The answer is yes. Robin Resch did look around, at workmen, at holes in the wall, at the chaos of ducts and wires and God knows what else, and did ask herself just what the heck she was thinking. She and her husband, Jim Reilly, had undertaken an enormous project, one that let her flex some newly instilled architect’s muscle, and one that would allow him to engage some ingrained financial instincts.
Nineteen Vandeventer Street, a.k.a. the 18th century Beatty house, became a labor of love. Particularly in the kitchen. And the attic. And much of the first floor. The outside took a lot of scraping and painting, but overall, the frame of the house was sturdy, as was its foundation. Then again, it had to be. Nineteen Vandeventer is the Beatty house’s second address, and if the place were not sturdy, it would never have survived the move.
“The house,” says Reilly, “has really good bones.”
So at least one thing was in good shape.
Now on the market, 19 Vandeventer Street is listed for $2.195 million through Henderson Sotheby’s. If you think the price is steep, or if you think it’s a steal, hang on. You don’t know the half of it.
Built circa 1780, the property that became known as the Beatty House originally sat on what is today the land above the underground portion of Firestone Library on the Princeton University campus. It was built by Jacob Hyer, a colonel in the Continental Army and the owner of the original Hudibras Tavern. The house played host to the Continental Congress when Princeton served as the capital of the fledgling nation.
“I’ve never found any proof of Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin being there,” Reilly says, “but it’s likely that they met there.”
Reilly is a skeptical guy. He’s also a money guy, two attributes he has used in his career and on the Beatty House. While Resch, who holds a master’s in architecture from Princeton, is the “design gal,” the one who visualized the reclaimed gem amid the morass of bad paint jobs and ugly bathrooms, Reilly is the historian for the house. He has studied everything he could get his hands and eyes on for nuggets of history at 19 Vandeventer.
He also is a financial compliance professional who has worked on Wall Street for most of his career. Just this week he started a new job with TD Ameritrade in New York. He has previously worked for Goldman Sachs and TIAA Cref. He was almost a journalist, and he studied the subject at the University of Maryland until, he says, “I realized I didn’t want to struggle all my life, so I went next door to the business school.”
Today Reilly makes sure that traders and investors play by the rules. “I try to find the Bernie Madoffs of the world before they become Bernie Madoffs,” he says.
Reilly was the main financier of 19 Vandeventer when he and Resch bought it in 2005, for $1.1 million. Renovations, which took more than 18 months, cost roughly another $600,000, Resch estimates. Resch contemplates what it would have cost had she not acted as the designer and architect for the renovations. She calculates “sweat equity” and the probable price tag of hiring a professional designer to be about $200,000.
“You can see that it paid off,” Reilly says.
Today 19 Vandeventer is spacious, open, subdued. And fortified. Getting it that way took a lot of work, however. After Jacob Hyer sold the house to Erkuries Beatty around 1815, it sheltered the Beatty family for decades. Beatty was a Revolutionary War colonel too, having served under the Marquis de Lafayette in Pennsylvania before becoming New Jersey judge and senator.
Beatty and Lafayette remained friends long after the war ended. After Beatty died in 1823, Lafayette visited his widow. That much is true — but as with many avenues of history, the very presence of a name like Lafayette triggers certain hopeful rumors.
There is also one that suggests that George Washington planted a tree in the front yard of 19 Vandeventer as a gift to an old comrade, but considering that Washington died 76 years before the house was moved from Nassau Street, it’s probably not true.
A rumor wrapped in a real mystery surrounds the fate of a mantel from one of the downstairs fireplaces. To the right of the foyer, in what is called the southwest room, there is a fireplace once adorned with an ornate mantel, likely made of walnut, that went missing some time ago.
The rumors about the missing mantel suggest that it was a gift from Lafayette to Beatty’s widow, but Reilly says there is no proof that Lafayette had anything to do with it. He is more certain that the piece went missing after the house was converted to an antiques shop in the mid-20th century.
Reilly is still hot about it. “It’s a part of the history of the house and it should have stayed in the house,” he says. Ever the money guy, he estimates that were he to buy an original period mantel like the one missing from the first floor, “it would probably cost about $50,000.”
The house had stayed in the Beatty family until 1875 when Jacob Vandeventer bought it and had it moved to its present location on his namesake street, at the corner of Park Place. By the mid-20th century, though, the house effectively ceased to be a private residence. It housed a girls’ school before becoming a boarding house in the 1960s. From there it became the antiques dealer, then the headquarters for Durrell Construction, and then for the architecture firm Looney Ricks Kiss.
The Historical Society of Princeton bought the property in 1991 and had leased it to the commercial tenants. Reilly and Resch bought it from the society in 2005 and took up residence in 2006.
Despite being home to a construction company and an architecture firm, the inside of the house was rough on the eyes, Resch says. Snaking through the rooms (there are five downstairs, including the kitchen, while the foyer is large enough to be another small room), Resch refers to the “pudding-yellow walls and black baseboards” and a “nasty, ’70s bathroom” where the butler’s pantry now sits.
The before-pictures bear her out. They also show the work that went into this place. In some places, as in the living room to the left of the foyer, there were walls to blow out.
In other places there were doors that needed to be re-hung. Six or seven doors had been piled in the basement, but as is part of the charm of old houses, they were not all the same size, so the family needed to walk around hanging doors to see which fit on which frames.
Then, of course, there are those places, like the kitchen and the attic, that needed to be stripped to their skivvies and rebuilt from there. The kitchen unquestionably is Resch’s favorite room in the house, partly because it was entirely her design and partly because she loves to cook. When the antiques shop operated here, the back wall of what is now the kitchen had one small window and a door leading to a receiving area. For Looney Ricks Kiss this room served as an office, the largest in the place.
But it was never a kitchen, at least not in recent memory. When Resch and Reilly recall the work that went into this place, their heads shake. Reilly says that this room was one of those moments when he looked at what he had gotten into and wondered why he had bothered to get into it.
But once the ceiling was ripped out, the door removed, and the little window replaced with a bank of light-thirsty windows, things started to come together. Reilly credits Resch with having a grand artistic vision for the space, but both credit John Kemp, the man who made the cabinets, with making the room into an actual kitchen.
Kemp also built the butler’s pantry out of reclaimed elm. Reilly says the wood used for the pantry and cabinets is about 200 years old, though it is not original to the house. The glass in the cabinets also is reclaimed, Resch says, but it too was not part of the original house.
As with every room in the house (there are 12, plus two bathrooms and a full attic that doubles for hang-out space), the kitchen makes the most of its space.
Resch lives in the house with her two cats and two children, 16-year-old Sam, “the scientist” and 12-year-old Ysemay (pronounced EES-may, though her first name actually is Amelia, after Amelia Earhart), “the artist.” Reilly lives in New Hope, and Resch says the reason the house is for sale is due to “a life change.” She really doesn’t want to leave, she admits, but this is a lot of house for one person to deal with. Sitting on a third of an acre, including a 200-foot-long backyard just off the heart of downtown Princeton, has a property tax bill of $27,000.
Amicably separated, Reilly and Resch speak highly of their own and each other’s contributions to the house, not to mention the sweat equity. The kitchen in particular was Resch’s labor of love, but she had the old office space converted into a light-bathed space that would be the envy of any cook.
Back around to the foyer, Resch points out the irregularities, subtle though they are, of the four-flight stairwell. This stairwell is entirely original and permanently preserved as an historic property. Resch and Reilly could paint it, but no other modifications are allowed. Resch says they never wanted to modify it anyway. She says the hand craftsmanship of the bannister and posts are “a little bit honest,” and suit the house perfectly.
They did paint it, though. The pudding-yellow is long gone, replaced with a dusty beige more akin to classical and Colonial colors. This approach — combining a contemporary eye with a reverence for the past — guided the design and renovation from top to bottom. “We didn’t want to do period-everything because nobody lives like that anymore,” Reilly says. “But we wanted to do our best to honor the house.”
The result is a largely contemporary, country-manor feel. Except for the attic (and a modified closet space that also acts as a yoga room for Resch) the floors are bare hardwood. In the master bedroom, more bare hardwood hangs overhead, where the ceiling beams remain exposed.
Pointing out these beams is Resch’s preamble for what lies on the other side of the ceiling. These are the original beams, but they are not quite how Resch and Reilly found them in 2005. “They were sagging,” Resch says, “to the top of the door frame.”
That’s about two feet. As it was, there was a gap of about three inches between the ceiling and the beams themselves. And the problem lay in the attic.
The attic, Resch says, was in atrocious shape. The options were to pull down the ceiling beams in the master bedroom and rebuild the ceiling along with the attic floor, or to shore up the attic. Resch and Reilly opted for Plan B, and if you look closely, you can see wooden pegs that mount the beams to the remodeled attic.
The bedroom itself is another contemporary space within the house. Behind the bed are book shelves that once served as small closets. The room also has been sound-proofed. To the left is the expanded closet/yoga room that once had a door that let out onto the stairs. Not the landing, but in the middle of the actual stairs.
Another room that used to have more doors is the guest room directly next to the master bedroom. A door once connected the two rooms and another door once connected to what is now Ysemay’s room. Resch had them taken out, along with the door on the steps. “I really don’t know why anyone needed so many doors,” she says.
The third bedroom belongs to Sam, and whereas Ysemay’s room is exactly as you’d expect an artistic adolescent girl’s room to look, Sam’s is exactly what you would expect from a 16-year-old boy. Resch jokes that he chose this room because it was where the phone and modem banks once sat for the businesses here. But this spot (which now is more of a hutch packed with books and such) is a good excuse for Resch to explain the deal with the wiring in this house.
In short, the whole system got ripped out and replaced. Reilly says the project was an utter mess, the house essentially rewired from scratch. Resch says the electrical issue alone took more than a year — the same amount of time it took for the painters to strip away the exterior paint and put on a fresh coat. But though that took a long time, it was the only work needed on the outside of the house.
The attic was a different story. What now is a carpeted, casual den was once a chaos of HVAC pipes, vents, and wires. More than any other place in the house, this one gave Reilly his biggest reason to wonder what he had gotten himself into.
Again the whole thing had to be ripped out and replaced. Floors, walls, ceiling, you name it. And since the attic was the heart of the house’s heating and air conditioning system, it was the epicenter of an epic reworking of the system itself.
The same goes for the plumbing, which Resch says was a bear to have reworked as well.
The attic also houses one of the quirks a place like 19 Vandeventer seems to always have. One of the windows has the name “Eilene” scratched into it. Reilly says it was a common practice for young brides in the late 1800s to scratch their names into windows with their wedding rings. Neither Resch nor Reilly have any idea who the mystery bride is, but Reilly has combed the historic records trying to find out. “Most of the history of the residents centers on the men,” he says.
The back yard, which is mostly grass and a small vegetable garden, used to be a 15-car parking lot, Resch says. Now it is among the largest yards running along Park Place, but it could be subdivided for another house or garage. Resch says the family never had any interest in building something else back there.
Still, Resch says she is glad she got to apply the lessons of her architecture studies. She is not a licensed architect nor does she want to be but she had always wanted to study it, like her father did. And like her mother begged her not to. “She kept telling me, ‘Please don’t be an architect, it’s a hard life,’” Resch says.
Born in Brooklyn, Resch was raised in Connecticut and wanted to study architecture and design in college. Instead she studied art history at the University of Michigan, after spending a year in Turin, Italy, with a family of artisans. After Michigan, which she attended because she “wanted to attend a big school that had lots of options,” Resch considered studying fashion in Paris. She instead went to work for some fashion designers in New York as a marketing director and public relations agent.
It was in New York that she met her first husband, a Belgian national and curator of a museum there. She moved to Rotterdam, got married, had two children, and again considered studying architecture. But again, something else came up.
This time it was photography, which is still her main job. She operates Robin Resch Studio from 19 Vandeventer, though she had an office in town during the renovations. She concentrated on photography while living in Europe. But after a divorce and a move back to the States, Resch decided “it was time to address my regrets.”
She applied to the architecture programs of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and to her own surprise was accepted at all of them. She chose Princeton because she felt it was the best fit and because it offered her a full scholarship and a stipend. Her mom thought she was crazy, of course — two kids, newly single, and in a strange town studying the subject she had begged her daughter not to study.
And Resch was in way over her head. She understood the basics of design, she says, but not a thing about architecture proper. Everyone else in her class had been trained in architectural principles, computer-aided design, and whatever else was out there.
But Resch hung on and got her master’s in 2003, just in time to take her knowledge into a real world project at 19 Vandeventer Street. On the other side of that project, Resch says she is glad to have done it, and that she wouldn’t do anything differently in terms of the design. But she admits that had she been able to foresee the middle of the project, she might have been more tempted to listen to mom about that architecture stuff.
Still, Resch says she is happy with how the house came out. Reilly, who met Resch shortly after she earned her degree, says he too is proud of what they accomplished on the house. “Robin really taught me a lot,” he says. Moreover, he is proud of their contribution to the future of the Beatty House. “It’s a little piece of history that is worth preserving,” he says. “Because of what we did the house will stand another 200 years. Whoever buys it from us will be a very lucky person.”