Saturday, March 23, 2013

Looking ahead

Front yard view of piazza, April 2012.
If you've driven by 920 Cedar Brook Road recently or looked closely at some of the photos in this blog, it's obvious that the house, beautiful as it is, needs some TLC. It's still strong and solid, because it was built to very high standards. Miraculously, it's also almost entirely original. There are no awkward upgrades or additions to undo. All of its wonderful woodwork and original parquet floors are intact.

Original parquet floor detail, side hall.
That being said, there's work to do. So I'd like to focus the next few entries on resources and ideas that may provide some help in planning...and perhaps spark your imagination, too.

Part 1: An architect's perspective.
I've often wondered what potential buyers are thinking when they first walk in the door. But lately, I've also tried to imagine some of the questions they'd have. Where would I start, if were the new owner of this elegant 14-room house? How would I identify which projects were most important? How could I be sure the changes I made were right for the original structure - and would also preserve my investment for the future?

I decided to look for someone who could help me address questions like these, and recently, talked to an architect with years of experience renovating historic homes in New Jersey.

Susan Rochelle, AIA, was kind enough to review this blog, and then chat with me by phone about some general guidelines she follows when updating older and historic homes. First of all, she says, "the best older house to buy is one where very little has been done to it." This saves a huge amount of time and trouble down the road - because you're not doing things like replicating missing woodwork or pulling layers of linoleum or vinyl flooring off original hardwood floors. As mentioned above, remarkably little has changed inside 920 Cedar Brook since far as I know, the only missing features are some of the original first floor and hallway light fixtures, and the French doors to the library. (I've already begun trying to track down sconces that are a better fit than those in place right now - see notes at bottom of this post.)

In addition, Susan offered some practical tips about where to start as the next caretaker of a historic home. Step one, she says, is "to make sure the house is water tight. If there's any doubt about the roof, make the necessary repairs. This is essential for protecting your investment in everything else you do inside the house." My parents replaced the roof around 1990, as I recall, and when I was in the house a year ago, I did not see any current signs of water issues - but Susan's advice is obviously wise.

She also stressed the value of making sure the siding is properly painted, as this will protect the wood substrate from the effects of moisture. I have to be honest here - a new paint job is clearly overdue for 920 Cedar Brook. The current yellow color is new in the last 10 years, but it does not appear to have been done very well, and is already peeling and chipping. Yes, repainting a big house is a big job, but replacing the siding would be a much bigger one.

Susan's philosophy about updating period homes was also helpful to hear. Even in old homes, she said, "we still have to modernize. We want the things we want, in order to live comfortably and efficiently. But there are good ways to modernize, and there are bad ways." The key, she believes, is to be sensitive to the home's character and original structure in planning and executing upgrades. In her experience, working with professionals who clearly understand the home's construction will help to minimize how much disturbance is made to its existing fabric, and keep both old and new elements harmonious. 

I am very grateful to Susan for taking time out of her busy practice to talk through my questions, and hope you'll check out her Web site at There's a lot of great information on it, as well as examples of many kinds of renovation projects. 

Foyer, view of upper front door detail, November 2011.
In the next post, we'll explore some other possibilities inside the house that I can't stop dreaming about. What might a new kitchen look like? Or updated bathrooms...light, bright new paint and wallpaper in the foyer...a contemporary laundry space in the back wing?

After that, we'll go outside. This is such a huge property, with so much potential. Nearly empty of trees and shrubs now, there are many ways the grounds can be transformed into lush, beautifully planted spaces that surround and complement the house.

A quick word about the light fixtures...
Okay. I will admit I'm still having a hard time getting over the fact that the original light fixtures, especially the beautiful, neoclassical torch sconces that used to adorn the columns in the foyer, were replaced with shiny, lacquered, Victorian-ish lights that (no offense, but seriously) you can probably buy right off the shelf at your local Home Depot. It's just plain wrong.

Original sconce, foyer.
I would like nothing better than to help the home's next owner find suitable replacements, and have already started hunting for them. The most expensive route is probably a good architectural salvage company. But if you really want authentic, 1910s-era brass fixtures, this is definitely worth the effort, in my opinion. Then there's Ebay, which I know from (hours and hours of) personal experience, can take enormous patience when you're looking for something very specific and uncommon. But that doesn't mean you can't find something fabulous...eventually.

A more logical and accessible option is, one of my favorite period home resources. I discovered tonight that the Rejuvenation site even has a blog post about Colonial Revival era lighting: 

Fields Classic Torch wall bracket, Rejuvenation.
Rejuvenation carries some simple, elegant sconce options, including a torch-style design, which can be ordered in several different finishes that seem right for the house. Personally, I'd probably go hunt down vintage etched globes to top off the fixtures, but Rejuvenation offers some very nice globes as well. It's definitely worth a look.

Meanwhile, I'll be watching Ebay and hoping I hit the vintage Colonial Revival light fixture jackpot.

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