Events & Seminars

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This article by Jamie Saxon was prepared for the April 28, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

An Old House Becomes a Star

OK, I admit it. I entered this year’s HGTV "Dream Home" sweepstakes – widely acknowledged as the biggest promotion in television, with 38 million contestants. In fact, I mailed in 50 self-addressed postcards and logged on to submit a separate online entry every evening for six weeks. Who wouldn’t want to move into a fully decorated "dream home"?

Well, Kenda Dean, associate professor of youth, church and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary and director of the Tennent School of Christian Education, has "won" Princeton’s equivalent to the HGTV dream home – she and her family are moving into the 13th annual Junior League of Greater Princeton’s Designer Showhouse, open to the public through Sunday, May 16.

The Dean family couldn’t ask for a better address: The Hodge House at 74 Mercer Street. A faculty residence for most of its history, the five-bay, red-brick, three-story Colonial with Georgian traditions, now painted yellow, was commissioned by Charles Hodge, the Seminary’s third professor, in 1823. English emigre John Haviland was the architect. The most recent residents were Professor James E. Loder and his family; he died in 2001 and the house has not been renovated since he moved in in 1973.

Loder would not recognize his own house today. Thirty-five interior and landscape designers have transformed the house and its exterior into a showroom of 21st century design. Although it is not for sale, with its great location, historic status (it is registered with the Princeton Historical Society), and complete renovation, the current market value of the showhouse is approximately $2.5 million. It is open to the public every day except Monday, and several home decorating and design workshops are being held in conjunction with the showhouse (see list at end).

My own expectations of a stuffy, blueblood manor, an overdressed octogenarian in chintz and clunky antiques your own grandmother would hide in the attic, were immediately dispelled when I arrived at the elegant preview reception on Saturday, April 17, and saw a life-size sculpture of a pig dancing on his toes, by Princeton sculptor Robert Cannon, on the front lawn. Hmm, I thought, these guys might just be thinking outside the box.

I grabbed some excellent Delicato 2002 California merlot from the Jimmy Duffy-catered spread (killer sweet potatoes, by the way) in the requisite white tent and followed the well-coiffed, well-heeled crowd into the stately house. (I complimented one doe-eyed brunette on her Carrie Bradshaw-look-alike dress, a tea-length apple green faille cocktail number with a drop waist and spaghetti straps. "Oooo, thank you," she squealed. "It’s from Neiman Marcus! It’s Tracy + Michael!" I looked it up on the NM website – it costs $495.)

The house’s exterior may be stately but the interior rocks. The Sex & the City set would definitely approve – there would be plenty of room for their Jimmy Choo’s and Manolo Blahnik’s in the upstairs walk-in closet the size of your average New York studio, painted in a 360-degree trompe l’oeil aviary of wisteria, birds, angels, and perennial gardens by Janet Keller Laughlin of Hopewell and Laura Helme Jemison of Lawrenceville.

The showhouse comes across like an architectural Sybil – split personalities change rapidly from room to room – cool and elegant one moment, old-world and staid the next, then suddenly sleek and contemporary. It’s like the first floor of Saks Fifth Avenue, with those ladies that spray you with perfumes and men’s colognes – you’re just recovering from the moss-with-a-touch-of-fennel when you get hit by a squirt of bergamot-with-a-topnote-of-toasted-vanilla-and-freesia. And like a good treasure hunt, the house reveals surprises literally at every corner.

Picture this. The walls in the master bedroom – a cool beige sanctuary by Pescatore Design of Loch Harbor, New Jersey – are upholstered in alpaca herringbone fabric. Yes, they squish when you press on them. How cool is that? The living room, designed in soft shades of camel, green, and apricot by Jeffrey Books Interior Design in Long Valley, includes quartz and amethyst specimens from around the world. The back staircase is painted with a mural by Quinn Breuel Interiors in Princeton emulating Van Gogh’s "Starry, Starry Night." The sitting room, "a woman’s room," by Gretchen Christie Interiors of Pennington, evokes old Hollywood champagne-on-ice glamour, with a palette of chocolate brown, silver, and warm neutrals accented in pink, its walls painted in elegant wide horizontal stripes.

The butler’s pantry, by Black-Eyed Susan in Yardley, PA, seemingly plucked from an episode of Masterpiece Theater, features vintage china-filled, floor-to-ceiling cabinets rubbed in black and backed in toile, contrasted by soft gold Venetian plaster walls and a fabulous hand-painted swinging door. The centerpiece of the bedroom designed by Gracious Living Interiors in New Hope (who were featured in "The Ten Most Romantic Bedrooms" Valentine special on HGTV), is a canopy bed swathed in luxurious bedding, a high-calorie wedding cake of a room.

My favorite "room" is actually the back porch, transformed by co-owners Sue and Greg Evans of Tuscan Hills of Princeton into a "Tuscan loggia," with a hand-painted fresco on the ceiling, and a candlelit farmhouse table laden with artisan glass and china for dining al fresco. You can just picture the cypress trees and smell the rosemary-filled breeze. The "loggia" showcases many of the company’s exclusive lines from artisans throughout Tuscany and Umbria. For example, the hand-forged, hand-pegged iron furniture in the "lounge area" of the porch is made by the Caporali family, who have been in the ironworking business dating back to the 1800s.

The same month the Evanses started their business, December, 2003, was the "walk-through" of the Hodge House, in which designers made their first, second, and third choices of rooms they hoped to redecorate. The Evanses initially chose the dining room, the bedroom, and the butler’s pantry. "It wasn’t until we were leaving that we saw the back porch," says Sue Evans. "We screeched the car to a halt and ran back in and changed our first choice to the porch. The wide berth of the porch, in an open setting, suggested the perfect Italian loggia."

The Evanses chose to participate in the showhouse "not just for exposure, but because the porch was really the perfect setting to evoke not just Tuscany but Italy," says Sue. "We wanted to show that you can do more than just buy a bedding set from someone’s ‘Italian collection’ – you can design a whole home (in the Italian style)." The Evans’ themselves have been renting villas in Italy for 10 years, and started the business after renovating their 1803 Montgomery home and their own villa in Italy, where they established solid relationships with contractors, craftsmen, and artisan families.

"We have a two-pronged approach," says Evans. "We’re a design firm showcasing a number of imported Italian items, mostly home furnishing and accessories, and we’re the U.S. affiliate of a company with offices in London and Italy that rents 200 properties in Italy. We also do villa real estate and restoration. Our motto is, ‘We can bring Italy to you and bring you to Italy.’"

Walking through the showhouse is like flipping through the pages of Architectural Digest, only, happily, the design approach at the showhouse is on a more realistic scale. Save for one or two rooms, I would say none are overdone, and anyone with an active left brain will find ideas to use in their own home. Indeed, that is the League’s design philosophy for the showhouse. "Our ideal mix is when people leave and can say there’s one room they absolutely love and one room they hate," says Sarah Raterman, who is co-chair of the showhouse with Jan Davis. Why aim for such a marked contrast of styles? "It gives you things to think about," says Raterman, adding that it’s just as important to know what you like as what you don’t like when decorating a home.

Every two years, the Junior League pulls off this spectacular showhouse with dozens of committee members and hundreds and hundreds of man, er, woman-hours. All materials – every ounce of paint, every yard of fabric, and every nail and curtain rod – are donated, as is the designers’ time to prepare each room. Last December, when Tuscan Hills and about 100 other designers came through the house – which, says Raterman, was a mere shell that hadn’t been renovated in 40 years, the sitting room got the most first-choice bids – 13. The final 35 designers were chosen in January and work began in February.

Proceeds from the showhouse sustain the League’s projects, grants, and training programs throughout the greater Mercer and Bucks County communities for two years. According to Raterman, this year the League’s signature theme is children’s education. They are looking for a program partner such as Success by Six, a reading readiness program under the auspices of United Way that prepares young children up to age six for reading success by the time they start school. Success by Six has not yet been implemented in this area.

Other recent programs include creating a computer resource center at the Union Industrial Home in Trenton and creating children’s libraries at Fisherman’s Mark, a private, nonprofit social services agency in Lambertville and at the Mill Hill Child Development Center in Trenton, as well as the development and presentation of career and nutrition seminars for low-income women.

Raterman, the mother of two, grew up in Princeton and attended Princeton Day School, then graduated from DePauw University with a bachelors in communications and Russian studies in 1995. She joined the Junior League in Ann Arbor, Michigan, when her husband, Andy, now in marketing for Church & Dwight, was earning his MBA at the University of Michigan.

"I didn’t just want to be involved in the university community," says Raterman, who earned the alumni community service award in high school. "I wanted to be involved in the real community." Although she doesn’t work, she is quick to dispel the notion that the Junior League is made up of ladies who lunch. "Seventy percent of our members are working women, and virtually all our meetings are at night."

Amie Thornton, the League’s president, has an MBA from Wharton and works in Trenton as the assistant commissioner of health and human services for the state of New Jersey. "She epitomizes the Junior Leaguer," says Jennifer Bredin, co-chair of the interior design committee and a Junior Leaguer from her days at Villanova Law School. "Amie works likes a dog. We don’t sit around and drink tea in our pearls."

It fact it was Thornton who jumpstarted the connection between the League and the Seminary, quite by accident. During a conversation between Thornton and Larry Stratton, a PhD student at the seminary, Stratton mentioned that the Hodge House was in need of renovation. The rest, as they say, is history.

Making just these kinds of connections, however, is what League members do best. Many of the League members who work have used their own connections to support the showhouse. For example, Madolyn Greve, a realtor with the Princeton office of Gloria Nilson GMAC, canvassed all her professional contacts to get donations for the contents of the "goody bags" given to party guests at the opening (we loved the organic rosehip maize exfoliating masque by Anna Shields, who is opening her own studio soon in Pennington).

Kenda Dean, the new resident of Hodge House, will move in this summer with her husband, Kevin, a professor of communications and director of the honors at West Chester University, and their two children, Brendan, 15, and Shannon, 10. Dean believes both divine intervention and serendipity played a role in how she came to be chosen for the house.

Dean was put on the list for a faculty house when she earned tenure in 2003 but nothing was available. Hodge House had been sitting vacant for three years, while the Seminary pondered what to do with the space, considering for a time using it as faculty offices. Undertaking a full renovation was financially out of the question. When the League made it possible for the house to be refurbished, "I was definitely the right person in the queue," says Dean. "The Seminary is Presbyterian, although we have theologians from every faith – Presbyterians don’t believe in luck, so it was providence."

"We love it here," says Dean of the colonial in a tree-filled subdivision outside of West Chester, Pennsylvania, where the family currently lives. "We thought we would spend the rest of our lives here. We’re trusting that God’s got a ministry for us there at the (new) house, for our family. I hope it will be a place of hospitality."

She is also quick to show her appreciation of and admiration for the League. "They are basically doing double philanthropy, using the house to raise money for its own charities, but also to help restore a house that the Seminary didn’t have money to restore. We definitely are the beneficiaries of a lot of goodwill."

Other than leaving behind friends, Dean acknowledges the move is not too hard a pill to swallow. "My husband thinks I’m nuts, but my very favorite thing is the dancing pig on the front lawn." Dean also loves the Starry Starry Night stairwell but admits the family’s in a bit of a battle about whether to keep it.

In case you’re wondering, Dean doesn’t get to keep the furniture or the paintings, or anything that can be removed from the house. "Everything gets taken out after the showhouse, even the front walkway and the plants," says Dean, adding that she is entitled to buy anything she wants at a cost determined by the discretion of the designer, likely at or near wholesale. So, how about those upholstered walls? "The upholstery is on a track. We can buy it or they’ll remove it and paint." Those fancy murals? They are painted on canvas and will go back to the designer’s showrooms. "I’m a minister. I can’t afford to buy this stuff, even at wholesale," says Dean. "We refinished our basement (in West Chester) around a $40 Mexican sink that I bought on eBay."

Almost sounds like Cinderella at midnight until you remember: Oh, yeah, they get to live in this incredible house "until I retire or die," says Dean. And of course the kitchen and bathroom fixtures stay…and the painted walls and woodwork…and the refinished floors. Dean’s daughter, Shannon, has her eye on the wedding cake bedroom and wants to put the bathtub the designer took out of one of the bathrooms in her room to use as a toy chest. Brendan, a guitar player, has his eye on the entire third floor. All in all, Dean says, "It’s definitely a hoot. My daughter said, ‘Isn’t there a TV show about this?’"

The Hodge House, Designer Showhouse XIII of the Junior League of Greater Princeton, 74 Mercer Street. Tuesday to Thursday, 10 a.m to 3 p.m.; Friday, 12 noon to 8 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, 12 noon to 5 p.m.; closed Monday. Open to the public through Sunday, May 16. Tickets $20 at the door. The Hodge Podge, a boutique of fine furnishings and gifts for sale, is located on the third floor. Cafe du Soleil, catered by the Lawrenceville Inn, is located on the drive next to the house. For information call 609-771-0525.

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Events & Seminars

"Murder Mystery Evening," Friday, April 30, 6 to 8 p.m. Hosted by Ann Waldron, author of "Death of a Princeton President and The Princeton Murders."

"The Do’s and Don’ts of Preserving Your Old House," Tuesday, May 4, 12:30 p.m. Hosted by Annabelle Radcliffe-Trenner, founding principal, Historic Building Architects.

"To the Table: Food Preparation, Presentation and Pleasurable Partaking in 18th and 19th Century America," Saturday, May 8, 12:30 p.m. Hosted by Elisabeth Garrett, vice president, collections and interpretation, Strawbery Banke Museum and author of "At Home: The American Family 1750-1870."

"Mother’s Day Tea & Lilly Pulitzer Fashion Show," Sunday, May 9, 2 to 5 p.m. Featuring Junior League models and their children.

"Amazing Grace: Personalizing Your Home with Collections, Color, Photographs & Accessories," Tuesday, May 11, 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Hosted by Susan Taylor, owner/designer of Black-eyed Susan in Yardley.

"Celebrating 75 Years of Scalamandre," Thursday, May 13, 2:30 p.m. Hosted by Leslie Degeorges, director of restoration & archives at Scalamandre, the manufacturer of luxury textiles and handmade silk-screen wallpaper designs.

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