From the October/November 2019 Issue  

A Fire Turns into a Blessing for this Full House

 |  Photographer Peter Rymwid  |  Architect Jim O'Brien, AIA, LEED AP  |  Location Ridgewood, NJ

The new home stands in stark contrast to the original one. The original 1840s-1860s home had been added on to over the years.

Historic architecture and several generations come together in a Ridgewood, NJ, “family compound”

A Bergen County, New Jersey, resident with a love of family and a feel for historic architecture embarked on a three-year project to develop a modern-day family compound for his wife and four children, his parents and grandmother and — given the size of his home — allow for regular gatherings that include his extended family.

The project began with a single historic home in Ridgewood, New Jersey and grew to include the renovation of a second, smaller house next door. The design was by Jim O’Brien, a member of the American Society of Interior Designers, Industry Partner of the American Society of Interior Designers, LEED AP, and owner of Jim O’Brien Architecture & Interiors with offices in Morristown, New Jersey, New York City and Santa Monica, California.

This photo shows the fire damage that led to the decision to tear it down and rebuild in the American Farmhouse style.

O’Brien and the homeowner had been working on designs to expand the existing house, built in the 1860s-1880s, when a fire, suspected to be electrical in origin, caused substantial damage while the family was out. That changed everything. At first glance a disaster, the fire turned into a blessing, enabling the architect and the homeowner to start with a clean slate. The project would include construction of a new house — to combine the most up-to-date systems and amenities with a fresh rendering of a historic style — and a renovation of the smaller home.



An attached three-car garage is modeled after a gambrel-roofed barn. In fact, it sits in front of a newly relocated barn. At left is a stone wall that wraps a patio raised above the driveway for safety and aesthetic reasons.

The design for the home was a tricky business at the start. The owner says the original structure, which had undergone several renovations, was a “mishmash of different people’s ideas.” O’Brien says, “We initially designed an elaborate Victorian,” but the town’s historical commission said that wasn’t right for this part of town. O’Brien’s move to an American Farmhouse style won the commission’s unanimous support.

The adjacent structure, meanwhile, was already what O’Brien calls “a classic, small-gable farmhouse circa 1900.” The homeowner purchased the main house with the idea of having his mother and father move in with his family. But a year later, the small house next door came up for sale; he acquired it for his parents so they would have their privacy.

  • PARENTS’ LIVING AREA | The open design of the parents’ home combines the living room, dining room, and kitchen. The house was not expanded; however, architect Jim O’Brien did take down a wall between the living room and a former bathroom, a room that he eliminated. He also upgraded trim work. In the dining room, shown beyond the living room, he added wainscoting, molding and a bay window.


  • PARENTS’ DINING ROOM | A two-level tray ceiling crowns the parents’ dining room, which sits between the living room and kitchen. O’Brien also installed wainscoting and molding along with a new bay window in the room.


  • PARENTS’ KITCHEN | Crown molding and arches dress up the cream-colored cabinetry in the parents’ kitchen. The countertops and island are marble. The column-flanked pass-through opens to the dining room.


With that development, O’Brien also undertook a major renovation and exterior redesign of the parents’ home. The two houses are on adjacent but separate lots and have a shared driveway so it was a better fit for the residents to be relatives, he says.

Community and family are part of the homeowner’s deeply held values, and his new home—along with the adjacent home for his parents—are the concrete expressions of those beliefs.

  • KITCHEN | The kitchen has the most decorative detailing in the home, O’Brien says. The white cabinetry bears elaborate molding. An oak-stained island matches the ceiling beams. The floor is a random-sized limestone.


  • BAR | The bar in one corner of the living room features cushioned stools and a foot rail for comfortable lounging.


  • PANTRY | The extensive decorative detailing of the white cabinetry extends to the butler’s pantry, which lies across the gallery from the kitchen and offers access to the dining room at right.


“We have a close-knit family,” the homeowner says, adding that he grew up in a two-bedroom house in Nutley owned by his grandparents. His current home, he adds wryly, has “a little bit of a bigger scale.”

“I lived with my grandparents and parents all my life,” he says. “If you grow up with a family that values time spent together, it’s difficult when everyone goes their own way. We wanted to make sure that my parents could be part of my kids’ lives—the same upbringing I had as a kid.”

  • LIVING ROOM | A deep coffered ceiling is just part of the extensive architectural detailing in the living room. A fireplace with a marble surround has a carved cherry mantel with columns and corbels for a classic look. The built-ins flanking the fireplace have arched tops and carved filigree work. French doors with a transom, along with a triple window with a transom, exemplify an Old World look. The room comprises three distinct spaces: a seating area in front of the fireplace, a full bar at the right and (in the foreground of the photo) a card that table seats eight.


  • FOYER | The two-story foyer is a dramatic introduction to the rest of the home. Architect Jim O’Brien says it’s more decorative than “vernacular farmhouse,” the style of the home. “We consciously stepped it up but didn’t want to go too far,” he says. A Palladian window above the front door is mahogany with faux trim stained to match. The curve, at the left in the photo, is the underside of the large main stairway.

    LIBRARY | The library is designed to work also as a billiards room. A pool table sits under a coffered ceiling with a central octagonal dome. The room features rich paneled walls, built-in bookshelves and full-height windows topped by transoms.


The original main house totaled about 3,100 square feet and had four bedrooms; the new one totals 9,200 square feet and has five bedrooms. The parents’ house remained 2,300 square feet with three bedrooms. O’Brien visually tied together the exteriors of both homes with stonework around the front entry, a river stone base with a bluestone cap and the same painted cement siding.

He changed the roof of the parents’ home from “an unsightly hip” style to a farmhouse gable with copper roofing and a raised ridge to improve the massing of the structure, especially when viewed as a companion to the main house. The gable echoes the gables on the main house, and a circular window in the gable of the smaller home matches one in the gable of the larger one.

  • HER CLOSET | An island in the wife’s closet includes drawers for folded clothing and a top where she can gather everything she needs for the day.

    HIS CLOSET | A window brings natural light into the husband’s closet, and track lighting takes over at night.


  • MASTER BATH | Columns flank a large circular tub in the master bathroom. The walk-in shower with a rain head has two tiled and arched niches. It sits to the right of a dark wood breakfront built in to a niche. Matching vanities are made of the same dark wood.


  • MASTER BEDROOM | A two-level tray ceiling adorns the master bedroom. The fireplace, with a marble surround and hearth, is built into a paneled wall for an Old World ambience. The bed is an imposing four-poster with ironwork atop each post.


Yet another structure on the property — a two-story barn with a hayloft — had been used for horses, then cars and then, in the 1990s, was finished out as a party room. O’Brien had the decayed stone foundation removed and relocated the building from behind the house that burned to a spot behind a three-bay garage attached to the new main home. He then devised a plan to renovate that building and add a new swimming pool as a recreation destination.

  • OUTDOOR SEATING | Most of the seating, like the sectional sofa at right, is under a bead-board-covered enclosure on the backyard patio. The wood bar and stools — opposite the sectional — are from an old Irish pub.


  • SECOND-FLOOR GYM | The second-floor gym is designed for the entire family’s use. The stairs descend to the kitchen on the first floor. The gym stretches over the length of the entire attached garage to the main house.


  • BASEMENT GAME AREA | The homeowner’s oldest child is an accomplished softball player. Her two brothers are no slouches either. This game area with a pitching lane, batting cage and automatic ball-throwing machine is in the home’s basement, which has a 10-foot-high ceiling. At left is a ping pong table and a shelf that displays baseball trophies and photos.


Despite the setback posed by the fire, the homeowner couldn’t be happier with the final result.

“In the end,” he says, “it’s one of the best things that ever happened because of the new systems and amenities we could have with the new home.”