Peggy Henderson has been in the real estate business nearly 40 years, and with one of her latest listings, her career has come full circle. Today she is selling a veritable castle at 124 Edgerstoune Road, designed by an architect with idiosyncratic tastes, for the estate of Michael and Lucille Bongiovanni, who bought the house from her 37 years ago.
The Bongiovannis were one of a series of Squibb executives with whom Peggy had worked with over a period of eight years. Not long after she started working as a real estate agent in 1968 at her father-in-law’s company, John P. Henderson Inc., another agent asked Peggy to switch with her because the agent did not want to work on a Sunday afternoon. Peggy was happy to comply. "I was hungry for business, had been licensed only a short time, and didn’t know much about Princeton," she recalls.
One Sunday while Henderson was on duty, a man walked in and asked her for a tour of Princeton, so they set off. "We got in my car, tooled around Nassau Street, and every time I saw a sign, I would tell him what the building was," she says, admitting that she knew only a little more than he did. After a two-hour tour that from his side was apparently quite successful, the man asked her whether he could send her his colleagues for the same tour.
The result was that Henderson handled most Squibb executives over the next eight years, a time she remembers as one of "great parties, dinners, and fun."
Michael Bongiovanni was one of these Squibb executives. He and his wife, Lucille, were sophisticated New Yorkers who were trying to come to terms with moving down to the hinterlands. "They had happy lives in the New York scene," says Henderson, "and to get them to come to Princeton was an effort; a real estate broker had to convince them hard that they would really be happy living here." The couple had already raised two daughters, who, by time they moved to Princeton, had graduated from college.
Henderson worked with Lucille for nine months, covering every potential property from Princeton to Bucks County, but, says Henderson, "I couldn’t find a house that turned her on."
That was until Henderson remembered a house at 124 Edgerstoune that had been donated to the university the previous year. She contacted the university and asked if she could show the house. They let her but later it turned out there was a bit of a mix-up – the house she had showed the Bongiovannis was not the house the university wanted to sell, although Henderson was eventually able to turn that around.
At first Lucille rejected even this intriguing property – because it did not have enough closets – although that objection lasted only as long as it took Henderson to write her a five-page letter about how she could turn the maid’s room into closets.
Henderson also had Michael on her side. He was an opera lover (and, in fact, his daughters still use their parents’ tickets to the Met) and was drawn to the house’s music room, where he could listen to his music while envisioning Einstein playing his violin there – which he did in the 1930s and 1940s. Michael was also a man who could appreciate something that would last forever, says Henderson, and he loved the house’s solid construction, the cinder blocks with limestone covers, the decorated copper gutters and downspouts, and the slate roof.
Once Henderson had convinced the couple to buy the house, though, she had to convince the university to sell it, since it wasn’t on the market. The university agreed to sell it a year later, after the professor living there had left. So after living for a year in temporary housing, the Bongiovannis bought the house for $155,000.
"They lived there till they died and loved every inch of it," says Henderson. Lucille stayed on by herself for 14 years after Michael died.
The Bongiovannis became close friends and ended up as godparents to Peggy’s son Judson. And Henderson in turn is godmother to their granddaughter, Kristen Miller. It has been relationships like these that have made real estate work for Henderson. "It is part of what makes this business unique; you’re such a part of your clients’ lives," she says.
The house that the Bongiovannnis lived in and loved for 37 years was built and designed by a bachelor architect Alfred Hopkins for his own use. He had a personal staff and a high lifestyle and apparently rather idiosyncratic tastes. "It’s the kind of house that is a statement more than a comfortable house for a family," observes Henderson. "It has no family room and no great big Toll Brothers kitchen, but it is a work of art."
Henderson’s son Judson remembers as a kid feeling like he was walking into a castle when his family visited the Bongiovannis. And indeed many of the house’s accoutrements came from buildings in Europe; the baptismal font in the backyard where both of the Bongiovannis’ grandchildren were baptized, for example, came from a European church.
In an article titled "Architect Turns Client" in `House and Garden’ magazine’s November, 1933, edition, Alfred Hopkins, the architect, builder, and first owner of 124 Edgerstoune Road, details the conception and creation of this substantial edifice.
Referring to his dream house literally as "my castle," Hopkins had first envisioned a setting in Spain, under sheltering pines, next to a rushing brook, and close to a "gaunt cliff rising sheer from the sea." But when he chanced to hear of an arboretum in Princeton that was being divided into lots, he had a look, and a beautiful beech tree sold him on the spot.
His vision was of a house surrounding a paved court, furnished like an outdoor sitting room. "I wanted to be an old man and sit beside a fountain and sip my wine and ruminate, as old men do," he wrote. But when he had to contend with the trees and how to fit the house he had envisioned among them, the court’s design had to change and the fountain, alas, had to go. The multiple redesigns of the house and court, he wrote, were labeled "Plan of trees with house."
In the end the court was a garden court, not the paved court he had in mind, and the beech and linden trees are still happily ensconced there. The court may not be paved, but it does define the house. On one side is fairly typical Colonial house, with a living room, dining room, kitchen, foyer, and wet bar on the main floor, and three bedrooms and a maid’s room on the second. The bathrooms are all tiled with splashily colored Mercer tiles, made in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. The dining room has a beamed ceiling.
This house is connected to the garage behind it by a wall, which together form the second wall of the garden court. To the right and a little back from the main house is a second small house, dubbed the music-room wing and also containing a book room and another bedroom. It is connected to the main house by an open cloister, and together these form the third side of the court. Then, in the rear, is a sculpted "South Wall" that completes the outdoor "room."
Hopkins’ goal, both inside and out, was to create a substantial structure, without the plaster that made every other house of his time look like it was "made by a machine as in fact it is." The house’s inside walls are painted cinder block that, when properly treated, "look more like stone than some stone itself." For the outside he chose "channel face" slabs of limestone, with "the uneven surface left by the first rough thrust into the rock by the channeling drill."
For the moldings and other embellishments, Hopkins used cast stone, concrete that is made to look natural by throwing a handful of gravel onto each mold before pouring the concrete – to create a varied texture.
Another unique feature of the house is the lost art of lettering that his staff eventually called his "wisecracks," but which do give a good sense of the man who selected them. The first, on the long lintel over the very wide fireplace in the music room, is from Pope’s "Ode to Solitude": "Happy the man whose wish and care a few paternal acres bound, content to breathe his native air on his own ground."
The second, an Italian proverb, accompanies a cast of antique English plasterwork of a bird feeding its young, sitting atop the garden gate: "A ogni Uccello suo nido e bello" (to every bird her nest is beautiful).
The third sits on a small panel over the door from the terrace into the music room and comes from Ecclesiastes: "I applied mine heart to know, to search, to seek out wisdom and the reason for things." The last quote is on the inside of that same door, joining up with the arch into the book room. It is a quote from Richard de Bury (1281-1345) that was used as an epilogue to the "Oxford Book of English Prose": "In books cherubim expand their wings, that the soul of the student may ascend and look around from pole to pole. In them the most high and incomprehensible God is contained and worshipped."
As was the style of the time, Hopkins gave his unique structure a name. He wrote: "I do not mind a certain bare, monastic look; in fact, since new homes are given names I have not objected to `Priory Court,’ which somehow harks back to the idealistic life and seems not more disconnected and inept than such names usually are."
When it came to setting a price to this property, Henderson, like all real estate agents, was a pragmatist. She sized up the property, checked recent sales in Princeton, and set a price – $3.75 million – that she hopes will make money for the sellers, yet not put off potential buyers. But in the end, she notes, "the buyer will tell us what he is going to pay for it."
Henderson grew up in Brooklyn, where her father was an accountant with Mutual of New York and her mother was a bookkeeper – "the first liberated woman," as she likes to call her. Because her mother worked through most of Henderson’s childhood and because she was an only child, she became very independent.
Henderson went to high school at Fontbonne Hall in Bay Bridge, run by the sisters of St. Joseph. Among her classmates, she remembers, were all the Profaci girls, from a prominent Mafia family. She enjoyed the school, which she recalls being "small, comforting and comfortable, and caring."
The nuns had only two expectations for graduates – that they go to the telephone company or become nuns. Henderson and her friends, however, forged their own paths. Most of her friends went to college, but she hated school and signed up at Katherine Gibbs for a secretarial course.
Her first job was as secretary to the president of the Lynn Baker advertising agency. "I’m eternally grateful," she says. "It was better than four years of college – it was more fun, and I learned more." She did take night classes at Hunter College and went to University College of Dublin for a semester while she was working.
Henderson met her husband John at Lynn Baker, just as he was about to leave the company and take a job with N. W. Ayer in Philadelphia. She was 25 and had worked there for three years, but they hadn’t known each other. He must have had his eye on her, though, given the circumstances of their meeting. "I delivered a memo," she says, "and he looked up and said, `I’m leaving the company next week. Would you like to have a drink with me tonight?’" She was busy, so they met the following night, and, as she says, the rest is history.
During their eight-month courtship, John would come back to New York every Friday night to take her out to Malachy McCourt’s pub, and he would return to Philadelphia Sunday night, driving both ways in a big blue Chrysler convertible, purchased at an auction, that had belonged to Eleanor Roosevelt.
The couple spent four years in Philadelphia, where their daughter, Jane Henderson Kenyon, was born. When Jane turned two, they returned to New York where John became president of Lynn Baker.
At the beginning of what would be just a two-year stint in New York, Henderson took a temporary job through Kelly Girls at the Terry Dintenfass Gallery. She and Terry hit it off so well that Henderson was invited to stay on. She had a great time at the agency, where clients included Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Fonda, and Tony Randall. Evidence of her time there hangs on the conference room wall of her office in the form of a charcoal done by Robert De Niro’s father that Henderson received one week in lieu of a salary.
Two years later, as city life was beginning to pall on John, who had grown up on a farm in Chappaqua, New York, they came to Princeton to look for a weekend house, using a broker from her father-in-law’s business. Peggy remembers all the houses that the broker showed them looking rundown and dilapidated.
That is, until they drove by their dream house, which is in the town of Harbourton in Hopewell Township on Harbourton-Mt. Airy Road. Here’s how Henderson remembers the moment. "We looked down a long driveway at a house with columns," she says. "It looked like Tara." The house and its surrounding 86 acres were just what they were looking for, but the agent refused to show it to them. He told them, "It’s your father-in-law’s listing; get him to show it to you."
The house had a bit of a seedy history that in the end worked to their advantage, because the owners were glad to get rid of it – the man of the house having gone to jail for embezzlement.
They had to take out three mortgages, though, to buy it – one from Equitable Life, one from the former owners, and one from Peggy’s father-in-law. Given all that, they decided to live full-time in Hopewell, commuting to northern Jersey on the Reading Railroad, then taking a ferry to New York City and a subway to the ad agency in lower Manhattan. Peggy’s commute was a little more onerous than John’s, because she brought her daughter, Jane, along on the train, put her in nursery school for the day, then picked her up and took her home.
That went on for a year until Peggy decided it wasn’t working well for her daughter and her father-in-law suggested an alternative: Why don’t you get a real estate license? It was the right question for Peggy, who observes, "As I tell most people, I haven’t been home since."
In the meantime the Lynn Baker agency dissolved. John, then 40, went to work for Dancer, Fitzgerald, Sample as a copy supervisor, but in 1970 he decided to leave and join his father’s business.
In 1973 the Hendersons bought the white building across from Judy’s Flower Shop at 353 Nassau and started to expand, bringing Princeton real estate into the late 20th century in the process. "John took out full-page ads," Peggy remembers, "and used his creative ability to change the face of Princeton real estate." Before that, she explains, people were very low key, with small offices, and agents with pocket listings – that was before the multiple listing service. The agents would get listings from sellers, put them in their pockets, and sell them at their leisure, and there was little cooperation among brokers.
The full-page ads attracted a lot of business to John P. Henderson, which had been in business since 1953, allowing the company to eventually open eight offices in the 1970s and 1980s.
The business hummed along until, in 1998, Jud Henderson, who had gotten his real estate license at age 18 and was an integral part of the family business, came back from his honeymoon with lymphoma. The Hendersons found that the medical emergency was not leaving them enough time to devote to the office and decided to sell their business to Gloria Nilson, who resold it to GMAC. "We were so preoccupied with his health," says Peggy. "I was going into New York to see Jud daily."
Judson, who is now the agent of record at Henderson Sotheby’s, recovered fully after a stem cell transplant and returned to work full time at Gloria Nilson GMAC Home Services. But he quickly realized that he was not comfortable working for someone else.
Peggy took the hint and went to her husband John with a strong suggestion. "John," she remembers saying, "we sold these kids’ birthrights. I think we should reopen our business."
So they bought the building at 199 Nassau and Judson and his parents launched the new Princeton Real Estate Group in 2001, "with four agents, and three Hendersons." At the time Matthew Henderson, who is now vice president and in charge of finance for all the Henderson’s businesses as well as a licensed real estate agent who is working on his broker’s license, was working at Johnson & Johnson in brand management, having gotten his MBA at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 2000. But he decided to come on board with the family business in 2002. Both Judson and Matthew graduated from Hamilton College.
In the fall of 2003 the Hendersons sold the building at 199 Nassau Street and moved the business’ main branch to 34 Chambers Street, a building they bought for $3.9 million. Two years later, Henderson became a Sotheby’s affiliate. "It put us on the map internationally," says Matthew. "We needed Sotheby’s to increase visibility." Sotheby’s gave the company much broader exposure, allowing the firm to reach out to a broader market both domestic and international.
In the first quarter, the network has already yielded 17 referrals. Henderson Sotheby’s referred a client in New Jersey who wanted to sell property in Newport to the Sotheby’s office there, and Sotheby’s has sent the Princeton office buyers from San Francisco, Norway, England, and Asia.
Sotheby’s support includes the opportunity for high-end real estate advertisements in the back of its "Preview Magazine," an art magazine that highlights upcoming Sotheby auctions; advertising through the Sotheby website; and cooperative advertising among its offices. Peggy said that one of her agents recently walked in with a full-page ad from the `International Herald Tribune’ featuring three Henderson houses. The agent’s son had seen the ad in Israel and sent it to his mother because one of her listings was in it.
Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty, which now has approximately 100 agents between its Princeton and Pennington offices, last year was number one in market share in Princeton in both units and dollars – after having come back from scratch in 2001. The company is set to open a third office on July 1, but Henderson is not ready to share its location.
The Henderson’s first-born son, John T. Henderson, 40, lives in Taos, New Mexico. A high school teacher, he attended the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, fell in love with the Southwest lifestyle, met and married his wife there, and decided to stay.
Henderson jokes that "he’s always been the little renegade in the family," but he hasn’t strayed too far. Not too long after his father died, in June 2005, he called his mother, asking her to sit down before he made an announcement, and told her that he had gotten his real estate license. John now sells real estate part time and Peggy sees this as a "tribute to his dad."
Peggy’s daughter Jane, who lives in Hopewell, is also in real estate, but stayed with Gloria Nilson.
Peggy loves working with her sons, and says, "They share the same office, and they never fight." Her sons seemed happy to let her think so anyway.
Musing about changes in Princeton over her tenure as an agent, Henderson could only come up with more difficulty parking, higher taxes, and not knowing as many people on the street as she used to. Princeton has always had a nice mixture of people, combining corporate and academic types, she says, adding, "and I see my sons doing the same things we did through the years – showing houses, selling houses, becoming friends, playing golf, and having dinner parties with their clients."
But being a real estate agent has also had its bittersweet side.
When Henderson looks at the now empty house at 124 Edgerstoune, painted in neutral tones, she remembers how her friend Lucille had made it a comfortable home, putting in a lot of color and bringing it to life. Henderson admits that it is a little bit harder when she has to go and show the house now, on its second go round, with both of her friends dead.
"I miss the life that was there," she says. "It is very sad to go through a whole lifetime with a family and then be given the house to sell again."
Henderson Sotheby’s International Realty, 34 Chambers Street, Suite 101, Princeton 08542; 609-924-1000; fax, 609-924-7743. Judson Henderson, broker of record. www.hendersonsir.com.