories to tell I'd never heard before.

I hung up the phone never doubting we still had years of conversations ahead of us.  But apparently, there was a different plan.

I feel very lost knowing he is no longer here, as do my sister and brother. But I've also realized over the past few days how much my memories of him are anchored to our house on Cedar Brook Road. And it seemed fitting, somehow, to do a tribute to him here.

To begin with, I think the fact that my father actually owned such a grand, sprawling house was always somewhat of a surprise to him. He'd grown up in apartments in Queens before serving in the Navy during World War II, and never lived in a single family home until he and my mother bought a modest Dutch Colonial in the suburbs of Chicago in the mid 1950s. 

The leap to Plainfield in 1968 began with a big job promotion. I don't know all the details, or why exactly they chose 920 Cedar Brook Road; they'd already spent about a week looking at other towns and other houses. But in the end, I think, it was simply love at first sight - despite its size and the very long list of updates it needed at the time.

Much of that work was completed almost immediately - which was a good thing. Less than two years later, my father parted ways with his company and hung out his own shingle. There were some lean years initially, and I recall more than a little stress over the difficulties of maintaining such a large house. But my parents somehow made it work.

My mother did a lot of carpentry, painting, wallpapering, even some plumbing work herself.  My father, who didn't know one end of a hammer from another, was more than happy to leave her to it - and focus on what he did best. Out in the world, he was a very successful salesman. Inside 920 Cedar Brook, he was the maker of Sunday breakfasts, Saturday night grilled steaks, Friday night omelettes, and the best Roquefort salad dressing I've ever had.

He mowed the very large lawn with a little less enthusiasm - but no matter how hot and humid it was, he refused to consider paying someone else to do it for him. He'd finish up and head for the pool, where he practiced his unique brand of crawl stroke - which somehow only ever moved him a few feet forward...or sometimes even backwards. We never did figure out quite how he did that.

He tolerated an endless procession of cats and dogs, and reluctantly adored a few, especially Murphy, his goofy, charming, big-hearted Irish wolfhound. He was a fanatic sports fan, and watched golf, baseball, and football on the television in the library with such concentration that it was a family joke. But he also loved opera. In fact, one of my favorite memories is of him standing in the foyer near the old Magnavox record player, striking the pose of a leading tenor and looking for all the world like he belonged on the stage at the Met.

My father was one of a kind. I'm proud to be his daughter, and will miss him always. He was one of the most real people I have ever known - funny, charming, successful, yet never afraid to simply be himself. Even if that was running through a sprinkler on a hot summer day well into his a backyard that would have seemed like Central Park to the little boy who grew up in Jackson Heights.

 It was just one of the many sides of my father I will always love. Thank you, Daddy.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A fresh start

Happy New Year!

I'm happy to say that 2013 ended with a welcome flurry of activity at 920 Cedar Brook Road. After three long years on the market, the house was finally sold in October. And almost immediately, the experienced renovation and investment team who bought this wonderful 100-year-old mansion launched into a series of much-needed updates and repairs.

Outside, there's already a new roof and a fresh coat of white paint. The shutters have been properly rehung. The pool was drained, cleaned, and updated with an elegant new brick edging. Inside, the melancholy dark wallpaper in the living room and foyer has been (mercifully) stripped away. Ceilings have been scraped, spackled and painted. The gaping hole in the second floor bedroom where the previous owners installed a home theatre (why??) has been completely and seamlessly repaired. Even better, the original mirrored closet door that had gone missing from that wall was found and replaced.

Naturally, the work is still continuing, but the house has already begun to shine. And when the restoration is complete, the team will put the house back on the market. I think 2014 will be a very good year for 920 Cedar Brook Road!

Here are a few pictures from the early stages of the renovation. I will post more as I get them.

The living room makeover is underway. No more black floral wallpaper!
There was a huge hole in this wall that is now fully repaired. The original closet door has also been re-installed.
The pool early in the restoration process, with new brick coping installed in place of the original concrete.

Below the beautiful new roof, the exterior has been repainted in its original classic white!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Exciting news

I spoke to the listing agent for the house yesterday to check on the status of the sale, and she confirmed that the closing will take place in a couple of weeks. As soon as I have official confirmation that the house has a new owner and the next chapter of its history is finally underway, I will post the good news here!

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Looking ahead, part 5: The back yard

While I'm waiting with fingers crossed for news on the current offer on the house, I'd like to go outside and talk about the property.

The house at 920 Cedar Brook Road sits on a very, very large lot - large even by Plainfield standards, a city with several beautiful old historic districts and many large homes and properties. I don't know the exact lot size, but I do recall my mother saying it was nearly an acre and three-quarters. It may be slightly less, but I'm certain it's well over an acre.  

View of the front yard, looking towards the neighbor's house.
As you can see from the photo at left, the front yard is deep and wide, with the house set well back from the street.  It used to take me about an hour to mow it back in high school. (By the way, the long, original herringbone brick walk is still intact and level.) Right now, the landscaping is simple and somewhat formal - which suits the house. There are already a couple of newer trees, and there's also lots of space to add new planting beds for shrubs and perennials. The front yard extends to the end of the reddish brown fence, which is right next to the piazza.

The back yard, however, is really where the magic is waiting. There's so much space, so much privacy, and so many possibilities that words really can't capture it all. Hopefully some images will help.

A tour of the back yard...
The back yard, looking up from the slope below the pool. This is only part of the whole lawn area - see the images below. There's another big part of the yard to the right, plus a separate lawn/garden space behind where I was standing when I took this picture.
This shows more of the upper yard between the pool and the house. If you look beyond the glare streak (sorry), you can see there's a lot more yard to the right. It extends along the back of the fence that's visible in the front yard photo at the top of the post.

There's a gentle slope leading from the back porch and side of the house down to the yard. We used to have wide timber steps at several points along the rise, and built-in flower beds that were filled with geraniums and trailing petunias every summer. 

The back lawn, below the pool, had a thick hedge of flowering shrubs that separated it from the main lawn above. There were also many more trees along the rear fence. To the right, you can see the side of the garage that opens to the yard. 

This is actually an old rock garden. It was there when we moved in and clearly already established for a long time. Rock gardens were very popular in the early 20th century, and I can't help but wonder if this one dates back as early as the 1920s or 30s. Just as a reference point - I was standing in front of the rock garden when I took the picture of the upper lawn (with the glare streak), above. 

Beneath this muddy and messy cover is a very well built pool that was well maintained for decades. The diving board supports are still intact at the deep end, as are the handrails. There are wide entry steps at the shallow end.

Is it a fish? Or a pool tile? The answer is pool tile. I saw it in the grass near the pool when I was in the back yard taking photos, and couldn't help picking it up for safekeeping, and will happily return it to the new owners. Of course, it's not the first time a tile or two has come loose...when we were kids, it was great fun diving to the bottom to retrieve the "fish" so they could be reattached.

...and some dreams for its future.

We'll start with the pool. I love this image - the feeling of light, the depth behind the pool, the lounge chairs - it feels like the pool used to, only a bit more dressed up. The actual pool deck probably isn't quite this wide, but there's still lots of room for chairs, umbrellas, plants, etc.

The wide, sunny upper part of the yard near the piazza and along the wooden fence could feel just like this with a few new trees and thoughtful plantings.

I imagine flower beds and shrubs wrapped around the back of the house, from the back porch to the piazza, much like this...except raised and tucked into the slope that leads up from the lawn. Obviously the house above has a different style and footprint but the design concept would still work, and would really set off the back of the house.

This is exactly how the back garden used to was a lushly planted, shady space tucked between the garage and the fence at the edge of the property, with another high fence at the back for privacy. It was such a peaceful place to sit on a hot day. With a few mid-size ornamental trees and some nice shrubs, perennials, and grasses, I know the back garden could look like this again.

And of course, the most important thing the back yard needs is a new magnolia. Our beautiful old magnolia sat midway between the pool and the main back section of the house, right behind the library windows. It was a favorite shady spot for our dogs in summer; in winter, it was hung with all kinds of bird feeders. And every spring, it blanketed the yard with thick, waxy pink petals. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Looking ahead, part 4: The laundry

According to the 1920 census, the Huntsman household at 920 Cedar Brook Road included two full time housemaids. Among their many responsibilities would have been the laundry - which of course was done downstairs, in the basement. The laundry room was just below the kitchen, and as you can see from the blueprint below, had ample room for washing as well as air drying and ironing.

Original blueprint detail of the basement laundry.
Image reprinted courtesy of the Local History
Collection of the Plainfield Public Library, NJ.

This was probably a very nice laundry room for its day. It's  bright and well ventilated, and there was even a dedicated water heater, according to the blueprint. But washing machines were still only semi-automated in 1914, requiring a separate hand-cranked wringing process. And everything had to be hung to dry; the earliest electric and gas-fired dryers wouldn't be available for another 25 years. Easy care fabrics were also decades away, which meant hours and hours of ironing. The Huntsman family's clothes and linens would then be carried two flights up the back stairs and put away in the second-floor bedrooms and linen closet. 

When my parents bought the house in 1968, laundry had become astonishingly easy in comparison. It was made even easier by moving the entire operation upstairs. Our washer and dryer were as much fixtures in the kitchen as the refrigerator and stove.

Keeping the laundry in the kitchen might still be just as convenient today. The kitchen is definitely big enough, and if laundry, cooking, and other family activities work best centered in one room, it's a very practical idea.

Moving up. However, I think there's another solution. Bring the laundry up to the second floor, and create a luxurious modern laundry room in the back wing, in what was originally the Sewing Room. It's a great functional space that served a variety of purposes when we lived in the house - from gift wrap central to general storage. More importantly, sometime in the late 1970s, my mother actually transformed it into a half bath so my grandparents would have a shorter trip to a bathroom when they came to stay with us. (They always slept in the lovely guest room at the end of the back wing.)

Original blueprint of the second floor. Image
reprinted courtesy of the Local History Collection of
the Plainfield Public Library, NJ.

Logistics. I'm not sure if the fixtures my mother installed are still in place, but I do know there must still be plumbing access. The room is also nearly directly above where the washer and gas dryer were in the kitchen. So bearing in mind that I am definitely NOT an architect, contractor, or plumber, it seems like building a laundry room here is clearly possible.

Location. Location-wise, this room is perfect.  It's just up the stairs from the kitchen. It's separated from the main second-floor bedrooms by a hallway door - so even late-night wash loads wouldn't disturb anyone. And putting away clean clothes would be incredibly convenient, especially compared to the two-story hike the maids used to make from the basement. It's bright, with two big windows overlooking the driveway, and it has tons of storage. (Note: I recall the radiator being on the left side of the windows, even though this version of the blueprints shows it moved to the right.)

Original blueprint detail of  second floor back hallway. Image
reprinted courtesy of the Local History Collection of the Plainfield Public
Library, NJ.

Planning. Looking at the room layout above, I'm guessing a standard-size washer and dryer would fit nicely side by side in the alcove on the right as you enter the room, maybe with room for a small utility sink. Or perhaps you could stack the washer and dryer; even build them into a cabinet with doors. The point here is that with a bit of thoughtful design, the room could be customized to create a wonderful laundry area for your 21st century family.

Inspiration. Here are some fun ideas from to help paint a clearer picture of what I'm trying to describe. (I think the maids would have liked them all.)

What a fun place to do the laundry! I love the cabinetry and great use of wall space. 

This is simple but very functional. This is what I was envisioning with 
side-by-side appliances and utility sink.

This would work nicely if you shifted the appliances and sink over to
the far right wall. You'd also have more open floor space in case you want
to use the room for other activities or storage. 

This is amazingly close to the way the old Sewing Room feels, in terms of
window placement and light. The room itself is much wider than this space.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Looking ahead, part 3: Rooms reimagined

If I miraculously won the lottery and could buy back my beautiful old house, I'd have a hard time deciding which rooms to update first. But the main living areas downstairs would be at the top of my list (after the kitchen, of course).

A fresh look at the first floor. Right now, the dark wall colors and border treatments in the library, living room, foyer, and dining room are really at odds with the home's classic Colonial Revival architectural details. But with some fresh, bright color schemes and design treatments, these rooms will absolutely sparkle again.

The library now. This room looks a bit shabby here, but it has great potential. It has three windows, custom-built bookshelves,  and plenty of room for two big chairs, a long couch and a TV.  This was my mother's favorite room...she spent many contented hours here, surrounded by her beloved books and an army of Toby jugs.

The library reimagined. I found this library photo on Houzz...and fell in love with it. It's so easy to imagine the library at 920 Cedar Brook updated and brightened to feel just like this.  There's definitely space to combine a desk similar to this one, as well as a nice-sized couch and several comfy chairs.
The living room now. This black floral wallpaper was added recently, and makes the living room feel dark and closed in, despite four big windows and French doors on either side of the fireplace, and spacious room size (25' x 16'). The pattern and color also feel out of place against the clean, classical lines of the white woodwork.

The living room reimagined.  Although pale blues, grays, greens or even a delicate, light-colored wallpaper would also work beautifully in this room, there's something about the brightness of a creamy ivory/beige scheme that feels very inviting and versatile - especially since the living room is so open to the foyer.
The foyer and dining room now. The walls are a deep burgundy in both rooms, creating a similar somber effect as the living room, while also making the beautiful fluted and carved woodwork appear stark and oddly unrelated to the walls. The overall effect is a pretty depressing mash up of Victorian and Colonial.

The foyer and dining room reimagined. What a difference light makes! Although this concept is on the formal side, the pale blue is still so simple and refreshing against the white trim. And the woodwork is remarkably similar to 920 Cedar Brook. The fireplace is not in the same place as in this image; it's on the left as you enter the room.

Up the stairs
The staircase now (front view).

The staircase now (side view).
Stairs and foyer reimagined. Obviously a very different room layout than the foyer at 920, but the staircase and surrounding woodwork share enough similarities that this image was irresistible. What I think is interesting to consider is the effect of a delicate traditional wallpaper, which really complements the proportions of the space and adds character without being overwhelming.

I hope these ideas make it easier to envision just how beautiful 920 Cedar Brook Road can be...again.

A few additional notes...
- I recently rediscovered this link from the Plainfield Historic Preservation Society, which describes the architectural importance of Cedar Brook Road.

- And here's one of many good overviews available online about the history and architectural features of Colonial Revival homes:

Friday, March 29, 2013

Looking ahead, part 2: The kitchen

When you visit 920 Cedar Brook Road, the realtor will likely take you into the house through the door at the side porch.* 

You'll step into the long side hall that leads to the foyer. But if you stop and turn right just after entering the house, you'll be in the butler's pantry, and a few feet later, find yourself in the kitchen.

Right now, this is what you'll see. A big open space, with room for a large center island or table. An adjoining breakfast room that's already partly open to the kitchen. Five windows, if I'm counting correctly. Not visible in this image are also two big closets, two separate doors to enter and leave the room, plus the back door leading to the porch. (The other kitchen door opens to the back staircase.)

Opposite the view here, there's a long wall with two windows flanking the chimney. This is where my mother installed her tireless avocado green Caloric gas stove right after we moved in. Next to the stove were the equally hard-working (and yes, avocado green) Maytag washer and dryer, all circa 1970. (I think we called the Maytag man maybe two or three times over 30 years??) 

But back to reality. Right now the kitchen is clearly in need of a fresh start. So let's clear away the dated wallpaper and  dustiness and think: What can this space become? What could you create here?  Here are a handful of beautiful idea starters, courtesy of

Idea #1: Classic warmth. I love this kitchen. Stylistically, it's such a wonderful fit for the house, and it would blend almost seamlessly with the existing butler's pantry. Obviously the kitchen at 920 has a different layout, but many of these elements would work perfectly, just shifted around a bit.

Idea #2: Colorful and comfortable. If you wanted to do something with a little more pizzazz, maybe more of a blend of new and traditional, here's another really pretty kitchen. It has such a timeless Wedgwood blue color theme and the cabinet/drawer style is a nice match for the butler's pantry. There is definitely room for a table or island this size.

Idea #3. Sleek and open. If the counter that now holds the sink and dishwasher were removed, the main kitchen area would flow right into the 8' x 10' breakfast room beyond, creating a large, open, light-filled space like this. Again, the layout of appliances is different. I think the stove has to stay on the opposite wall. But the little counter/cabinet area at the far right would definitely work, and in a similar spot.

Idea #4. Colonial charm. Maybe it's the green that makes this one feel so right (too many years of avocado appliances, I guess). You'll have to use your imagination to push the walls apart and see this working on a wider scale (the kitchen is 15' wide). But I love the farmhouse sink, the light coming from the window at the left, and the general sense of warmth. This kitchen would be right at home on 920 Cedar Brook Road!

Contemporary Kitchen by Portland Kitchen And Bath Jason Ball Interiors, LLC

 *Just as a reminder: I can recommend an excellent local resource who knows 920 Cedar Brook very well, and would be happy to walk you through the house. Please email me for details.