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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the May 3, 2006 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Have Chain Saw, Will Renovate
Laura Jemison once took a chain saw to a cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. "I cut it in half," she says. This was perhaps the most extreme renovation that Jemison, who is not a professional builder, has undertaken. But it is far from her only extreme renovation.
Laura Jemison is a serial renovator whose latest project, her home just off Main Street in the heart of Lawrenceville, is one of six featured homes in Lawrenceville Main Street’s Extreme Makeovers House Tour 2006 on Saturday, May 6, at 10 a.m. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at the Village Bakery on Gordon Avenue, Sun Bank or Chambers Walk Cafe, both on Main Street, or Bassett Furniture on Brunswick Avenue.
Other homes on the tour include a 1930s Cotswold cottage, a 1920s center-hall Colonial, a mid-century ranch with a dramatic new wing, the residences and studios of several Lawrenceville artists, and Glencairn, the recently converted 1736 inn that is now the town’s only bed and breakfast.
Jemison comes rightly by her willingness to tackle big renovation projects. Her grandmother re-mortared the stone foundation of her home, a huge undertaking. "It took her years," says Jemison. Not everyone in the family was handy, though. "My dad was in publishing," says the Chicago native. But he "could do nothing" around the house.
One of three siblings, she has a sister who revels in re-creating her surroundings and a brother who "does nothing but travel." Ebay’s first engineer, her brother, currently touring Japan, is a dot-com millionaire who, in Jemison’s opinion, cannot get into big renovation projects because he is indecisive. In building, she explains, you have to figure out where you want the foundation and the walls – and you have to stick with your decisions.
A graduate of Indiana University (Class of 1971) and and an artist and former art teacher, Jemison undertook most of her renovations with her then-husband, Bill Jemison, a Lawrenceville resident and owner of a family injection molding business with offices in Toms River. Their first project was an 1786 farmhouse in Harvard, Massachusetts, "that barely had electricity." It did have an outhouse, though. "The last standing outhouse in Boston," says Jemison.
"Bill did the carpentry. I did the plaster, painting, and gardens," she says. "We both worked on the architectural drawings." They lived in the house for four years, and then moved to New Jersey, where they completely renovated a house in Summit and one in Short Hills, each time living in the house while doing the work. Then it was on to a 66-acre farm in the Olney Valley of Pennsylvania.
The Martha’s Vineyard cottage, like all the others, really needed an extreme make-over, says Jemison. "It was gross," she says. "It was a tiny Cape." With half of the house sawed off and demolished there was room to add on a generously-sized studio and an elevated living room to take advantage of the views.
The couple’s last collaborative renovation was on a 1909 stone house on five acres in Lawrenceville. "We bought it for $700,000, and put about $500,000 into it," says Jemison. "We sold it for $1.6 million, the most any house in Lawrenceville has ever sold for."
That was three years ago. The couple sold the house because they were divorcing. It was that sale that gave birth to Jemison’s most recent renovation – her eighth, and very possibly her last.
"I needed somewhere to live, and I wanted to stay in town," she says. Her youngest child, now 15, was in middle school and she wanted him to stay put. "I wanted something I could afford, and I could take care of," she says. But finding a house, any house, in Lawrenceville was a real challenge at the height of the housing frenzy. She almost bought a house on Green Street, and had even started moving her garden plants over there, but another family had right of first refusal, and decided to exercise it.
Left with few choices, she heard that the woman who lived next door to her was wait listed at Meadow Lakes. When the neighbor was given a unit at the Hightstown retirement facility, she bought the house. A Cape Cod, it was not in good shape.
"Oh my God," she says, "the lady had lived in the house for 25 years, and she was not a house person. I washed my hands and the plumbing just gave way. The stove top caught fire. It was not tied into town water and sewer. It needed a new roof."
Jemison knew right away what she wanted to do with the house, and drew up the plans, hiring an architect-neighbor to do the specs, as required by the township. She took out hallways – doing the work herself. She changed all of the windows, putting in narrower and longer windows to change the proportion of the house. "It had been dumpy," she says, and the new windows elongated its facade.
She moved the garage out 16 feet, and put in a new kitchen, dining room, computer room, and pantry. An artist who specializes in murals and in stylized home portraits, which include aspects of the family’s interests, she also added a studio to the home. (Jemison now has time for commissions and can be reached at 609-510-1558.)
After three years of constant work, says Jemison, "it’s gone from being hideous to I don’t want to leave." The home now "looks like a cottage in Europe," she says. "Everything is new, except it’s old."
Its details include a faux limestone floor she painted in the powder room, entryway walls that look like parchment, poetry as a hallway border, and rich colors everywhere. "My neighbor is an artist," she says. "We took vats of paint she had left over and mixed them to get just the right colors." Jemison is favoring yellow right now, and many rooms are unique shades of that color.
She did a great deal of the work herself, and used a contractor only for the kitchen. The only major problem she encountered was with obtaining permits. It took a solid year, much of that time taken up in wrangling over a new type of floor joist system she wanted to install. "At one point, the township wanted the flooring company to provide individual drawings for each room," she says.
Jemison says that it is important to be patient during a renovation. There is going to be disruption, and it’s best to just go with it. "You have to be flexible," she says. "You have to know that it won’t last forever." She does say that it is important to establish an island of normalcy for any children living at home, as she did for her 15-year-old, getting his room finished quickly. She also tries to create one relatively construction-free room in which the family can gather.
Before any of the dust starts to rise, Jemison says that any renovator would do well to become really familiar with the house. She suggests living in a house before ripping it apart. "You have to know where the light is, where the views are," she says. "You have to know how you will live in the house."
Jemison may never have to make this assessment again. "I’m getting too old for this," she says. Besides, she is very happy with her new home. She paid $470,000 for it, and put in another $200,000. Yes, she could have bought a brand new McMansion for that price, but she thinks that she has something better. "It’s a beautiful lot," she says, with "mature trees, nice landscaping, and a neighborhood."
And it’s exactly the house she wants. This she says, is why she has spent the better part of her life as a serial renovator. "You get spoiled," she says. "If you want to live somewhere nice, it’s the only thing to do." Beyond the personal, she has come to see herself as an advocate. Others adopt neglected animals or champion unpopular causes. "My job," says Jemison, "is to rescue old houses."
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