From the June/July 2020 Issue  

This Old House

Writer Marirose Krall  |  Photographer Christine Gatti  |  Designer Alexa Ralff  |  Architect Timothy Klesse  |  Builder Thomas Seneca  |  Location Summit, NJ

A historical home gets a new lease on life

  • In the foyer, “we wanted to set the tone for the whole house, which is elegant,” the homeowner says.


  • BEFORE | Everyone involved in the project was determined to keep as much of the original detail as could be preserved. The floors at the front of the house are original. New floors in the addition were stained to match. The original staircase was not structurally sound by today’s standards, the wife says, so they hired engineers to bring it up to code.


Wow, this place is a dump — it’s going to be fabulous!” Those words, according to designer Alexa Harris Ralff, came from architect Tim Klesse during a walk-through of this Summit, NJ, home, which was built in 1896. The previous homeowner had left the house unoccupied for years and, the designer adds, “it felt sad and abandoned.”

Harris Ralff, of AHR Designs in Maplewood, was eager to take on the challenge of revitalizing this piece of history. “I have this thing for old houses,” she says, “It was overgrown and forgotten, but you got a sense that at one point this home held life and vitality and just needed a second chance.” The homeowners also saw past the home’s sorry condition and were won over by its charm. “We brought the kids to see the house and, as they sat on the staircase,” the wife says, “all I could think was ‘this is going to be my Christmas morning.’”

Those holiday dreams included not only reinstating the historical components of the house, but also building a 3,000-square-foot addition. “We probably underestimated just how massive the project was,” Harris Ralff says. Still, they remained undaunted and, once the addition was complete, set about furnishing the spaces. “We wanted a warm atmosphere where we could entertain family and friends,” the homeowner says. Harris Ralff, who had worked with the family twice previously, thoroughly understood their desire for a “family friendly, elegant, elevated look that didn’t feel too precious.”

  • The owners love their formal living room, “particularly the modern light fixture, which updates an otherwise very traditional room,” the wife says.




Everyone involved with the project “was on board with honoring the bones of this home and committed to restoring whatever history we could,” the designer notes. Many of the original details, including the flooring and trim work, were salvageable. The original windows were not, however, so the owners decided to re-create them. “They recognized how important the windows were to the integrity of the home,” Harris Ralff says.

The living room is furnished in a palette of soft blues and grays. “It’s very relaxing and comforting,” the wife says.

With historical integrity safeguarded, Harris Ralff also wanted to ensure that the furnishings would work for a 21st-century family. “I’m incredibly practical at heart,” she says. “I love beautiful things, but I never want my clients to feel nervous when interacting with their furnishings.” The owners appreciated that perspective. “We kept an eye toward family function,” the wife says. “We wanted a beautiful home but needed spaces the kids could enjoy too.” Harris Ralff understood. “I try to give people things that will go the distance.” That’s exemplified in the dining room, where the chairs are upholstered in white fabric. “It’s Crypton,” Harris Ralff explains, so “things like apple juice just bead off.”

Also of note in the dining room is the eye-catching light fixture above the table. It’s another example of Harris Ralff’s stylish, yet practical, strategy. “Lighting is often where I encourage people to increase their budgets. Kids can’t touch a chandelier. Dogs can’t knock it over and guests can’t accidentally spill red wine on it.”

The great room is in the addition to the original home. Harris Ralff had the new hardwood stained to match the floors in the original portion of the house.

  • The original windows were beautiful but unsalvageable so they were re-created. Window treatments became a challenge, says Harris Ralff, who didn’t want to cover the interesting moldings. She opted for side panels, which accentuate the form of the windows when open and create privacy when closed.




The art over the console in the dining room is by New Jersey-based artist Ricardo Roig. “He has a storefront in the W hotel. That’s where this couple met.”

Always cognizant of practicalities, Harris Ralff was also mindful of her clients’ aesthetic preferences, even if they diverged from her own. “The husband likes blue,” Harris Ralff says. “As a personal lover of colors—all of them—this was a lesson in restraint for me.” Still, she was able to flex her creative muscles within that palette. “I layered the variations of blue and played with it wherever I could,” she notes. “I am especially pleased with how we incorporated blues in the tile selections.” Case in point, the kitchen: “The backsplash is a total showstopper,” she says.

  • The geometric wall tile packs a decorative punch in the neutral kitchen. “It’s one of the best decisions we made. It’s what everybody comments on,” the wife says. Harris Ralff purposely chose clear pendants for over the island. “I didn’t want people to look at them. I wanted them to look at the backsplash and the hood.”




  • “I have to give my husband credit for the range hood,” the wife says of her spouse, who found the piece in Mexico.


“We had a lot of fun with the lighting in this home,” Harris Ralff says. The metallic fixture is a dramatic presence above the kitchen dining table.

Harris Ralff praises the homeowner for the project’s success. “Knowing we had that limited palette, the wife let me take risks playing with pattern and texture.” Those risks paid off in a home that’s both family-friendly and stylish. “Lucky for us, Alexa was able to give us both,” the wife says. “She’s incredibly good at understanding. She knows us. She’s part of the family now.”

The master bedroom, located above the great room, is part of the addition. “The dramatic color on the walls is called Gentleman’s Gray. It feels very ‘menswear,’” Harris Ralff says.

The bed frame in a daughter’s bedroom ensures “your eye has places to go, but it doesn’t take up too much volume,” in the space, Ralff says.

Ralff explains that when she first saw the bedrooms, “the 1980s wallpaper was peeling to reveal the 1960s wallpaper.” She remedied that situation in a daughter’s room with a charming wall covering featuring a pattern of Xs and Os.


The tile in the mudroom is “pure joy,” Harris Ralff says. For the homeowner, “the dog bath in the mudroom was key. The dog often enters muddy after running outdoors, and it allows us to clean her off on her way in. It’s also great for cleaning muddy boots.”