I walk through the farm gate into a sea of alpacas, into what feels like a herd of long-necked stuffed animals, their heads no taller than my shoulder, playing bumper cars in dreamy slow motion with one another. The grass tickles my ankles on one of the first warm spring days. I am completely unafraid, for how can one be afraid of an animal that looks like it could talk and have its own TV show?
The alpacas’ soft mouths nuzzle my hands and pant legs with benign curiosity as I pet their baby-soft fleece. The sound they make is an almost inaudible hum, like a radio stuck in between stations. The baby alpacas — one just a day old, others a week old — wiggle in and out amongst their mothers’ legs looking for a morning snack. The view is country-perfect — rolling fields; majestic tall trees that have stood, sentry-like, more than a century, maybe two; and a graceful pond certainly steeped in frogs and peepers, no doubt descendents of a direct line dating back many frog-generations.
This is Meadowgate Farm in Lawrenceville, one of six residences that retain their traditional ties to the land and will be open for the sixth biennial Lawrenceville Main Street House Tour, Saturday, May 14, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. This year’s theme, “Country Living,” features homes that span more than 250 years of history, from a rustic early 18th century farmhouse made of mud and stone to a dramatic late 20th century contemporary house with vaulted ceilings and vast windows.
Meadowgate dates from about 1820 and was originally a cattle farm, then a horse farm. In spite of their differences, all the homes on the tour are set on beautiful acres of current or former farmland. The only sign that Meadowgate Farm, situated at the end of a long driveway at 3071 Route 206, even exists is a life-size black metal cutout of an alpaca, set next to the mailbox.
It is hard to believe Diane Rosenberg, who owns Meadowgate with her husband, Leon, always wanted to be a farmer. Born in Washington, DC, the daughter of a homemaker and a lieutenant colonel who told his daughter he “was the youngest man in World War I and the oldest man in World War II,” Rosenberg and her older brother were raised in Evanston, IL, a suburb of Chicago, where her father had a small oil company and remained in the Army reserves.
“All my life I’d always wanted to live on a farm but my brother had allergies, and we never could have a cat or dog or horse. All I could have was an unfriendly parakeet,” says Rosenberg, whose parents indulged her love of animals by giving her horseback riding lessons. It would be about four decades before her dream of farm life came true at age 50.
She attended Wellesley because her brother, who went to Yale, told her that’s where the sanest women he knew had gone to school. (Hillary Clinton was a freshman in her dormitory when Rosenberg was a senior.) After graduating in 1963 with a B.S. in biology, Rosenberg entered the Ph.D. program at the University of Pennsylvania, intending to go into research but two years in, the thought of spending the rest of her life in a lab with flies and worms didn’t cut it. “I knew research wasn’t going to be my cup of tea — so little human interaction,” says Rosenberg.
Instead she got a job as an editing supervisor at McGraw-Hill in New York, where she developed journals in biology and medicine. As part of her job, she traveled regularly to universities and institutions where she “went to see people and tried to convince them to write books like medical textbooks.” She went to Yale, where she met her future husband, then the chair of human genetics. She wanted him to write a book on human genetics. (The book never got written, but now, after 32 years of marriage, the two are finally working on the book. With a working title of “Human Genetics and Genomics: Science, Health, and Society,” the book reflects the content of a course Dr. Rosenberg, now 78, is teaching at Princeton, where he is a professor in the department of molecular biology.)
Once married, the Rosenbergs settled in Guilford, CT, a short commute to Yale. They were drawn to Princeton about 19 years ago, after Leon, who had by that time served for several years as dean of Yale Medical School, was approached by the CEO of Bristol-Myers Squibb to become chief scientific officer. Their daughter, Alexa, was nine, and they bought a house on two acres on Cherry Hill Road, primarily because it was close to Princeton Day School.
Diane Rosenberg continued to work in medical publishing, but to be able to spend more time with her daughter she and an associate started their own company. “We consulted with medical societies with journals they wanted to get published. We were like an agent,” says Rosenberg. “I didn’t need to be in New York anymore.”
One of the first things she did when she moved to Princeton was get a horse. She also started working at Heads Up Special Riders, a horseback riding program for handicapped children at Hasty Acres in Kingston, started by Anne Banse. Rosenberg, discouraged after a three-year search for a farm — there was always something wrong with each one she looked at — learned that Banse was about to list her farm in Lawrenceville, because her husband, who was chief counsel at Merck, had just died, and she planned to move. Rosenberg called her and begged her to wait, to let her see it first. “I came in, and I said, ‘OK, we’ll buy it.’ I just knew it was perfect.”
It took her two days to convince her husband, and the house really wasn’t perfect at all. It just had perfect bones and fields — and two barns (though one was falling apart.) Before they closed on the sale, Rosenberg brought in Janet Lasley of Lasley Brahaney Design and Construction, 860 State Road, whom she had met when Lasley was working on a house across the street on Cherry Hill Road. According to Rosenberg, the farmhouse had been moved farther back from the road from its original location. (Today, as you drive up the driveway, you first pass the home of David Crane, CEO of NRG Energy, and his wife, Isabella de la Houssaye, which shares the same address as Meadowgate. If you go on the tour, keep driving all the way to the back.)
Rosenberg says the house was very chopped up, with lots of walls, small windows, and no porches. “Janet walked into the living room, and said, ‘It would be great if we could raise the ceiling. Then she took a car jack or something and went — boom — and shoved the jack right into the ceiling.” Then Lasley deadpanned in her signature no-nonsense way, “OK, I don’t think we can raise it.”
Though they did bring in other architects to bid on the project, the Rosenbergs ultimately stayed with Lasley Brahaney. Marc Brahaney, Lasley’s husband and the architect of the firm, was the only one, says Rosenberg, who had the brilliant idea to remove one of the two staircases, thus opening up the plan of the first floor significantly. The six months of renovations commenced in January, 1996, during which time the Rosenbergs lived in a modular home attached to the house by a wooden plank walkway.
As part of the extensive renovations, Lasley Brahaney installed French doors from the dining room to the deck and did the same for the living room, creating a seamless view of the farmland from both rooms. Signs of the Rosenbergs’ love of eclectic art, antiques, and world travel abound. The living room features a collection of Kenneth Southworth Davies trompe l’oeil still lifes on the wall. A set of Honore Daumier classic satiric lithographs, gifts to Dr. Rosenberg, depicting an unscrupulous, flattering swindler and profiteer in a medical setting, sits on the fireplace mantel. Of note are a grand piano and a French cupboard dating to 1680. Katie Eastridge of Eastridge Design, 6 Highland Road, Princeton, was the interior decorator.
In the front entry hall, where Winston, the Rosenberg’s Australian shepherd dog, likes to greet visitors, a contemporary, hand-carved ceramic vessel by sculptor Gretchen Ewert depicting African leopards riding antelopes sits atop an antique American table, circa 1775. In the den, the fireplace mantel is a slab of limestone on which sits a collection of early 20th century Navajo clay pots and an antique weathervane in the shape of a horse. Navajo saddle blankets hang here and throughout the house, a collection started when the Rosenbergs bought a third home in New Mexico (they kept the Guilford, CT, house as a summer home). Displayed in the den is an old stone gargoyle head from an English cathedral built in the early Middle Ages.
Off the kitchen are a mudroom and Rosenberg’s office (a room that was added to the house in the late 1800s). The walls of the mudroom and downstairs bath are peacock blue created with encaustic painting, also known as hot wax painting, which involves using heated beeswax to which colored pigments are added. In the office are several Navajo rugs and a small oil painting by the Pueblo Indian Albert Looking Elk Martinez dated about 1915. A 1790 French dining table serves as Rosenberg’s desk, on which is perched a framed photo of a red-footed boobie (yes, that’s a bird) that Rosenberg took on a recent trip to the Galapagos.
The master bedroom upstairs has vaulted ceilings and overlooks the fields. The room has an antique physician’s cabinet and a custom-crafted four-poster bed. The bed and chest are made of tiger maple. Nineteenth-century Japanese Hiroshige wood block prints and an old, Russian icon adorn the bedroom walls. The master bathroom was once a bedroom. It now has a large, walk-in shower and tub. On the subway tile walls are displayed a large wall hanging from Botswana and little animals from the Galapagos, Turkey, India, and Africa.
Meadowgate’s 120 alpacas are housed in the property’s two barns. In 1997 the Rosenbergs replaced one deteriorating barn with an early 19th century structure that once stood on the Kirkbride Farm in Newtown, PA. The Rosenbergs bought the hand-hewn beams and internal pieces from the New Jersey Barn Company and hired Lasley Brahaney to reassemble the skeleton while designing space for female alpacas, the farm’s office, and an apartment. The barn now has solar panels on its roof. Lasley Brahaney also put on an addition to the barn to serve as Meadowgate’s main office. Literally undreds of red and blue ribbons the Rosenbergs’ alpacas have won adorn the walls.
So, what about those alpacas? “I wanted to raise something: we had two barns and fields. The previous owner had kept horses. And we had a farmland assessment that we didn’t want to lose,” says Rosenberg. “Someone at Bristol-Myers Squibb told me about alpacas and an alpaca farm in Stockton, and said they were easy to take care of. They aren’t huge and don’t have all sort of ailments like horses do, and they come when they are called, unlike cows.” Rosenberg visited the Stockton farm and bought two females (one pregnant) and two geldings.
“They were so easy to take care of. I took care of them myself,” says Rosenberg. “I thought, I could have more, so every time my husband would go out of town, I would get a couple of new ones, and I’d wait to see how long it took him to notice. It was textbook simple to deliver a baby. So we got herd sires (kept in a separate pen), and started going to alpaca shows. First we sold one or two, and it went from there. The money is in raising and selling the animals, not the fleece. It just started rolling along.”
As Meadowgate’s alpaca population started to grow, it became clear Rosenberg would need help. She hired Rich Maurer, who had worked as construction manager for Lasley Brahaney and wanted to move on from construction. When the Rosenbergs purchased another farm, a 20-acre property in West Amwell, Maurer became the facilities manager, and his wife, Tammi, became Rosenberg’s personal assistant and helper on the farms. The Maurers then built a house on the West Amwell farm.
The connections between the Lasley-Brahaneys and the Rosenbergs are indeed deep-seated. While working on the Rosenberg project, in November, 1997, just after the birth of her second child, Lasley was diagnosed with leiomyosarcoma, an extremely rare form of cancer. “When Leon heard about it,” says Rosenberg, “he realized how serious it was right away and helped her plan initially what kind of treatment she would have and where she would go.” Lasley, who was profiled in the February 13, 2008, issue of U.S. 1, lived a remarkable 12 more years (she died on May 13, 2010), while those with her type of cancer typically die within a year or two.
“They were practically family by this time,” says Rosenberg. “The irony was that when my daughter was 16, she got Hodgkin’s lymphoma. One day she said, ‘dad, I have this knot in my neck,’ and the next day we were at CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia). Years ago that would have been a death sentence, but she was very early stage. Through her junior year in high school, she had chemotherapy and radiation. We knew she was going to get better.
“Before Alexa even started chemotherapy, Janet came into the house and said, ‘OK, Alexa, I’m going to show you what cancer looks like,’ and she pulled off the wig, and she was totally bald. I’m not quite sure if this was a good thing or not but Alexa took it quite well. She never missed a day of school, which we did so she could have a sense of normalcy. She took it all in stride.” Alexa went on to Brown and earned a master’s in international urban studies at MIT. Her husband is from Senegal, and they have one son. They live in the Washington, DC, area, where Alexa works for HUD. (Their wedding was featured in a cover story in U.S. 1, March 17, 2010.)
One of the Rosenbergs’ three cats, Mathilda, is a kitten from a litter of one of Lasley’s cats. And on the half wall of the open kitchen sits a framed photograph of two of the Rosenbergs’ alpacas, taken by Lasley. Rosenberg picks up the frame, looks at it for a moment, and says, “Janet used to come over and swim. After she got sick I felt like, if she ever died, she’d still be right here in the house with me — and she is.”
As I walk back to my car, the first big slow drops of a spring shower moisten the ground. I look over my shoulder at the broad green fields, which are now completely empty, affording an uninterrupted view of the pond. The alpacas have ambled up to the barns to get out of the rain. I peek over the fence in the side yard at the small but elegant heated lap pool, where Rosenberg swims an hour a day year-round. It is surrounded by a handsome flagstone terrace and a pergola with climbing flowering vines. I can just picture Lasley, an avid swimmer (her mother owned Princeton Aqua Sport and Lasley was SCUBA-certified), doing the backstroke, her wet blonde head poking out of the water, and calling out, “Come on in, the water’s fine.”
House Tour, Lawrenceville Main Street, Saturday, May 14, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. This year’s theme is “Country Living,” featuring six homes that span more than 250 years of history. Whether historic or modern, all the homes are set on acres of current or former farmland. $25; $20 in advance (call for locations where tickets are being sold or visit website). On the day of the tour tickets will be available at Weeden Park on Main Street (Route 206) between Craven Lane and Titus Avenue. Many village restaurants will offer discounts on lunch, and the Artists Network Gallery will be open (see below). 609-219-9300 or www.LawrencevilleMainStreet.com.
Also, Artists Network, 2683 Main Street, Lawrenceville. Saturday, May 14, 2 to 7 p.m. Gallery reception for “Spring at Last” with extended hours for the Lawrenceville Main Street House Tour, where the artists also have an exhibit in the Meadowgate Farm barn, 3071 Route 206 South, featuring plein air paintings. 609-512-1359 or www.lmsartistsnetwork.com.