From the October/November 2016 Issue  

RX for Restoration

Writer Robin Amster  |  Photographer Wing Wong  |  Designer Laurie Finn, La Jolie Maison  |  Architect Mark Alan Hewitt Architects, FAIA  |  Location New Vernon, NJ
  • The exterior of Red Gate remains virtually unchanged from when it was built in the early 1920s for a descendant of famed clockmaker Seth Thomas. The brick-and-stone mansion is the work of architect Harrie T. Lindeberg, known for the lavish residences he designed for the rich and famous.

  • The foyer’s paneling is original to the home as are the front door, banister and railings. The ceiling moldings are typical of architect Harrie T. Lindeberg’s work. Designer Laurie Finn investigated and found the chandelier, also original to the home, to be Baccarat crystal. She had the fixture restored to its former glory. Family portraits adorn the walls on the landing, covered in blue wallpaper, the wife’s favorite color.

  • The view opens up to the estate’s grounds when the door at the rear of the foyer is open. The chest and table are just a few of the homeowner’s antiques that were incorporated throughout the house.

  • Pine paneling establishes a sumptuous traditional background for the living room. A chocolate brown sofa anchors the room, which is enlivened by red silk drapes. The sconces, depicting four ships, are the work of Edward F. Caldwell, an eminent electric lighting designer in the late-19th to mid-20th centuries. Finn says they initially were destined for the trash bin because of their dirt-encrusted condition. Her research, though, uncovered their value and they were restored.

  • The first-floor sitting room is used primarily as the children’s den. With that in mind, the space features a more contemp­orary style with an Ultrasuede® sofa and square-armed gray-and-tan plaid chairs. The walls are a cozy navy blue. A leopard-patterned carpet injects a note of whimsy.

  • In the original owner’s day, hunt balls were held in the huge expanse of the ballroom. Today, the owners use the space for large-scale entertaining and charity functions. The 38-by-18-foot floor covering is composed of carpets that designer Laurie Finn and the client selected and then had cut and hand-sewn into a unique patchwork. It reflects the homeowners’ love of color and “is a fun way to make a formal room very inviting,” Finn says. The lyre sconces and paneling are original to the house.

  • An imposing antique table from the homeowner’s former residence found a new home in the dining room. It’s replaced with four 60-inch round tables when the owners entertain large groups. The fireplace is one of 12 throughout the house. The wife says architect Harrie T. Lindeberg, in a nod to Art Deco design, chose sleek marble fireplace surrounds for the home instead of ornate wood.

  • The design concept for the kitchen was functional but with a look that is authentic to a time when a large staff of servants would prepare daily meals. Limestone replaced the original concrete floor, while new countertops are a combination of soapstone and marble.

  • This area off the main part of the kitchen is a space for the owners’ children to enjoy snacks. The wood doors at right were found in the home’s former “icebox” or cold room. The owner couldn’t bear to throw them away so they were restored and now hide a television and storage.

  • The serving room, off the kitchen and breakfast room, contains many items for entertain­ing. It has a wine refrigerator, two quarter-sawn oak islands that work well as serving stations, a sink and dishwasher, and glass-fronted cabinets for showcasing china and dishware.

  • At the side of the house, a brick walkway surrounds a formal garden designed by the homeowner. It’s in keeping with the look of an English manor home. The red gate, from which the house got its name, is built into the brick wall enclosing the garden.

  • Wicker furniture with pure white cushions provides seating on the back porch. A dining table and chairs—with seats and umbrella in the wife’s favorite blue—accommodate outdoor dining.

  • Designer Laurie Finn used English antique reproduction furniture in the pine-paneled breakfast room for an authentic country mansion look. A mural of horseback riders and scenes from New Vernon adorns the walls. The chandelier is made up of French horns, a theme carried through to the French horn sconces.

  • A large closet along the home’s grand hallway was converted to a bar with a sink and wine refrigerator. The cabinets are quarter-sawn oak with the top cabinets fronted by leaded-glass doors. Red onyx countertops complement the cabinetry.

  • The team of homeowner, architect and designer kept this potting room original to the home. And just as in the past, the wife uses it to cut and arrange flowers from the garden. The original countertop was restored. Cabinets opposite the sink (not shown) also are original and house a variety of vases.

  • The mudroom, created out of space in the former servants’ wing, features colorful green cubbies to house the kids’ gear with baskets above for gloves and scarves and a bench below to sit. A limestone floor and board-and-batten walls complete the look.

  • A brown toile wallpaper featuring horses was the natural choice for the bedroom of a daughter who is an accomplished horseback rider. Her numerous show ribbons are displayed on the fireplace. Slipper chairs in front of the fireplace provide a cozy conversation area for her guests.

  • Pink wallpaper and window treatments in the daughter’s bathroom create a lovely partnership with the brown toile wallpaper in her adjacent bedroom.

  • The red guest room features twin beds—with a pineapple-motif—that have been in the family for years. The red dust ruffle and blue accents on the bed linens complement the sitting room adjacent to this and another guest room done in blue. Both bedrooms and sitting room compose a guest suite created out of space on the second floor of the former servants wing.

  • The blue guest room—complete with a blue leather chair—features an imposing armoire that is both decorative and practical.

  • A guest bedroom is soothing green. The bed is accented with the green and tan chintz of the dust ruffle and pillow shams, while a green easy chair provides a comfort place to read

  • This guest bathroom has a Carrera marble floor like many of the home’s bathrooms. The new sink was chosen because it fits the look of the original home. An interesting feature: the shower is a walk-in to accommodate any guests with disabilities.

  • The walls of a woman’s powder room off the home’s grand hallway feature soft silver and blue panels. They give the space an elegant aura that evokes the home’ original era. The lovely dressing table and two chairs (one is shown) are antiques. The room has a large closet for coats and, just off of it, a separate water closet. The home also has a “men’s room.”

  • Details Make a Difference From left: This sconce, one of four in the ballroom featuring different ships, is original to the home. Initially they all looked to be worthless but proved to be the creation of accomplished electric light designer Edward F. Caldwell • The wife loved the distinctive mix of stone and bricks that distinguishes Red Gate’s exterior • A dumbwaiter in the basement provides a look at what life was like in a fully-staffed early 20th century mansion. It’s filled with firewood that the staff would have sent upstairs to service the home’s 12 fireplaces • Original to the home, this brass door lock is among many the homeowners saved and reused throughout the house.

An architectural gem in New Vernon gets the care it deserves.

New Jersey’s stock of grand, architecturally significant homes is dwindling—victims of neglect, financial constraints and changing lifestyles—but at least one such house got the owners it deserved.

That’s how interior designer Laurie Finn of La Jolie Maison in Summit, NJ saw it when she went to work creating the interiors for a historic 49-room, eight-bedroom New Vernon mansion with a storied past. Finn teamed with Mark Alan Hewitt, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and principal of Mark Alan Hewitt Architects in Bernardsville, on an 18-month project that brought the home back to life—and into the 21st century—for restoration-minded homeowners and their four children.

Known as Red Gate, the Colonial Revival house is the work of the early 20th century architect Harrie T. Lindeberg, celebrated in his time for the lavish country homes he designed for the nation’s rich and famous. He built Red Gate in the early 1920s for a descendant of famed clockmaker Seth Thomas of Connecticut.

The current owners had been living on a 76-acre farm in the area when the wife visited the brick-and-stone Red Gate. With her interest in real estate and historic preservation, the home struck a chord.

“We weren’t looking to move,” the wife says. But she got a postcard showing the home, and it piqued her interest. “I called a friend and we drove up to the house. It was sort of a mess; it needed to be redone desperately. My husband and I like to do this, so I immediately said I wanted this house.” Soon after, they became the home’s fourth owners.

Red Gate’s fascinating past and architectural importance were a large part of its appeal, but it held other more prosaic charms as well. Its location on a hill, not visible from the street, afforded the family the kind of privacy their former home lacked. The couple’s needs changed too as their children grew. “Our kids got bigger and brought home bigger kids,” the wife quips. The restored home promised features they didn’t have before, including his and her home offices and a larger mudroom. And its size would easily accommodate their entertaining needs and philanthropic activities.

Historic Teamwork
Finn has worked on many historic homes and had done several other projects for the couple. She was a natural for the project. The choice of an architect, however, was kismet. The wife found Mark Alan Hewitt, a historic preservation specialist and the author of several architecture books, in the Yellow Pages only to discover later that he had written the preface to a coffee-table book on Harrie Lindeberg’s work.

Given the condition of the house, the project included all new infrastructure, including electrical, plumbing and HVAC systems plus new windows. All 13 bathrooms had to be updated also.

The owners and architect stayed within the home’s original footprint for the restoration, although each room required varying amounts of work. The most extensive work involved gutting the former two-story servants wing. The main floor—which had included a kitchen, valet’s room and laundry—was transformed into an updated kitchen and pantry, children’s cooking area, mudroom and office for the wife. The original manservants’ quarters on this level was converted to a two-car garage. The second floor—which had housed eight small bedrooms for maids and cooks—was turned into a guest suite with two bedrooms and two bathrooms, a sitting room and a computer room for the kids. The basement of the wing became a theater room, exercise room, spa bathroom and game room.

Downton Abbey—The American Version
The original servants’ wing provided a rare and fascinating glimpse of what life looked like for affluent homeowners in the early 20th century—not unlike, as the wife says, the Downton Abbey of PBS television renown.

Finn says among Red Gate’s rooms were a potting room for doing floral arrangements and a china closet, both near the dining room; a “cold room” or “icebox room” off the kitchen; a silver vault in the basement; and a dumb waiter in the basement where the servants stacked firewood for transport upstairs to fuel the home’s 12 fireplaces. The potting room and china closet were restored, and the silver vault was repurposed as a wine cellar. The icebox doors in the cold room were refurbished and installed in the kitchen, where they now hide a television and storage space.

The homeowners kept some of the home’s original features simply as a reminder of a rich past. Finn points to a third-floor cedar closet whose drawers each bear original labels that say “Mrs. Thomas—Gloves” and “Mr. Thomas—Scarfs.”

Other elements in the home were not recognized immediately as the priceless pieces they turned out to be, the designer says. “A treasure trove of magnificent lighting,” she says, included sconces throughout the house that, with 75 years of collected dirt, were unrecognizable. “They were in such bad condition, you wouldn’t have looked twice at them,” Finn says. “But I’m a plodder and a digger, and I love to research.” That research paid off: The fixtures are nautical-themed sconces by Edward F. Caldwell, a premier designer of electric light fixtures from the late-19th to mid-20th centuries. Finn also took a closer look at the chandeliers. The main chandelier in the foyer turned out to be Baccarat crystal.

Formal but Welcoming
Finn and the homeowners’ goal in designing the interiors was to create a family home—formal and dignified yet comfortable and welcoming. Finn calls the interiors primarily English traditional with selected areas, such as the first-floor sitting room or children’s den, done in a more contemporary style.

“We wanted to use all of the antiques they owned and also all their furniture [from the former home], so that lent itself to the traditional theme,” Finn says. The color scheme focused heavily on the blue the homeowner loves with shades of it in virtually every room plus blue and white pottery throughout.

The wife believes the Thomas family would be happy with the restoration of their home. “They don’t build homes like this anymore,” she adds. “It would have been a real shame for this one to have been torn down.”

Robin Amster, a regular contributor to Design NJ, is a Madison-based writer and editor.

We were sorry to learn that designer Laurie Finn passed away earlier this year. We are publishing this project as a tribute to her. Laurie, who came to the design world after a successful career in financial services, will be remembered not only for her talent but also her ready smile, customary hug and willingness to set aside time to make connections among her friends and colleagues. Laurie’s design firm, La Jolie Maison, has been closed. However, her business associate, Mary Divino, has launched her own design firm, MK Divino Interiors LLC, 158 Morris Street, Suite 1, Morristown; 973-998-5151,