There is hardly a little girl in America who doesn’t know the story of Eloise, the precocious six-year-old who lived at the Plaza Hotel in New York. In Kay Thompson’s 1955 bestseller, Eloise, whose mother is conveniently stuck in Virginia with her lawyer, speaks in charming run-on sentences about how she spends her days riding the elevator, taunting her “rawther farsighted” British nanny, calling room service for raisins for her pet turtle or the valet to come clean and press her sneakers and charging it to her house account, popping down to the service elevator to see what treasures everyone’s thrown away, lunching in the Palm Court, visiting the barber to get her hair cut, oogling the debutantes in the Terrace Room, crashing weddings in the White and Gold Room, and telling random guests she is an orphan just in case they toss her a spare piece of melon or a broken mint. “Oh my Lord, there’s so much to do, tomorrow I think I’ll pour a pitcher of water down the mail chute,” says little Eloise.
Another, just slightly older but no less spunky Eloise can be found on any given evening greeting guests at Tre Bar in Princeton Forrestal Village. When Kim Clearwater married Jim Weaver, owner and chef of Tre Piani and Tre Bar in 2006 and they started looking for a house together, she was turning the pages of a local newspaper and came upon an interview with Fred Hill, head coach of Rutgers’ basketball. When she read that Hill lived at the new Residences at the Heldrich, luxury condos sitting atop the newest hotel in New Brunswick, visions of Eloise danced in her head. “He said how much he liked living there and what was happening in New Brunswick. It piqued our interest,” she says.
Clearwater, a self-proclaimed Navy brat, spent her childhood living up and down the East coast and at the Naval Academy in Annapolis with her father, John Clearwater, a Navy captain; her stay-at-home mother; and an older brother. But her love of city living really jelled after she graduated in 1987 from Rosemont College on the Main Line with a degree in psychology and a minor in sociology. She lived for a time in Georgetown, and during her first marriage, she and her husband, a stockbroker who went into real estate, traveled to Paris, Hong Kong, and London.
Though Clearwater and Weaver looked at homes in Princeton, Philadelphia, Weehawkin, Hoboken, Brooklyn, and Jersey City, their first visit to the Heldrich captivated them. What city slicker wouldn’t be seduced by the perks: a doorman (who, on the day this reporter visited, was an aspiring actor deeply studying his script for an upcoming production of “The Odd Couple”), a concierge, use of the hotel gym and swimming pool, discounts at the spa (Eloise would certainly approve of the detoxifying seaweed body wrap), room service, maid service, car valet and two parking spots, discounted hotel rooms for friends and family, and discounts at Christopher’s restaurant and Christopher’s bar on the ground floor of the hotel, and Daryl’s, the cutting edge tapas restaurant around the corner.
For Clearwater, living at the Heldrich also signaled a welcome reprieve from suburbia. After her divorce, she left her Tudor home in South Orange to be near her parents, who live on Governor’s Lane in Princeton. She moved into a two-floor condo in a duplex on Park Place, a block from Nassau Street, but intended to stay only a year, making plans to move to either Philadelphia or New York. While she enjoyed the fact that she could walk everywhere, Clearwater says she was restless. “I was just about going to leave Princeton — I thought it was boring and there were no social outlets.” She even thought about taking her own money and opening a wine bar (a wish that was finally granted with the opening of Tre Bar last year). Then one night she was sitting with a girlfriend at the bar at Lahiere’s on Witherspoon Street and was about to leave when Weaver walked in. The two met and talked and suddenly Princeton took on a new sheen.
Weaver, who had just moved from East Windsor and was renovating a place in Princeton Landing “50 yards from the front door of Tre Piani,” rented that out, put all his belongings in storage, and moved in with Clearwater. The Witherspoon Grill and the “little Soho” span of Witherspoon Street between the library and Nassau Street became the center of their social universe. Clearwater did not work and a typical day would find her having coffee with friends at Panera or Small World Coffee or perusing the boutiques in town. She began to gather a tight-knit group of girlfriends that includes Jessica Durrie, owner of Small World Coffee, and Sherry MacLean of the MacLean Agency on Nassau Street. Clearwater says she and MacLean “love to shop,” which is how she made another new friend, Paige Petersen, owner of the boutique Rouge on Witherspoon Street.
After she married Weaver, Clearwater started to become involved in the restaurant, orchestrating the design, decor, and opening of Tre Bar while Weaver orchestrated buying out his partners. In the beginning of 2008 they started getting serious about looking for a place, something, says Weaver, “that was ours.” Clearwater says she wanted something “modern and citified.” Their objective was to find a place with a big open floor plan, a place to entertain but not too big (for large-scale entertaining, they have the restaurant), and something manageable and low-maintenance. The Heldrich fit the bill perfectly.
When the couple came to look at the Heldrich in January of this year, they started at the bottom, so to speak, or at least the bottom of the four different two-bedroom models. “We really weren’t looking in New Brunswick,” says Clearwater, but the Fred Hill article piqued their interest, promising a city environment — and a coveted 30-minute drive to Tre Piani. “It wasn’t the price that drove our decision, it was the convenience,” says Clearwater. It also signaled a coming home for Weaver, who left New Hampshire College to launch his restaurant career in 1987 as head chef of Panico’s in New Brunswick, a restaurant that is still there. Weaver’s love of cooking started as a child growing up with two younger sisters in New Vernon in Morris County, in a home designed and built by his father, who ran his own large architectural firm and loved to cook and entertain. Weaver’s mother was a stay-at-mom.
Clearwater and Weaver, who are in their 40s and do not intend to have children, “saw every model and of course when we got to this one it was the most expensive and the only one left,” says Clearwater. They fell in love with the 1,750 square foot open floor plan that boasts dramatic views of the city, floor to ceiling windows in most of the rooms, hardwood floors, granite counter tops, ceramic tile, three bathrooms, and a multitude of designer touches. “The place is high-tech, so it’s wired to the hilt for anything you could imagine,” says Weaver. “There’s even a keypad downstairs, where, say we’re in Hawaii, and you had a key to our unit, you could come here, punch in a code, and it would dial our cell phone anywhere in the world, and we could push a button on our phone and let you in.” He also says the building itself “is solidly built. You can’t hear a peep of anything, not people talking or toilets flushing. And the heating/AC units are heavy-duty commercial units, completely solid.”
Two days after their first visit they came and saw it again, then went around the corner to Daryl’s to swirl a glass of wine and discuss it. “I know Kim’s taste,” says Weaver. “I know that if Kim doesn’t like it she’s gonna let you know about it, and she liked this place. It was ‘almost’ in our price range, and it worked for us. I said, ‘Let’s just do it,’ and I put in an offer [in the high 700s]. They accepted it and away we went.” They moved in in March of this year.
The couple takes full advantage of the hotel’s amenities and strategic location. A typical evening might find them having friends in for drinks at Christopher’s bar downstairs, then making a stop upstairs to their condo before dining out at any of the numerous restaurants in the immediate vicinity. Weaver, who is on the board of directors of the New Jersey Restaurant Association, knows just about every chef and restaurant owner in New Brunswick, including Francis Schott and Mark Pascal, owners of Stage Left and its upstairs sister restaurant, Catherine Lombardi, across the street from the Heldrich (they attended Schott’s wedding there last summer); Betsy Alger and Jim Black, owners of the Frog & the Peach; David Drake, chef and co-owner of Daryl’s; and of course the people at Panico’s. “We run into a lot of ‘blast from the past,’” says Weaver. “Everything revolves around food.” And a stone’s throw away across the street from the Heldrich sits the theater row of New Brunswick — the State Theater, George Street Playhouse, and Crossroads Theater.
This past summer, when Weaver’s father remarried, all the family stayed in (discounted) rooms at the Heldrich. “Of course we had the reception at Tre Piani,” says Weaver, “and the wedding was up in New Vernon. So after the wedding most of the guests came back here to change to go to Tre Piani and the Heldrich was nice enough to arrange for us to use the hotel van to drive everybody down there and back. We even had a late night pizza party on the residences’ private deck. The condo has become a before-dinner spot, an after-dinner spot, and a dinner spot.” The couple often walks a few minutes to the train station to spend the afternoon in Manhattan or at one of their favorite Portuguese restaurants in Newark, then they take the train back to New Brunswick to extend the evening at Due Mari Pesce, the new restaurant where the recently-closed Novaterra used to be, or if they feel like sushi, they may stop in to Hotoke.
When Weaver participated in the Chefs with Heart tasting event, a benefit for the American Heart Association held at the Heldrich last spring, “all the chefs were scrambling at the loading dock,” says Weaver, “but I got everything (at Tre Piani) and then pulled into our regular parking spot (at the hotel). Then afterwards, we had a post-party here. It’s that whole hotel idea of ‘stop here to freshen up and then go out again.’” Clearwater says: “We bought the lifestyle.” They can even walk to a grocery store a few blocks away on George Street. New Brunswick’s multicultural Hispanic community also appeals to them, as does Rutgers’ gardens and the mix of students at the university.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, the couple invited friends over — Paige Petersen of Rouge and her husband, Curtis Jordan, head coach of the men’s rowing team at Princeton; and Sal and Di Anna Valentino, owners of Valentino’s, an upscale salon at 96 Albany Street in New Brunswick, just a few blocks from the Heldrich. With a simple phone call, two waiters appeared at the door 30 minutes later and, as the guests sipped wine and had a front row seat to a spectacular autumn sunset through the floor-to-ceiling windows, the crisply-uniformed waiters passed gourmet hot hors d’oeuvres from a white tablecloth-covered cart and then, as if on cue, magically disappeared. Later, Weaver, who also heads up the New Jersey chapter of the Slow Food Convivium, demonstrated his credo, “eat local,” by whipping up a paella of clams farmed in the Navesink River and quail from Griggstown farm.
Weaver and Clearwater find themselves on the ground floor — well, the seventh floor, actually — of a remarkable urban renaissance taking place in New Brunswick. “I started working in this town in 1987,” says Weaver. “And this spot was the edge of a neighborhood that you didn’t want to have anything to do with. The hotel that was here was an old hotel that had restaurants downstairs that never really did very well, and it was a seedy place. But the revitalization, what’s been going on here, I think is unprecedented in New Jersey. It’s absolutely incredible and it’s still going. There are plans for some new buildings right around here, even improving right across the street, with a whole new arts community with luxury condos on the top. They’re building an amphitheater on the water.
“I still know a lot of people who are involved in the town as well,” Weaver continues. “From a city planning standpoint it’s exciting and it makes you have confidence when you know the same people who are here are still in charge and have pushed it in the right direction because they’re truly trying to do the right thing, and with good results. Over 12 years ago, in 1996, when I left Panico’s, if you would have said I would have been living in a luxury condo on Livingston Avenue, I would’ve told you, you are out of your mind. And now that the best of (these condos) sold” — he snaps his fingers — “just like that,it just shows that what is going on in this city is worth it.”
John J. Heldrich, Rutgers Class of 1950, the driving force behind the Heldrich Hotel and Conference Center — a $120 million multi-use property that formally opened in March, 2007 — lives with his wife, Regina, a 1942 graduate of Douglass College, at — no surprise — the Residences at the Heldrich. After nearly 41 years with Johnson & Johnson, Heldrich, who grew up in New Brunswick, retired as the corporate VP of administration and became the founding chairman of New Brunswick Tomorrow, a nonprofit community organization that is spearheading New Brunswick’s economic, social, and cultural revitalization. (The upper lobby of the beautifully renovated State Theater is named after them.)
The hotel and conference center resulted in more than 400 construction jobs, and jobs at the finished complex were filled giving priority to New Brunswick residents. The completion of the project significantly increases municipal tax ratables from the 1.8-acre parcel from less than $200,000 per year to $1,000,000 per year.
The massive overhaul of the Route 18 artery that connects Route 1 with downtown New Brunswick is an integral part of the “new” New Brunswick. Ironically, Clearwater’s father, who is now retired from the Navy and serves as managing director of the Construction Industry Advancement Program of New Jersey, consulted with New Jersey’s Department of Transportation on the project. Says Weaver: “When Route 18 is done, which is going to be soon, the access to this town is gonna be — boom!”
According to the New Jersey Department of Transportation website, the reconstructed section of Route 18, which is traveled by 85,000 vehicles a day, will boast enhanced safety features such as new and improved signs and signals and cameras, sound walls, an express section for through traffic, bicycle/pedestrian overpasses, bus stop pullouts, a Commercial Avenue promenade, and underground utilities. The amphitheater that Weaver mentioned will be built in Boyd Park along the Raritan River. The $200 million project began in spring, 2005, and is expected to last through 2009. The contractor is Conti Enterprises of South Plainfield.
The same month Clearwater and Weaver moved in — March, 2008 — plans for the arts center Weaver referred to were publicly announced. The complex, formally called the New Brunswick Cultural Center, with an estimated private sector investment of $275 million, will expand the facilities at the State Theater, replace the existing George Street Playhouse and Crossroads Theater with two new proscenium theaters and a flexible black box performance space for use by those theater companies as well as Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts and American Repertory Ballet, rehearsal and educational spaces, state of the art operational facilities, and administrative offices. It will also include a 12,500 square foot galleria and retail space, intended to “ensure the center becomes a round-the-clock destination,” according to a statement provided by the New Brunswick Development Corporation. The complex will also include office and condominium spaces, topping out at 34 stories.
“The redevelopment of [New Brunswick’s] cultural center in the mid-1980s was the catalyst for the city’s successful revitalization,” says Jean Holtz, VP of communications for the New Brunswick Development Corporation, in an E-mail. “We’re now coming full circle. It is time for us to reinvest in our performing arts organizations and facilities to guarantee their long-term sustainability and to continue New Brunswick’s ongoing renaissance. To move the project forward, we need to find and secure an office tower tenant/owner, and are currently negotiating with several large users and hope to finalize this component within the next few months.”
All of this is happening in the proverbial front yard of the residents at the Heldrich. According to Alice Yale, sales manager of the property, the residents, like Clearwater and Weaver, are almost exclusively professionals and well-to-do retirees — with no children. (Eloise should stick to the Plaza.) In addition to John and Regina Heldrich, the residents include a prominent New Brunswick lawyer in the penthouse; Daryl Sorrentini, a co-owner of the eponymous Daryl’s Wine Bar and Restaurant; a 20-something DJ; physicians from Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital; Rutgers professors; professionals who commute to Manhattan; the owners of a liquor store; a few Rutgers students and recent grads whose parents have purchased a condo for them as an investment; and of course, Fred Hill, the Rutgers basketball coach.
Another resident is Ralph Voorhees of the illustrious Voorhees family, who settled in New Brunswick from the Netherlands in the 18th century. A retired stockbroker and Rutgers alumus now in his 80s, Voorhees was responsible for the establishment of the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum at Rutgers, named after his mother, and Voorhees Hall, Voorhees Library, and Voorhees Mall (where most of the campus’s historic buildings are located) are named after him.
According to sales manager Yale, 17 of the 48 units in the building’s 11 floors are still open, ranging from a one-bedroom with a study to a two-bedroom with a study, with asking prices ranging from $517,000 to $597,000. “However, the builders are accepting offers in the mid-400s,” she says. Monthly condo maintenance fees vary by square footage; Clearwater and Weaver pay just over $1,000 per month — maid and room service are not included. The hotel itself has 235 guest rooms and 13 suites, and rates range from $179 to $315 a ngiht.
After eight months in the condo, Clearwater and Weaver and their orange tabby cat, Barron’s, are almost all settled in, although they’re looking forward to redoing the closets. Despite the fact that Clearwater purged a good deal of clothing before the move (much of which went to the wife of one of Jim’s chefs, who shares the petite Clearwater’s ultra-slim size 0), there are numerous temporary canvas-covered wardrobes in the master bedroom and study. She attributes her love of clothing to the fact that she loves change. She has moved over 20 times and says, “I get bored easily. I relish reinventing myself. That’s probably why I love clothes so much. And that’s why we try to reinvent Tre Piani all the time, like adding Tre Bar.”
She has done all the decorating in the condo herself, focusing on spare, elegant, modern pieces found locally, including furniture from Reinboth & Co and Blue Raccoon in Lambertville, and Spruce, Nassau Interiors, Matteo & Co (before they went out of business) and Judy King Interiors & Antiques in Princeton. The white Italian leather sectional in the living room was purchased in Manhattan. Earlier this year, Clearwater snatched up a dramatic lamp from Judy King’s room in the 2008 Junior League of Greater Princeton’s designer showhouse, which now illuminates the dining area. Like her clothes, Clearwater purged much of her antiques collection in the move, keeping only her favorite pieces that she thought would work in the space. “You free yourself of it; it’s very cleansing to get rid of a lot of that extra stuff. You reinvent yourself every so many years, and now we’re in another phase.”
I wonder, if Clearwater’s the restless type, will they stay here long? “Our ultimate goal is to live in Italy,” says Weaver. The couple honeymooned in Naples, Capri, and Rome, and has traveled frequently all over Italy, including Venice, Positano, Sienna, and the Amalfi coast. In September, 2007, the couple organized a food and wine tour of Tuscany for about 15 people with Tuscan Hills’ owners Greg and Suzanne Evans, staying at one of the many villas that Tuscan Hills’ real estate division rents out. Looking ahead, Weaver says, “I know I’m going to have my hand in something, somehow, whether it’s having Tre Piani still and having someone who’s running it, or something else. If the market goes and we do well in real estate and cash out, that’s a possibility. Who knows?”
But whether they stay a year or 10 years, they are happy to call the Heldrich home base, where, like Eloise, they can scootch down the hall and dump their trash or recycling down a chute (taking the garbage out to the curb is a nonexistent chore), then use their personal keycard to slip through the quiet carpeted halls of the hotel, admiring the art in one of the hotel’s many gallery spaces that feature the work of prominent artists from Rutgers’ Brodsky Center, the Zimmerli Art Museum, and Grounds for Sculpture, on the way down to Christopher’s bar for a nightcap or to the spa for a spontaneous mani-pedi or a Sunday afternoon swim in the pool. And if Weaver wants the night off from cooking, they have any number of excellent restaurants to choose from — an elevator ride away and more just outside their front door. And of course, there’s always room service.
At the end of our interview, Weaver looks affectionately at Clearwater and says, “I call her Eloise.”
The Residences at the Heldrich, 20 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick 08901. Alice Yale, sales manager, 732-239-7116, E-mail Alice@chdstudios.com, www.heldrichcondos.com.