Houses make statements. They tell us something about the people who live in them — what they value, what they don’t. They also might tell us something about ourselves — you might admire the big house set back on the manicured lawn; I might like the smaller house set closer to the street with no front yard but a little outdoor room hidden behind a fence.
And some houses even ask questions. The five houses on the Historical Society of Princeton benefit tour this past weekend all had a lot to say. Come along with me, and I will translate the house talk into plain English.
40 Mercer Street. This what you or I would call a “half house,” or the real estate people would call a “semi-detached” house on a charming block of Mercer Street, just a few doors down from the Nassau Club. The charm can be attributed partly to noted Princeton architect Charles Steadman, who built this house and the neighbor with which it shares a common wall in the 1830s. (Of the more than 70 buildings Steadman designed and built in Princeton, about 40 are still standing.
My first house was a half house on Moran Avenue, and for that reason the renovations implemented by Kathy Bogle of Bogle Design Group spoke to me. I liked the way she appropriated what was probably an under-utilized dining room to create a functional kitchen and breakfast room — I did something similar, though on a much more modest scale, on Moran Avenue. I also admired the clever use of small spaces throughout this house, even while the owners and decorators retained various period details: hardwoods floors, marble fireplaces, high ceilings, and acorn leaf millwork, as the Historical Society brochure points out.
The house, which has three bedrooms, four and a half bathrooms and a two-car garage tucked away out back, has a for sale sign out front — listed by Madeline Greve of Callaway Henderson. So that raises a very obvious question: How much? $1.4 million.
73 Library Place. This is a big house, set well off the street on a big lot. It makes the kind of grand statement that makes you afraid that some modern day owner has made some similarly grand statement (in 21st century vernacular) when you walk inside the place.
But no, the house at 73 Library Place speaks in a quiet way. The Tudor Revival, designed in 1897-’98 by the Philadelphia-based architectural firm of Cope and Stewardson, retains most of its historic architectural features, including decorative plaster ceilings, hand-leaded windows, original wood paneling, carved wooden archways, and gargoyles. Among the additions: Chandeliers from New York’s Paramount Theater after it closed in the mid-20th century.
Its original owner was Princeton University mathematics professor and Dean of Faculty H.B. Fine, after whom Fine Hall — the tall tower on Washington Road — is named. Cope and Stewardson also designed the university dormitory Blair Hall and Ivy Club, one of the Prospect Avenue eating clubs.
75 Cleveland Lane. Here’s a house that has told its story before in the pages of U.S. 1, when Jeniah “Kookie” Johnson had put it up for sale after the death of her mother, Kristina Johnson (the ex-wife of Seward Johnson Jr. in 2013. Now, if only the walls of this house — designed by Ernest Flagg in the 1920s — could talk, I would devote this column to the sometimes sensational details involving private eyes, midnight raids, gun shots, and a pet turtle watching it all with a knowing eye.
Instead I will focus on the current state of the house, as described by builder and developer Jay Grant, who happened to be on site the day of the Historical Society tour.
The recent sale of the house was a minor drama in its own right. The initial listing for the house and its nearly one-acre lot was for more than $2.5 million. A year later the price dropped to $2 million. Finally, in December, 2015, the builder, Jay Grant, bought it for $1.6 million. The house and the adjacent garage/carriage house both needed massive amounts of work, and economics told Grant he should tear it down and start from scratch.
But an architect from Morristown, Peter Dorne — no doubt mindful of Flagg’s credentials as the architect of the Scribner Building in New York and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. — told him “it would be a sin” to tear it down. The entrance to the house was located past the gate accessed from the interior courtyard, while the back of the house faced the sidewalk and Cleveland Lane. Grant asked Dorne to design a house with a front door facing the street and different window treatments (necessitating holes to be cut out of those 18-inch stone walls).
Then Grant convinced the Princeton Zoning Board to allow the original house to stands as it always has. Along with the carriage house it’s on the market now for around $4.89 million. The back lot, with a Lafayette Road address, is the site of a more typical looking McMansion (5,400-square-feet) under construction by Grant.
I think Grant will come out OK at the end of the day. But the main house itself posed a question. How in the world was Grant able to make the original bluestone flooring in the billiard room on the ground floor shine like an enormous jewel? He didn’t know but he put me in touch with the cleaner. Vicki, based in north Jersey, revealed the secret sauce in a text: “Bona Stone Polish. Two coats, then I literally got on my hands and knees and took large bath towels to buff it out. You should have seen the floor before! That’s the story.”
All the money in the world has gone into that house, I thought, but the final touch came from hard work and elbow grease.
50 Patton Avenue. So here was another house that came with a question: How have the current owners, who moved from a rather large house on Battle Road, managed to find space in this charming but relatively small bungalow built in the late 1910s? The answer is a creative renovation overseen by designer Katie Eastridge, on hand for the tour to tell the story in her own words.
The house has a stone facade, inviting front porch, Moravian tile fireplace, a claw-foot tub, original hardwood floors, and posters that reflect owner Margaret Griffin’s days as proprietor of Micawber Books. One alluring feature: the deck off the master bedroom on the second floor that offers an intriguing view of the warehouse-like structure two doors away — the next and last stop on this virtual tour.
44 Patton Avenue. Consider this the grand finale. This L-shaped building, constructed in 1927 as a warehouse, is still known as “The Warehouse.” Given that it served as architect Michael Graves’ personal home for more than 40 years, it’s a little ironic but a little irony and playfulness were always part of the Graves oeuvre.
I can’t begin to give this place the credit it deserves. The building is astonishing in many ways, from clever use of limited space to window placement that captures the light from dawn to dusk, to the smallest but most elegant details. It tells stories at every turn, and the people who will be absorbing those stories are students from Kean University in north Jersey, which took over ownership and operation of the Warehouse after Princeton University turned down the offer that was presented in Graves’ will.
So the tour ended with another question: Why didn’t Princeton take it? “We were grateful to be able to consider the possibility . . . but concluded that we could not meet the terms and conditions associated with the gift,” the university said at the time of Graves’ death. I ran into the dean of the Kean architecture school at the tour, and asked him the question. He shrugged: “You will have to ask Princeton,” he said. If only these walls could talk.