Every two years the Junior League of Greater Princeton presents the opportunity to thrill to a renovated home, redesigned by the region’s top architects and designers. The biennial event is eagerly anticipated and the houses never fail to awe and inspire.
This year’s house, a 1937 Georgian-style stone house located at 1438 Great Road, Skillman, promises to accomplish all of that. Only five miles from the center of Princeton, the home boasts eight bedrooms, five fireplaces, and over six acres of grounds. Thirty interior and landscape designers now are toiling over the house and grounds to transform it into the showhouse that will be ready for view by thousands of paying visitors beginning this Sunday, April 25, and also to make it especially attractive to one person — the potential buyer of the house, which — not totally by coincidence — will soon be on the real estate market at a price yet to be determined (but certainly in the millions).
The first paragraph of the Junior League’s history of the show house, called “Woodacres,” ends in two words that leap off the page: “serene seclusion.” That’s true, but — like a lot of claims made about property — those conditions did not come about totally by accident.
Atherton and Ruth Hobler (he was a founder of Benton & Bowles Advertising in New York) purchased the original 250-acre estate in 1941, when they moved from Connecticut and relocated their herd of Guernsey cows there. The subsequent purchase of 400 more acres created a farm that encompassed what is now Cherry Valley Country Club and land across Route 518. (Their son, Herbert W., is the founder of Nassau Broadcasting and its WHWH-AM radio station, named after his initials, and WPST-FM.)
Situated on a hill overlooking the farm, the fieldstone house commanded a view of apple and peach orchards, cornfields, evergreens, and rose gardens. The original farmhouse and 25 acres were sold to Austin and Betsy Starkey in 1948. Their son, Austin C. Starkey Jr., notes that his parents did not change the farmhouse architecturally, and it remains much as the Hoblers had it. The property has remained in the Starkey family all these years and is currently held in the estate of Austin’s mother, Elizabeth Cook, who died in 2004 at the age of 88.
If the makeover of the house generates awe and inspiration, the story of how the house moved from Mrs. Cook to the selling block proves to be instructive. “I have a little bit of a complicated family,” says Starkey, a Pennington resident and co-executor of the estate with PNC Bank.
When someone dies and the family home becomes vacant any number of scenarios can arise (see sidebar page 33). In the case of the Starkeys, the story begins in 1948 and starts simply enough. Starkey’s mother, Elizabeth, born in Red Bank, moved to Princeton in 1948 as the wife of the late Austin Starkey Sr., Princeton Class of 1926, a co-founder of the Starkey Farms Company, a vegetable grower in Yardley, Pennsylvania; Galena, Maryland; and Delray Beach, Florida. The Pennsylvania farm was later sold to Toll Brothers as Yardley Hunt, one of the company’s earliest developments.
Elizabeth was a divorcee and had two sons from her first marriage to William B. Hewson, Princeton Class of ’33 (and a former associate director of development at Princeton), who were teenagers when Austin Starkey Jr. was born in 1951. Austin’s brother, Sam, a former corporate bond analyst at Salomon Brothers in New York who later had his own investment company and currently lives in Princeton, was born in 1954.
Elizabeth quickly became ensconced in Princeton society — she was a charter member of the Bedens Brook Club and also belonged to the Nassau Club and the Present Day Club. The family had additional residences in Gulfstream, Florida, and Bay Head.
Austin Starkey, who attended Miss Mason’s School and later Princeton Day School before going to Deerfield Academy, has fond memories of growing up in what he calls “a great old stone house.” His mother loved the house too, and at Christmas every year she would throw a huge party for all the relatives. In the years before she died, the guests numbered 70 to 80. Says Starkey: “It was a joy for her.”
After Starkey’s death at age 78, Elizabeth stayed in the house. Austin Jr. and Sam had grown up — Austin went to Princeton, Class of 1973, earning a bachelors in economics; his brother, Sam, went to the Lawrenceville School and then Lake Forest College in Chicago. Half-brother William B. Hewson Jr. graduated from Princeton, Class of 1957. Half-brother Ross K. Hewson died in a car accident. While at Princeton Austin worked summers for Princeton Bank and Trust, then joined fulltime when he graduated. The bank ultimately became PNC Bank, but Austin stayed on, clocking in 40 years before his recent retirement as a senior vice president in the office at 1 Palmer Square.
Elizabeth eventually married again, and outlived her third husband, George R. Cook, coincidentally from the same Class of 1926 as Austin Sr.
“Both my father and mother died in the house,” says Starkey. “There’s an elevator in there, and when she was getting older they fixed the elevator back up. That’s how she was able to stay in the house.” She remained closely interested in Princeton University throughout her adult life and stipulated that memorial contributions after her death be made to the university, as well as to Trinity Episcopal Church on Mercer Street, where she was a member.
With the furniture “distributed to each child as per my mother’s wishes,” says Starkey, a Pennington resident, the house became part of the estate and was put up for sale. “There were a couple of interested people and offers but we chose not to accept them.” The house sat vacant. “We could have rented it but we decided not to,” says Starkey. Acting on professional advice, the estate decided to subdivide the property into four lots. “There’s been interest in the lots but not to our satisfaction.” The house is for sale on one lot with the option to buy one or more of the vacant lots, which are from five to six acres and are priced in the $750.000 range.
Pete Callaway of N.T. Callaway Realty is the real estate broker for the property. One of his agents, Ruth Sayer, is a member of the Junior League of Greater Princeton, and recommended the Starkey house to the League as a potential site for the 2010 Designer Showhouse and Gardens. The decision to say yes came quickly, says Starkey. His close friends, the Vaughns on Drakes Corner Road, had their house as the designer showhouse two years ago. “They were very positive (about the experience),” says Starkey. “My brother and I were in favor, and the bank was in favor because PNC has had experience with other estates that have been show houses, for example in Pittsburgh. It was a unanimous decision of all interested parties.”
Starkey calls the show house “a win-win because it’s an older house and (the League) helps us by fixing it up.” The owner doesn’t have to put in a penny — and neither, in fact, does the League. Each designer foots his or her own bill, which, according to Deborah Leamann of Deborah Leamann Interiors in Pennington, who has participated in past designer show houses (U.S. 1, April 26, 2006), can run $30,000 for a single room.
Starkey says there are considerations, however, to subjecting one’s home to being turned into a show house, such as liabilities, the wear and tear on the house, and the fact that you can’t sell it while it’s being used as a show house. “The upside is fixing it up, lots of traffic (from potential buyers), and exposing it to the public,” says Starkey. “The house is being upgraded. I’ve been to some of these (show houses) before.” And even though each room is decorated by a different designer, resulting in a rather eclectic overall effect, Starkey says “I think it’s more to give someone an idea of what the house could look like.”
After the show house closes, all the designers’ furniture is removed and the walls repainted if the owner desires. The owner has the option of buying some items, such as new appliances installed by the designers.
Starkey acknowledges that the real estate market in the last five years has gotten worse rather than better, which may also contribute to why the house has not yet sold. One aspect of the process that he finds helpful, he says, is having PNC as co-executor of the estate (“and I’m not just saying that because I’m an ex-employee”), considering the size of the family.
While Starkey and his brother, Sam, are beneficiaries of the estate sale, the will also includes Starkey’s half-brother, William Hewson Jr. of Naples, Florida, as well as Elizabeth’s two stepdaughters, Connie Moore and Allison Elston. Sam now owns the Gulf Stream house in Florida, and the Bay Head property was sold before Elizabeth’s death. “To have an independent corporate executor is a wonderful estate planning tool. When family members are involved it is helpful to have an independent (entity) making decisions. It keeps things fair and equitable.”
N.T. Callaway is the other participant in the sale process. In fact the last four show houses have been Callaway properties. An experienced hand at working with property held in trusts and estates, Pete Callaway describes the marketing of the original house and 25 acres as a challenge. The property had been vacant for a while and, as he describes it, “needed to come alive.”
Having an estate as the owner of the showhouse presents some unique issues for the renovations. Fiduciary responsibility requires a conservative approach. In the past, with owners who are present and able to agree to the direction that the designers want to take, efforts could be more exuberant. In this case, the detailed contract drawn up expressly set out boundaries. For example, the natural wood in the house cannot be touched, the landscapers may only remove trees that are clearly diseased, and no walls can be moved in any room.
But these considerations have all been resolved at the Woodacres showhouse. The only thing on people’s minds now is transformation. The more than 30 design spaces include a broad entrance hall, kitchen complete with butler’s pantry and laundry room, an adjacent apartment with two bedrooms, sitting room with fireplace, and full bath. The master bedroom is really a suite complete with sitting room, dressing room, and paneled study with a fireplace. The house even boasts an elevator
The showhouse fundraiser for the Junior League of Greater Princeton began in 1974 with the concept of transforming a local home and grounds into a showplace without compromising the historical or architectural integrity of the property. The proceeds of ticket sales and the special events that surround the month-long showcase are used for community projects and scholarship programs.
For this, the 16th show house, the recipient organization of the effort is ROCKETS (Raising Our Children’s Knowledge by Educating Through Science). This early literacy program focuses on improving math and science skills of preschool children. Through hands-on activities, at-risk children receive help in the areas of problem solving, critical thinking, and exploration skills. These skills are instilled through classroom activities, take home “fun work,” and field trips that include the families.
Spring is all about the hope of rebirth and renewal. The Junior League works overtime to fulfill that promise both to its show houses and area children. The property known as Woodacres is a hive of activity as the designers and architects work feverishly to transform the dowager on the quiet hill in Skillman back into the duchess she was. But come April 25, she will welcome guests again in all her serene and secluded glory.
As many people can testify, serving as executor of an estate is often can be anything but serene. But Austin Starkey has at least two reasons to be smiling. His mother’s home is now in showcase condition, literally, for its sale, and the process has been helpful to others, as well. “The Junior League is a good organization,” says Starkey. Making it the showhouse was “a good civic thing to do.”