Melissa Harris-Lacewell is a political scientist. That makes her especially particular about the neighborhood in which she lives. Accepting a job as an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University last year, she knew she wanted to become a part of the community. The setting, though, had to retain many of the characteristics of the neighborhood she had left behind in Chicago, where she taught political science at the University of Chicago for seven years.
“I wanted to live in town. I wanted to preserve my walking lifestyle,” Harris-Lacewell says. “Being a political scientist, I am really invested in the idea of local communities.”
Shocked at first by the prices of Princeton borough real estate, Harris-Lacewell quickly realized that her new abode would in no way resemble the beloved 3,000-square-foot condominium she had owned in Chicago. She scaled down her expectations and began to search. And as an African-American woman, she had certain reservations.
“I had a little bit of anxiety, quite honestly,” says Harris-Lacewell, 34, a published author who has been frequently quoted in newspapers and on radio and television, including an August 18 appearance on “Bill Moyers Journal” on PBS to discuss Katrina and its aftermath. And she just spoke at Rider University’s Unity Day about the impact of the black vote on the Clinton-Obama presidential race.
As for where she looked for a house in Princeton, she says, “I was first looking on Witherspoon (Street). When my real estate agent, Maggie Hill (of Gloria Nilson), said she wanted to show me a house on Cedar Lane, I was concerned about looking at an all-white street. But I fell in love with the house.”
The modest house that captured Harris-Lacewell’s heart was a 1940s Cape Cod that backs onto a deep lawn with mature trees. She bought it and moved in with her daughter, Parker, now five, and her mother, Diana Gray. To her surprise and delight, she feels very much at home. She walks Parker to school with other parents and children on the street. She recently welcomed her neighbors to a party she held for her predominantly African-American colleagues from the university.
“It was the most fabulous, inter-racial party. It turns out that this is the coolest all-white neighborhood in Princeton,” Harris-Lacewell says. “My fears were completely unfounded. This has been the most neighborly place we’ve ever lived.”
Once she took residence on Cedar Lane, Harris-Lacewell’s enthusiasm for her new surroundings was tempered by some of the house’s shortcomings. While she knew it was well-built and had what contractors call “good bones,” its rooms were small and the use of space was inefficient. There wasn’t room for much of the furniture that had fit so well into the Chicago condo. And most significantly, the house lacked light.
“I knew the house wasn’t going to work the way it was,” Harris-Lacewell says. “So I started talking to contractors about making some changes. Every single one I talked to, except Dunham Construction, wanted to do something huge. But I didn’t want to build a two-story addition. I didn’t want a McMansion. So when Peter (Dunham) said, ‘Oh, it’s a Cape Cod, that’s a perfect home,’ I knew I had found the right people.”
Dunham, whose design/build company does small-scale projects as well as 12,000-square foot homes, likes Cape Cods. “They’re great houses,” he says. “They’re small but they’re solid.”
Dunham brings an unusual set of expert qualifications to the table. Dunham’s father, Bob, founded the company in 1969. Bob, who will turn 80 next April and is now retired but still serves as a consultant to the company, was an English major at Brown. What’s the connection to construction? “My father always said that his education in English literature trained him in the humanities, taught him how to listen to people, how to understand their cultural and personal interests — that was the key to getting in their heads so he could provide them with the best possible service,” says son Peter.
About nine years ago (four years before Bob retired), Peter’s older brother, Jim, an accountant, learned the business, becoming president when Bob retired. Peter, meanwhile, worked for several years as a professional carpenter and woodworker, then studied architecture at Mercer County College; he passed the architect licensing exam in New York in the early 1990s. He clocked in 30 years at the heavy hitter firms of Hillier and CUH2A.
At the tail end of his tenure at CUH2A he was involved in very complex work including campus master planning for Pfizer and a 960,000 square foot research facility in Richmond, Virginia, produced in record time.
Dunham says his unconventional path brings a valuable diversity to the projects he now works on, projects like Melissa Harris-Lacewell’s house. “I am a professional woodworker, architect, carpenter, and builder. For the Richmond project I managed a team of 60. By working in very large teams, you leverage the knowledge of a lot of experts, you learn how to resource project to bring the very best talent to the table. Strategic campus planning taught me how to think strategically. (At Dunham Construction) we have a much broader perspective. We think strategically — does the project have merit, what are the best value considerations, is the owner going to do something wacky and then have trouble selling the house later? We manage the project the way big projects are managed but scale it down.”
Though he gives an important nod to his schooling he doesn’t hesitate to say that his father’s perspective on the business had a significant impact on him: “As an architect you’re taught to listen, and you’re taught to be able to design and be responsive to the human condition. But I had a lot of reinforcement from my father — how to be honest and have integrity. That you get in your upbringing. Together (with Jim) we think we have all the bases covered.”
Dunham approaches every new project with a two-step process that lets clients take full advantage of Peter’s diverse background. Stage one is the project development stage, which, according to a company statement, “involves careful consideration of the merits of the project through a mutual exploration of goals, design opportunities, and cost constraints, as well as the impact the project may have on resale value. This methodical approach allows the best ideas and value to rise to the surface very early, creating an important baseline of information and a sense of confidence that the project is going in the right direction.” The second stage involves the development of the design “in parallel with detailed cost estimating” and execution.
Dunham says the $2,000 to $3,000 fee for stage one, which in essence assesses the project’s “integrity,” can save thousands down the line. He acknowledges that the average person simply doesn’t have the knowledge or time to do this on their own. “Most people don’t know how to hire a contractor,” says Dunham. Most of his business comes from word of mouth and repeat customers.
He acknowledges that he has talked clients out of projects during the stage one phase because the project is ill-conceived. “We got a call from someone who was buying a house who said, ‘We want to redo the floors, put in a new kitchen and bathroom, etc.’ We looked at the cost of the house, a duplex, which was about $500,000, and when we added on their renovations the number was as high as $400 per square foot. You can build new construction for $250 per square foot.”
As for how much you can expect to spend on a renovation or an addition, Dunham says the range is quite wide. “Kitchens and bathrooms have widest cost range of any other improvement. So much depends on selection of materials.” Plastic laminate countertops might run $2,000 but the same in stone might be $5,000. Stone flooring could be $30 per square foot; the same in wood could be $10 per square foot. Appliances can run from $5,000 to $15,000. In cabinet selection alone, the high end in a manufacturer’s line can be 1 1/2 times the cost of the basic line from the same manufacturer.
Dunham says that the range for any renovation project can vary as much as 100 percent from the low end to the high end. For example, a project that might be estimated at $50,000 at the low end will be $100,000 at the high end. A project that’s $25,000 at the low end will be $50,000 at the high end. Dunham says that renovation work is so “nuanced” he hesitates to express costs in dollars per square foot but offers $100 to $150 square foot as a gauge, as opposed to $200 to $250 per square foot for new construction.
Harris-Lacewell hired the contracting firm last December. By September 1, the improvements to her house were complete. The entryway was enlarged. On the second floor, the bathroom was expanded. In the basement, a new powder room was put in, an existing bar was taken out, and the space was finished to create additional living space.
It is the kitchen, though, that was the focus of the project. Today it is the heart of the house. The room’s walls were opened up to create a more spacious feeling. The low partitions that replaced full walls now fill the room with light. Where there was once a screened-in porch at the rear of the house, rotting from water damage, a cheerful family room now completes the open floor plan. Oversized windows make the back yard an important part of the visual landscape. They also allow Harris-Lacewell’s mother, a bird-watcher, to spot different species while working at the sink.
“The kitchen is wonderful. I needed a kitchen we could eat in with my extended family,” Harris-Lacewell says. “And I love to entertain, which I can now do easily. ”
Most homeowners describe an improvement project as something they have endured. But Harris-Lacewell actually enjoyed the discussions and planning sessions. Being turned out of the kitchen for six weeks, using a microwave oven in the basement, was an adventure. “It was fun watching them turn this house into something that works for us,” she says.
Dunham started by building a model out of cedar with scale furniture. A floor pattern was created from a photograph of wood flooring. The model had a partial ceiling, including a print on paper of the trellis that Harris-Lacewell was considering for a section of the kitchen ceiling. The model’s movable parts allowed Dunham and Harris-Lacewell to reformulate ideas. They decided to go with the trellis and a banquette dining booth, refining and slimming down the design along the way.
“We started with plan A-1, and this is R-3,” Harris-Lacewell says. “The finished product is different from the model Peter made. We decided to change the dining room and family room. I thought I was really certain of what I wanted when we started, but found it was what I didn’t want at all.”
As the planning progressed, client and contractor discovered they had similar tastes. Dunham read Harris-Lacewell’s book, “Barbershops, Bible and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought” (Princeton University Press, 2004), which demonstrates how African Americans develop political ideas through ordinary conversations in places like barbershops and churches.
“We’d meet to pick out the refrigerator and he’d say to me, ‘The graph on page 43. What’s going on with that?’ We talked a lot,” Harris-Lacewell says. “Our personalities clicked. Even our dogs are the same color,” she says, laughing.
Harris-Lacewell, the youngest of five, grew up in Charlottesville and Chester, Virginia. Her father was a professor at the University of Virginia for 25 years and just retired from Jackson State University after spending a year at MIT as a visiting professor. Her mom retired last year after working in student administration at the University of Chicago. Harris-Lacewell earned a bachelors in English from Wake Forest University in 1994, and her Ph.D. in political science from Duke in 1999. She also holds an honorary doctorate from Meadville Lombart Theological School, and is a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Her professional interests include the study of African American political thought, black religious ideas and practice, and social and clinical psychology. She is at work on a new book, “For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn’t Enough,” an examination of the connections between shame, sadness, and strength in African American women’s politics. Her website is www.melisaharrislacewell.com.
While the goal was to shape the house to fit her needs, Harris-Lacewell wanted to respect its history. So instead of junking the built-in china cabinet that stood in a corner of the kitchen, she moved it to the basement and painted it. She did the same with the kitchen cabinets, re-using them for storage downstairs. The recycled pieces fit their new space well.
“The china cabinet was original to the house, and I felt like it belonged in the house,” she says. “It feels like it was always meant to stay here. We painted and rehung the kitchen cabinets, and they have a new life. I was so pleased to re-use them all.”
Cape Cod houses are often called “salt boxes” because of their shape and pop-up dormer, which looks like a spout on a salt box. Their only exterior walls on the second floor are the gable ends. “The plan is usually compartmentalized into small rooms, which are either cozy or confining, depending on your point of view,” Dunham’s written profile of the project reads.
This particular Cape Cod had been enlarged twice before. The first addition was a master bedroom suite and kitchen expansion on the back; the second was the screened-in porch, created from the rear patio. “Sometimes when additions are made by different owners, the results are kind of awkward and don’t really fit together,” Dunham says.
It wasn’t the square footage that made the house unworkable, it was the configuration of space. The house lacked flow. The kitchen, especially, was inefficient in its layout. It had inaccessible “dead” corners in the cabinets, and a large portion of the floor was unusable because of the odd configuration.
Dunham solved these problems by opening up walls, repositioning some appliances, and building new cabinetry. He concealed the room’s partially sloped ceiling with the trellis and light panel, which adds visual interest while letting in more light. He created a perch for Luther, the family’s cat, to watch the birds. He opened the wall between the dining and living rooms, making them seem bigger. The dining room had ample square footage but, like the kitchen, was awkward in its configuration. It was important to Harris-Lacewell that it be improved because she likes to meet with her students at the dining room table.
Finishes were a major focus. The kitchen is cherry and maple, with an oak floor stained to look like cherry. The woodwork is heavily machined, lacquered, and smooth. An organic texture — hand-chiseled cherry — is around the base of the steps leading to the seating area. “It animates the wood and just makes it pop,” says Dunham, who did the woodworking himself. He also hand-chiseled the table pedestal.
As soon as the project was completed Harris-Lacewell hosted one of her sisters and her sister’s three children for a week. There was plenty of room for all of them to sit around the table on the banquettes. And the younger children made use of the newly-opened space. “The little ones ran the loop into and out of the kitchen over and over again, and it was fine,” she says. “That loop wasn’t there before. They had a great time.”
Harris-Lacewell moved to Princeton following a divorce from Parker’s father. It was not an easy time. “We were starting over,” she says. “I was living in this tiny apartment when I got here. Buying this house and doing this project has made Princeton home. Chicago was home before. It was a big transition. But this house is mine now. I can open it up to family and friends, which makes it home.”
While she won’t reveal what the remodeling cost, Harris-Lacewell will say that she spent only half of the money she made from the appreciation of her Chicago condo. “It was definitely a good investment,” she says. “But this was not a design-to-sell moment. This was a design-to-live moment. I plan to raise Parker in this house.”