Corrections or additions?
This article by Jean Hanff Korelitz was prepared for the April 24,
2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
U.S. 1 Crashes a Party
Two years ago, when Julie and Tom Borden moved into
Tom’s childhood home in Princeton with their three children, they
joked that the best way to fix the place up would be to get the local
Junior League to do it. After all, tending to a huge, 100-year-old
house that had been neither painted, papered, nor significantly
for decades would be a big job for anyone, not least a busy couple
who had never placed decorating high on their list of passions.
Still, Julie knew that something had to be done. So while the family
colonized the upstairs bedrooms, she consulted a decorator about the
dining room, a modest project which, she figured, could be undertaken
without much disruption. But when the decorator started talking about
how the dining room would have to work esthetically with the vast
entrance hallway, Julie became overwhelmed and gave up on the whole
idea. And so the house at 160 Hodge Road stayed precisely as it was:
a glorious pile with fabulous bones and the kind of old-world elements
that modern developers pay homage to but seldom get right, like
staircases, cavernous attics, and even a butler’s pantry.
Unfortunately, it also sported such old-world touches as peeling
chipping paint and an air of lost opportunities.
This was the state of affairs last November, when Tom Borden, an
with the Environmental Law Clinic of Rutgers Law School, read a notice
in the paper that the Junior League of Greater Princeton was looking
for a location for its biannual Designer Showhouse. Suddenly their
joke of two years earlier looked like a pretty good idea.
Designer Showhouse devotees might well wonder what sort of homeowner
would blithely move out and let an army of designers, electricians,
painters, plumbers, and decorators move in to paint their walls,
their light fixtures, toss their furniture, and ultimately throw open
the doors to hordes of strangers, but for the Bordens, the notion
had plenty going for it. Not only would the house receive the
it needed, but Julie and Tom would not have to make the kind of design
decisions they had found so daunting in the past.
And while delays plague most home improvement projects, they knew
that theirs would be finished quickly, thanks to the Junior League’s
ironclad deadline. Best of all was the fact that when they moved back
into their home after the Showhouse closed on May 18, they would
freshly painted walls, beautifully restored floors, and rooms that
had been newly conceived by people who knew what they were doing.
The Bordens would have the option of purchasing any furniture or
treatments they particularly liked, and in the event they abhorred
some designer’s vision for a room, the designer would be obligated
to restore that room to a neutral setting.
Additionally, the family had a sense that the time was right for such
a drastic move. Julie had left her job as director of development
at Planned Parenthood of Mercer County in September (she now works
for the group as a fundraising consultant), and would be available
to help, and tenants who were renting an apartment adjacent to the
Borden house were planning to leave, making the prospect of moving
out of the house far less traumatic. When the Junior League came to
tour the property, their enthusiasm put all hesitation to rest.
"We thought it was a godsend," says the Showhouse co-chair
Judy Springer. "This is the type of home we enjoy doing the most.
We didn’t want to be competing with the Toll Brothers model. The
house is where our niche is. It didn’t need any renovation, but it
needed some sprucing up and we thought we could help." Also, says
Springer, the house brought with it some interesting history.
Spurred by the notion that thousands of people would soon be touring
her rooms, Julie Borden began looking into the house’s past. Thanks
to her research the home has reclaimed its original name, Hilfield
House, and something of a pedigree to go with it.
Built in 1904 on land purchased from the Stockton family, the first
owners of Hilfield were the sisters Emily and Marie Coddington, who
would take in a third sister, Fannie Coddington-Browning, when she
became estranged from her husband, Pen Browning, the only child of
poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Subsequent
include the Princeton professor and novelist Samuel Shellabarger,
author of the historical romances "Prince of Foxes" (1947),
"The King’s Cavalier" (1950), and "Lord Vanity"
and Wendell Stanley, a Princeton professor who won the Nobel Prize
in chemistry in 1946. It’s a noble provenance for a house, but
to the current residents: "We have to make our mark somehow,"
Julie laughs. "We Bordens are such slackers!"
Two months ago, when final assignments matched 28
and decorators to individual rooms or areas, the family packed up,
hauled their furniture to the attics and abandoned ship. They had
a sense of adventure about what they’d find on their return, which
might come in handy: designer showhouses are notorious for an extreme
form of decorating that would be challenging for any family, and
for a family that had not put a premium on design in the first place.
"We’re pretty easygoing," Julie says. "And we knew it’s
rare that a designer can do exactly what they want. As long as they
respected the house: You know, no zebra stripes."
The kids have come on board too, though 11-year-old Emily and
Louisa found it hard to comprehend the coffee shop set up in their
garage. Five-year-old Marshall put up the biggest fight, largely on
account of his substantial Lego collection, which he didn’t want to
move. But the room Marshall occupies in the temporary apartment is
a large closet, a la Harry Potter, and this has proved a considerable
Early reports of the house speak tantalizingly of moss affixed to
the attic walls, sumptuous window treatments, custom fish ponds,
of trompe l’oeil fairies dancing on the ceiling and a kitchen
enhanced with a decoupage rain forest. Visitors may lack a sense of
what Hilfield House looked like before 28 designers went to work on
it, but for a $20 donation they will be able to make up their own
minds about the results.
As far as the family is concerned, however, the verdict is already
in. "We were a little nervous that some of it would be over the
top," Julie Borden says. "But we’re pleased that the designers
have maintained a sense of class with all of the designs. We’ll be
left with really good bones in the house, and everything we’ve seen
works with our lifestyle."
— Jean Hanff Korelitz
Hilfield House, 160 Hodge Road, 609-771-0525. Self-guided tours
to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Friday, noon to 8 p.m.; Saturday,
10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.; closed Monday. No
under 12. Tickets $15 in advance; $20 at the door. Open to Saturday,
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