I am pleased to introduce Richard Haymes and Michael DeJong. They own a beautiful Georgian / Greek Revival row home in Jersey City, New Jersey that they have lovingly restored. Their home is a wonderful juxtaposition of comfort and elegance with a great respect for the history of their home.
Where is your neighborhood?
Richard: Downtown Jersey City, New Jersey.
Richard: Jersey City is a city in transition — particularly since 9/11, 2001, when a lot of New Yorkers moved across the Hudson River. It’s an amazingly diverse community; there actually feels like there’s a sense of community here, and we’re only 25 minutes by the PATH train away from mid-town New York. We live in the Harsimus Cove section of Downtown, and there are about 3-4 connected sections within the city that comprise the Historic Preservation District, safeguarded by the JC Historic Preservation Council.
Is your house historic?
Richard: Yes, our house was built in 1833 — at least that is the earliest deed to the property that we’ve been able to investigate by examining public records, but regardless, the house definitely falls between the War of 1812 and the Civil War. I am not certain of the style but I think Georgian is the closest.
Any famous structures or neighbors nearby?
Richard: At the time our row of four houses was built, the only other structures nearby were the Baptist Church on the far end of other corner, and Grace van Voorst Episcopalian Church around the corner from us. Both churches were two important stops along the Underground Railroad. Jersey City, in fact was a big hub of the Underground Railroad because many slaves were brought to freedom there and then safely transported to other abolitionist safe spaces. In our house, we’ve always thought it strange that the basement door had only one lock and it was on the inside of the door, rather than the obvious outside of the door. We’d like to think that our house, too, was perhaps a part of the Underground Railroad. Hiding folks in the basement, with only access out provided when the coast-was-clear, seems like a pretty ingenious method to hide people in safety.
How long have you been living in your row house?
Richard: We moved in on July 4, 2002.
What made you decide to embrace the row house life?
Richard: We always knew that we would find the house that was meant for us if it “sang to us.” The moment we crossed over the threshold on to the original red and white Minton tiles, we elbowed each other and nodded that “this is what we’d like to be shown by the realtor!” We had been looking for several months with another realtor who was showing us everything but what we had asked to see. And on some days we would drive from one freak show to another. Finally, we went into a building that, probably at one time, was a beautiful, elegant mansion but now just stepping on the staircase made it pull it a foot away from the wall. We turned and ran… literally!
Richard: We made an appointment with a new local realtor recommended to us by friends. We got to the appointment about 30 minutes early so we figured we’d walk around the neighborhood to get a feel for the area. Michael, unable to pass by a stoop sale, points to a tree, with a sign reading “Parlor Sale” and wanted to go in. I was nervous about being late for our appointment but he convinced me that we’d be in and out of the parlor sale quickly. We followed the arrows up to the parlor floor, noticing that the entire first floor was covered with moving boxes and stacks of furniture. We then asked the guy running the sale why he was moving — because it seemed like such a beautiful house. He told us it had something to do with the owner selling it. We asked, “This house is for sale?” “Yes,” he replied and went on to tell us who the realtor was — the exact person we were supposed to meet in 30 minutes. We ran to the office, asked for the realtor, and told him he was about to make the easiest sale of his career. To his credit, he did his due diligence and showed us one or two more homes before giving us an “official” walk-through of what we just knew would be our new home. We made a counter offer to the current owner and he accepted it, pending inspection. So, as far as we are concerned, row house living decided to embrace us!
You mentioned in your original post on HGTV’s “Rate My Space,” that your home is one in a row of four that were built for one family. Your house was the last to remain in the original family’s possession. That’s an amazing history. Is there more to the story?
Richard: The only things remaining to the story are that we loved the house from the minute we saw it, realized that it had “grown” biomorphically — layer upon layer of improvements — e.g. handmade parquet floors in some rooms laid directly on the original pumpkin pine, a huge copper bay window in front of the house extending out from the dining room (it’s really a large piece of folk art made by the last owner’s father). There was an 80 year old rose bush in the back yard which was ripped out by the tenants living here before we bought the place, so we’ve planted new Don Juan climbers in that spot (the only climbing rose with a scent), the basement has the original hand hewn beams, (Michael: The structural beams are logs!). All of the doorknobs are placed lower than they would be on today’s doors since people were much shorter when the house was built.
You’ve done a beautiful job renovating and capturing the original style of the interior. Did you find a lot of original details? What sort of research did you do to keep with the period style of your early 19th Century home?
Richard: We have not touched anything in the house structurally, and the house needed very little renovation, per se — Pearl, the last family owner and her sister, hermetically sealed all of the old details beneath 70s paneling and drop ceiling acoustic tiles and shag carpeting. When the man who bought it from the estate removed all of the “mid-Century” improvements, all of the original wainscoting, mirrors, lincrusta and agalypta walls coverings, and beautiful flooring had been preserved. What we’ve tried to do is follow the shapes that already exist in the house (e.g. curved walls, patterns on the lincrusta) and chosen furnishings that reflect those shapes. One thing we did try to avoid, however, was anything Victorian and tried to keep things more Edwardian and masculine in feel.
When you chose your furniture and decor elements, did you adhere to an overall plan or did the style develop organically over time?
Michael: When Richard and I sat down to discuss and choose the colors for the entire house, we did so in about 45 minutes. Once chosen, we drove to the paint/hardware supplier in our neighborhood and offered him a list of the paints we needed… 53 gallons in all. (His eye’s completely bugged out of his head!) Although the color pallet appears simple, many rooms have up to four or five historical colors and different finishes too. Since it is an old house, we decided it should look and feel like one. By avoiding white (except for the trim work in the bathroom) it offered a warm and nest like quality. And since the house didn’t have electricity until the early 1900s (stumps of gas lines are still visible in every room) we both agreed that smoky colors would have been the best way to re-tell that part of it’s past. Although the painting took several years… plastering, patching and sanding, sanding, sanding… our originally chosen palette was carefully followed. Brown-tones, rich tans, satin black, musty olive greens, and a coral red were colors that were used again and again. The century old delicate wall treatments were minimally repaired and repainted and then treated with painterly glazes to accentuate their detail. Since our living room is just that, a living room, the color green for me best symbolizes it. The green sharkskin silk draperies were made of the same color to add luxury but to minimize them at the same time. The dining room is also monochromatic in shades of brown with drapes made of yards of silk to match.
Michael: The furniture was chosen for it’s simplicity, comfort, practicality and scale and although it all looks kinda’ old, it’s a mix of this that and the other… antiques, floor-room samples, Salvation Army, stoop sale rescues and garbage night discoveries. (I can cure leprosy with a coat of paint and Richard could rewire the Chrysler Building!) Since everything in the house is skinny and tall, everything we’ve added to the house is vertical. We’ve focused on vertical elements – stripes point up (notice the pin-striping on the couches) high back chairs, columns, draperies… tall, tall, tall. (If you can’t beat them, join them.)
Michael: And then to make the house look and feel like the Addams Family might have once lived here, something large and black was integrated into every room. That paired with the new and spooky additions – the secret wall that swings open to reveal the basement, the bookcase that unmasks a guest room and a cabinet that mysteriously lowers to reveal yet another place for guests to spend the night – make for a surprise in every corner.
Did you adhere to the original dimensions of the rooms? Or have you opened the space up?
Michael: Except for some minor alterations, we’ve kept the rooms and the footprint of the house exactly the way we found it.
There are always challenges with owning an historic row home. What issues have you faced and what are some solutions you’ve used?
Richard: We live in a designated historic district and so sometimes the bureaucracy slows things down, but it’s all worth it. All of the houses in our row had been painted over the front brick sometime in the 50s-60s and looked horrible — red paint with a black stenciled “pointing” that never matched the actual brick and pointing beneath. We had our house stripped first, and had to make our case with the Historic Commission as to why we didn’t want the new pointing to be toothpaste white as they were insisting. Our feeling was that we wanted our house to look like a house that was built in 1833, not 2002, and to look like an old home and therefore wanted the pointing to look like it had been exposed to the elements for all those years. We’re happy that we won that decision. Two of the other three houses in our row did the same. The fourth house in our row, on the corner, has a store beneath the living quarters, and they haven’t yet stripped their brick. Their house is painted to match the house across the street from it.
Richard: Another challenge we had when we purchased the house was that the former tenants had decided to put a garden in the front and a water-feature in the backyard — each of which covered the airspace/windows that had allowed the house to breath for 170 years (these windows were probably originally used as coal shoots). So we had a lot of problems with dampness in the basement until we got rid of the piles of dirt covering the windows. Then, when indoor plumbing was installed in the late 1800s/early 1900s, all 4 houses were put on one sewer line connected from the back, leading to the avenue 3 houses away from ours. Over time, with the use of modern conveniences, more bathing, etc., the original sewer lines just rotted and we had a raw sewage emergency three Christmases ago. The municipal utilities crews were out immediately and we each got a separate sewer line from our homes directly out to the street in front. Had we not been four houses joined together on one line, the work would have cost each of us upwards of $20,000, but because of the original sewer set up, the city worked for free.
You’ve been very environmentally conscientious with your home. Share with us some things you did to make you older home more earth-friendly.
Richard: We’ve replaced the energy inefficient appliances as we’ve proceeded and have replaced all but two windows with thermal pane models. We put our boiler on a thermostat and keep the temperature a few degrees cooler than we would like and just wear sweaters and layers. Our upstairs toilet, which is part of the original house’s indoor plumbing has a beautiful, ornate porcelain bowl, and at one time probably had a wood tank with a chain. Somewhere along the line, a back tank was jerry-rigged onto the old bowl. To improve the system’s efficiency, we put water-filled bottles into the tank to save water with each flush, since the original bowl is not up to code but too beautiful to remove. At some point, we will have it removed and restored and perhaps even reinstall the ceiling wood tank which they still sell in catalogs.
Michael is the author of “Clean: The Humble Art of Zen-Cleansing.” I find that cleaning my home puts me into a wonderfully happy place. Up to this point I thought I might be insane. Is there really a zen to cleaning? Do you think that cleaning a row house especially increases one’s tranquility? (At RowHouse we like to think row houses are extra special!)
Richard: Michael is definitely the best person to answer this question, particularly since his recipes are non-commercial and use ingredients that were most probably used by people in the 1800s.
Michael: When we clean our homes with materials that don’t poison us much of the drudgery melts away. I’m a neat-nick and hate a mess so cleaning – at least for me – is an everyday occurrence. It’s amazing how just-about anything can be cleaned and once done – outside of painting it, re-building it, re-plastering it, or re-wiring it – the simplest renovations can occur. Our forefathers were right… the purest and simplest means to cleanliness are indeed the best.
Obviously you are very proud of your home and the love shows in the attention to every detail. What is the best thing you like about your row house?
Richard: It’s not so much the pride we feel in the house as the love we have for it. It is a very modest house, probably built for a family of factory workers or housekeepers for the wealthier families a bit further south from our house. But everywhere we look, there is something that makes us smile and appreciate it all over again. There are several rooms per floor and I often don’t go into some for weeks at a time, and so it’s like discovering a hidden treasure all over again.
Michael: I not only clean a little bit in our house every day I also work on a project in our house every day… it’s how I procrastinate. It’s the way I slip away and find my center. I too am surprised by rediscovering something I’ve completely forgotten about. You know the saying “Can’t see the forest for the trees?” I’m sometimes so focused on some detail that I forget the larger picture. But when I sometimes walk into the house I share with my partner Richard, and I see the sunlight across the dining room table and the surfaces all seem to perk up in the way I had imagined… it all seems worth it.
About the portrait in the library, is he a relative? Former resident? He’s just perfect there. For our story about the Joseph Sims House we were able to get a portrait of the original resident. It was nice to put a face with the house.
Richard: Even before we owned this house we had a small cottage in Northeast Pennsylvania, for which we started collecting portraits — the man in the library was our first purchase. Since then we’ve been avid collectors of miniature portraits as well as folk art from the 1800s. Michael can explain more about them all.
Michael: Many of the paintings that we own are objects that we’ve discovered and feel that they tell a story. When we walk friends or visitors though our house we point out the pictures of the “Dead Folks.” Although many of the faces are unknown and the painters names obliterated over time, the life-sized full-figured self portrait of a man at the top of the stairs through research has been identified.
Michael: We found the painting on e-bay. Since I’m always looking for that “needle in a haystack” I found it listed under oil “potraits.” (I’m always looking for misspellings… e-bay doesn’t have a spell-check system.) The seller wanted to unload the painting and its amazing original frame and the only information we were told was that the original owner had come from Denmark. Knowing that, I visited the The Skagen Museum in Denmark’s virtual tour and voila! There was an other painting that looked like the one we had just purchased on e-bay. The artist’s name is Peder Kroyer. With minimal research, I found mountains of support material (including a photo found online of him in exactly the same clothing from the 1880s) and, once here in our home, we were able to have it appraised and authenticated.