Saturday, December 24, 2011

All I want for Christmas...

It's been a quiet year here inside 920 Cedar Brook Road. The sun still beams through my windows every morning, and I can hear the sounds of the neighborhood--dogs, cars, laughter, children playing--all around. And people still come and go occasionally. They wander up and down my stairs, pointing and talking. I wait patiently, hoping they will stay and brush away the cobwebs and echoes. But then the door closes, and it's quiet again.

Sometimes it's difficult being a house.

And now that it's Christmas, it's a bit more difficult. Christmas was always special here. There's nothing quite like being dressed up with sparkling lights and holiday finery to make a house feel elegant...and loved.

I've lost count of all the Christmas mornings that have unfolded in a rustle of fancy paper and ribbon and boxes and gleeful children, but there have been many. And every year, Santa knew just what was on everyone's list.

So perhaps this is a good year to make my own Christmas list. It's a little more complicated than most, but if Santa and his elves can get a good head start, maybe I'll get everything I'm dreaming of...maybe even before next Christmas. After all, I've been a very good house. 

I'll start the list with...

1. A new family
This is the most important thing of all: a family who will bring me back to life. If possible, a dog and cat would also be nice. Dogs love racing around the backyard. Cats love chasing each other up and down the stairs. They also have three levels of windows for birdwatching.

The side porch, off the driveway
2. A fresh coat of paint
My facade has good bones and many elegant details, but it's looking a bit shabby; the last coat of paint wasn't my best color and it's already peeling. Some proper scraping and sanding is definitely in order.

3. Window dressing
I'm not sure why, but a number of shutters were removed recently and not replaced. (Some of these are stacked in the garage.) Others were not hung correctly and have come loose. It's really quite embarrassing. 

4. Porches, please
Weather can be hard on old railings and columns. But they're very elegant when they're neat and freshly painted. A good carpenter would be very welcome, especially before the piazza gets any looser or more worn out.

The piazza and front landscaping
5. A pretty yard 
Thankfully, the old rhododendrons were replaced with new evergreens in the front, but the shaded garden in the back is gone, as are the beautiful flowers and terraces that used to surround the pool. There's ample space for more flowering trees and shrubs all around the yard. The elegant herringbone brick walk in the front yard needs to be uncovered. A new back fence would also be nice.  

Third floor bedroom
6. Smooth ceilings and gleaming floors
Most of the ceilings have begun to flake because the paint is so old. On the driveway side, water has also gotten in around the chimney in two places, causing some discoloration. All the hardwood floors could use a proper sanding and buffing to shine again. 

View from top of back stairs

7. Paint, paper, and polish
The walls are square and strong, and the woodwork is solid, but an elegant makeover is definitely in order...from top to bottom. The original light fixtures need to be restored, and the rooms redone in more classic colors and patterns. Some things have also happened in a few places that simply need to be fixed (starting with replacing the long section of plaster in the bedroom that was recently converted to an entertainment room).

A corner in the kitchen
 8. A new kitchen
It's been a long, long time since anyone did anything to brighten up the kitchen. But it's huge, with lots of windows, two pantry closets, and a big breakfast room. Some elegant granite counters would be nice...perhaps some glass-front cabinets to match the butler's pantry...a classic black and white tile floor....there are so many possibilities. There's also ample space for a nice island in the center, perhaps with shelving for display or cookbooks.

The long outside wall can even accommodate a washer and dryer. And on a hot summer day, the pool is just steps away...

Wrapping up
There are many more small things that could be added to my wish list, but this is already enough to keep the elves busy for quite some time. So for now,

Merry Christmas from 920 Cedar Brook Road and thank you for sharing my story!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Huntsman mansion: A jewel in the Queen City

920 Cedar Brook Road as it looks today
I now have answers to all my questions about the house, thanks to some very kind and supportive people in the Planning Division of Plainfield's Public Works Department, as well as in the Plainfield Public Library.

I will start at the beginning...

The elegant house to which this blog is dedicated (and which now sits empty, waiting for its next owner) is in Plainfield, New Jersey.  It was built in 1914 on Cedar Brook Terrace, later renamed Cedar Brook Road.  The entire acre-plus property was once part of a large farm that was settled in the 18th century by the Webster and Martine families. The Martine house (or 1717 house, as it's often called), is still there, just down the street on Brook Lane. It is one of Plainfield's most famous early homes.  

The architects
I have always wanted to know the name of the architect who designed this house. Now I do. In fact, there were two: August Marsh and Otto Gette. Based in New York, the architectural firm of Marsh & Gette built homes for many wealthy Plainfield families between the years of about 1905 to 1920. The online Detwiller Blueprint Collection at the Plainfield Library includes complete blueprints for many of them. I've also found a 9-page article in an issue of the The Architectural Record from 1917 that showcased three of Marsh & Gette's Plainfield projects: two private homes and a rectory. (One of those homes, I was surprised to discover, is the beautiful gray stone mansion that sits almost directly across the street from my house, at the corner of Watchung Avenue and Cedar Brook Road.)

I couldn't help wanting to know more about both men.

Augustus L.C. Marsh was a Plainfield resident. Independent of his collaboration with Mr. Gette, he designed "many fine residences in Plainfield," according to John Grady and Dorothea Pollard's book on Plainfield history and architecture. He is also credited with building the original Plainfield YMCA and the Elks Club.

Otto J. Gette lived in the New York area. I've found examples of his work  in multiple resources, including a Ladies Home Journal annual book of house plans (Journal Houses, circa 1916). I suspect I've only scratched the surface, but I do know that in addition to elegant homes in Plainfield, he also designed some remarkable brownstones in Brooklyn and the magnificent Yonkers Bath House #4.

The owners
920 Cedar Brook Road as it looked in 1926
The house was originally built for John F. Huntsman and his wife Maud. It is referred to on the blueprints as "The Huntsman Mansion." (If the 1930 New York Social Blue Book listing I've dug up is correct, Mr. and Mrs. Huntsman also raised four children there.)  Mrs. Huntsman eventually sold the house to the Murchison family in 1943, who in turn sold it to my parents in 1968. This means that over the course of nearly a hundred years, the house has only had four owners. Its next owners will be the fifth.

The Head Archivist at the Plainfield Library sent me a link to the entire set of original blueprints. Although it's difficult to see the smaller details, there are 9 complete drawings, representing both exterior elevations and interior floor plans. Interestingly, there was apparently once a very elaborate scheme for the back of the house (a dramatic two-story porch with grand pillars) that, for reasons I will never know, was scaled back to the much simpler arrangement that exists today.

A quick footnote about the Plainfield Library: they have an amazing local history collection that includes everything from documents and photographs to books, blueprints, maps, newspapers, personal papers, and other important records for Plainfield and some of its surrounding communities.

The town
1927 ad (Credit: Grady & Pollard)
Plainfield's architectural history is its own fascinating story, and I can't do it full justice here. But by the early 20th century, The Queen City had grown from its simple 18th century farm origins into a flourishing bedroom community for wealthy New York commuters. Since then, the city has seen its share of achievements and challenges, but it remains unique and beautiful...with wide, tree-lined streets and an amazing diversity of architecture. Fortunately, it also has an active Historic Preservation Commission, and several of Plainfield's mansion-era neighborhoods are now designated historic districts, including parts of Hillside Avenue and West Eighth Street.

All of Cedar Brook Road, which spans a long block on either side of the 1717 Martine farm house, has also been recommended for inclusion as a historic district. I hope this happens. Even in a city full of architectural treasures, Cedar Brook Road is special, and this particular house is one of its sparkling jewels.

The library...waiting for new books
My dream is to help 920 Cedar Brook find a new owner who will treasure its legacy and help it shine long into the 21st century.   

Next up...the house has a long Christmas wish list, which will help me put some of its strengths and needs into perspective. For now, I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks once again to everyone who made time to fill in the blanks and share the names and dates that define the house's early history.


The City of Plainfield, Department of Public Works and Urban Development
Plainfield Public Library, Local History Department
Plainfield, New Jersey's History & Architecture. John Grady and Dorothe Pollard,  Schiffer Publishing Ltd., Atglen, PA 2008.
1930 New York Social Blue Book
Journal Houses, Issued by the Ladies Home Journal. Curtis Publishing Co., Philadelphia, PA 1916
The Architectural Record, Vol. 41, 349-358 (courtesy of Google Books)
Plainfield Garden Club, Member Page for Mrs. Frederick Washburn Yates (
Building of the day: 849-855 Jefferson Avenue Web site (
Rob Yasinsac's Yonkers Public Bath #4 online photo essay (

Friday, December 2, 2011

Details, details, details

The magic of this house has always been in its details. I'll start with the big ones first.

Front staircase, second floor
Bedrooms: There are eight, though I think one is theoretically the master bedroom sitting room. (It also works nicely as a playroom, music room, and office.) There are five bedrooms on the second floor, three on the third. My favorite has always been the guestroom at the end of the second-floor hallway, in the back wing over the kitchen. It's bright and cozy, with sloping eaves and windows on three sides that overlook the back yard. 

Bathrooms: There are two full baths (complete with big cast-iron tubs) on the third floor and two full baths plus a half-bath on the second floor. There's also a powder room tucked under the front stairs. 

Closets: There must be at least 20. That includes the massive linen closet, a walk-in master bedroom dressing closet with its own window, and a cedar closet the size of a small room on the third floor. In the back hall, there's a mysterious closet so narrow we could barely squeeze in sideways as kids. There are closets everywhere.

Porches: Five if you count the front entrance, which isn't technically covered but has a broad, brick entry area with a beautifully detailed overhang (pictured at the top). There's also a side porch off the driveway, a back porch, and an enclosed porch next to the kitchen. Finally, there's the large screened veranda that opens out from the living room through French doors. I grew up calling this "The Piazza," despite its remote connection to anything Italian. But that was the name we found on the blueprints, and it stuck.  

The butler's pantry
Then there are the details that trace back to the house's roots in another era. There's a butler's pantry with big glass-front cabinets, old copper sink, and plate-warming rack (which never really worked, but was still neat). Down in the endless basement, there's a dusty old-fashioned canning room, a laundry room, and who knows what else...I was never brave enough to really explore. Off the kitchen, there are back stairs that climb to "servants' quarters" on the top floor, with two bedrooms and bath deliberately built with plain, unadorned woodwork and simple fixtures to clearly distinguish the space from the "family" side of the house.  

By the 1970s, it was hard for us to grasp that only a few decades earlier, such a different kind of life must  have been lived here. A cook who prepared all the meals? (I'll bet she knew exactly how to make that warming rack work!) A chauffeur living over the garage? Maids or governesses who slept upstairs? It felt like a fairy tale, but the architectural evidence was there.

Living room fireplace
Sadly, though, I don't think we really appreciated most of the important details about the house. We whined about dusting the parquet floors and washing the miles of intricate woodwork. Spending hours polishing old brass light fixtures* wasn't high on anyone's list either. But whether we could see it or not, all around us were bits and pieces of irreplaceable craftsmanship and elegance...the curving turn of the staircase, the classically detailed fireplace surrounds, the tall foyer archways, the beautiful carving above the front and side porches.

Last weekend as I walked through the empty rooms, I kept seeing things I didn't remember, thinking, "When did that get there?"  After all these years, I was finally seeing the house for everything it is, and always was, and to be honest, it took my breath away. Which is why I'm here, writing this blog.

So bring your imagination and explore the house a little as it is now. I'm having a bit of trouble organizing and captioning images...but hopefully you will get the idea, and more importantly, see the house for what it can be.

*None of the light fixtures shown here are original to the house. They are either recent additions or replacements. The original double-sconce brass fixtures in the foyer had a beautiful, torch-like shape, with fine detail and round, etched glass globes. They were in perfect working order before the house was last sold. I have my fingers crossed they have been safely stored somewhere in the basement...

Images from the interior of the house...

Newel post detail
Front staircase
Living room, with French doors to piazza

Kitchen and breakfast room
View into dining room from foyer