Monday, January 14, 2013

Back to the drawing board

As 2013 begins and 920 Cedar Brook Road officially enters its 100th year, it seems like a perfect time to look back at the architectural features that make this house so special. Fortunately, I have recently received permission from the Plainfield Public Library to publish some of the original blueprint images, which are dated March, 1914, in this blog.

This current entry is of one of several that will focus on the floorplans and details of the house and garage.

The fact that these images exist at all is something of a miracle. I am extremely grateful for the extraordinary efforts made by the Plainfield Library to preserve and digitize the architectural history of so many of Plainfield's beautiful homes, including the house I grew up in. The library's Detwiller Collection is simply an amazing archive of information - not just for for the residents of Plainfield, but for anyone who is interested in the architectural heritage of the 20th century.

Interestingly, however, it is also clear that the set of drawings filed so many decades ago by the architects who built 920 Cedar Brook Road underwent substantial changes before construction began. I may never know why the drawings were altered. I only know that there must have been a great deal of discussion between the clients and the architects. And in the end, the design was scaled back significantly. But more on those particulars later. 

Just to go back to the basic history of the house for a moment (see also "The Huntsman Mansion: A Jewel in the Queen City"), 920 Cedar Brook was designed by Augustus Marsh and Otto J. Gette, the architectural firm behind many of Plainfield's prestigious homes during the early 20th century. Marsh & Gette were commissioned to build the home at 920 Cedar Brook Road by John and Maud Huntsman, who, according to the 1910 census records, were already residents of Plainfield. They lived a few blocks away on Watchung Avenue prior to taking ownership of their new mansion on Cedar Brook Road.

And it was indeed a mansion. Certainly not the largest of its time, but a very substantial home that reflected the success and stability of its owners and offered gracious living spaces and a wealth of fine architectural details that even now, can clearly be seen to have been executed by master craftsmen. It also reflected what was already one of America's most beloved historical styles - the Colonial Revival.

There's much to say about that subject, too. But for now, I'd like to just post a few images from the blueprint file. We'll start inside, on the first floor.

First floor plan for 920 Cedar Brook Road. Image reprinted courtesy of the Local History Collection of the Plainfield Public Library, NJ. 

I realize much of the detail of the plan may be lost in translation, although the scale of the house is apparent. So here are a few important things I'd like to highlight. First of all, the room sizes. On the far left is the living room. It opens to the piazza, via two sets of French doors that flank the fireplace. The room measures 25'2" long (front to back of the house) by 16'2" wide.

Living room, about 1969.
View into living room, early 1990s. That's our sweet elderly dog, Gray.  
It's a big room. And I can tell you from experience that there are many ways to arrange it. Initially, my mother placed a single, very large sofa against the far wall overlooking the back yard. Various chairs were grouped around the fireplace, and her cherished baby grand piano took up one of the corners. There were lots of open areas for all of us (and our friends) to play. Later, she moved that same sofa to face the fireplace, with bookcases and lamps behind it and some new occasional chairs grouped in the corners. Her last arrangement was my favorite: a red sofa and matching loveseat  formed a lovely unit around the fireplace; matching leather wing chairs were placed near the rear windows, with my parents' vintage walnut table between them; a Colonial style chair-and-a-half/loveseat was tucked beneath one of the front windows; and a game table with an inlaid chess board occupied the other front corner. This is the way I still remember this room. Similar to the foyer, the walls were covered in a pale gold wallpaper, the woodwork was gleaming white, and brightly colored drapes framed the four windows.

The proportions of this room must have been ideal for entertaining in the second decade of the 20th century. I could spend far too much time imagining how it was furnished back then. But it's just as versatile today. And I must also mention that what I remember most about this room is the fireplace. I don't think a cold winter day ever went by without a fire laid in that hearth. We stored a big pile of firewood in the yard just down the steps from the piazza door, always keeping enough dry logs and kindling on the piazza itself, within easy reach of the living room's French doors, to keep the fire crackling from dusk 'til late evening.

Christmas in the foyer circa 1970s. Note original light fixtures.

Moving into the foyer. This is the room that isn't really a room. And yet it's an integral part of what makes the house so open and lovely. First and foremost, it's the perfect place for a very large, beautifully decorated Christmas tree. It has two charming windowseats (with radiators underneath) and an elegant beamed ceiling. It sets off the curving lower steps of the staircase perfectly. And if you have a very large dog, an Irish Wolfhound, for example, he or she will feel entirely at home on their oversized pet bed in one of the corners. Without ever feeling cramped. The foyer is 12'6" deep by 21'2" wide. One can also set up an indoor putting mat, play a lively game of indoor football with small children, or dream up dozens of other things to do in this space. When my sister celebrated her wedding in the house, this room was the center of the reception. It was perfect.

Current view of foyer into dining room.
The foyer connects on the other side to the dining room, which is as wide as the living room (16'2") but not quite as deep (18'2"). Like the living room, it has a fireplace and four windows. It also shares the same tall, sweeping carved arches to the foyer as the living room. It connects to the side hall via a swinging door. I will confess we did not use this room every day. But when we did, it was always special. The original light fixtures were still there during our tenure - old gas lamps that had been converted to electric, with delicate etched and frosted globe shades above and long, faceted prisms dangling below, catching the candle light from the table along with the orange glow of the fireplace.

The other room I'd like to mention is the library, which also opens off the foyer. On the blueprint, there's a door indicated between the library and living room. By 1968, this had been converted to an inset bookcase on the library side, which is still there. It has an arched top and at least three shelves, and if I remember correctly, it also has some built-in storage below, with doors. You would never know there had once been a door in that space; it was an interesting surprise when I first looked at the plans.

The kitchen is such an interesting subject I will save that for the next entry, with a closer look at that portion of the blueprint. For now, I'd like to close with this front elevation view of the house - and note that with the exception of the balcony over the side door, nothing here was altered from the architects' original vision. The house today retains the same graceful proportions and details.

Original front elevation view of 920 Cedar Brook Road. Image reprinted courtesy of the Local History Collection of the Plainfield Public Library, NJ.