Evolving Neighborhood

Hodge Road Princeton

Princeton’s Western Section Homes Adapt to 21st-Century Lifestyles

By Ilene Dube

Photography by Jon Roemer

Princeton’s Western section, bordered by Bayard Lane, Westcott Road, Elm Road and Stockton Street, is prized for its Colonial, Tudor, Victorian and Gothic homes. Designed by such noteworthy architects as Rolf Bauhan, John Notman and Charles Steadman, some of these houses have been lived in by members of the Stockton family, Woodrow Wilson and Grover Cleveland. Stately gardens and heirloom trees envelope the streets with a sense of nature.

To accommodate 21st-century lifestyles, many of the older houses have undergone complete renovations, and some have been rebuilt from the ground up. As the season unfolds, the Tudor Revival at 75 Cleveland Lane is blooming with new possibilities. Formerly a single residence designed by Ernest Flagg in the early 1900s, the site will soon accommodate two houses. The property was bought in December 2015 by Jay Grant of Grant Homes and designed anew by Peter Dorne, A.I.A.

A few blocks away, at 45 Hodge Road, sits a brand-new modern house designed by A.I.A. Award winner Wesley Wei of Philadelphia. Formerly the property was occupied by a gabled Cape-like cottage designed in 1970 by William Thompson, a one-time prominent Princeton architect whose Williamsburg, Virginia, origins influenced his style. The Thompson Cape sold for $1,650,000 in 2013 and was deconstructed for the owners by Details, a Baltimore company that repurposes cabinets and other salvageable materials. Homeowners who use Details, a nonprofit that provides jobs to skilled crew members who have faced barriers to employment, get a tax credit.

45 Hodge Road

Both 75 Cleveland and 45 Hodge rose to the challenge of modern living in an historic neighborhood. Coincidentally, both builders who tackled these projects started out as philosophy majors.

During the late 20th and early 21st centuries, artists, curators, collectors and celebrities gathered behind the thick fieldstone walls and wrought iron gate at 75 Cleveland. Flagg, known for his Beaux-Arts designs in New York such as the Singer and Scribner buildings, Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery, and in Princeton, the Princeton University Press building on William Street, built 75 Cleveland for Walter Colpitts, an associate of Brooklyn Bridge-designer John Roebling. Whimsical ironwork throughout is Colpitts’s own, presumably made from the forge he kept in the carriage house.

A 2014 real estate listing provides a good description of what this property used to be: “Unique architectural features abound, from European tiles to intricately carved doors and corbels. Archways adorn the cathedral great room with striking fireplace. Off the breathtaking three-story front hall, the grandly proportioned dining room, lined with French doors, opens to the garden. Nestled on a lower level is a handsome library with a fireplace. Beyond the eat-in kitchen is a back hall with a trio of servants’ rooms used as offices and served by a full bath… A sun-drenched family room, two suites and a third bedroom… comprise the second floor, while a large guest suite enjoys the privacy of the entire top floor. A separate two-bedroom apartment and a greenhouse flank the gravel drive.”

But after two years on the market, there were no offers. The starting price, $2.5 million, dropped to $2 million.

45 Hodge Road

A realtor phoned Jay Grant to describe the property. “The intention was to sell it to someone who would restore it,” says Grant. A one-time philosophy major at Tulane, Grant joined his family business and has built homes in Hopewell and Princeton. Based in Mendham, with a Morristown mailing address, Grant Homes has built more than 200 spec houses. “But no one wanted to take on that monster—despite all its features and uniqueness, it hadn’t been touched since the 1920s and was dated. There were sewing rooms and hobby rooms that no longer made sense. The floor plan was not based on entertaining in the 21st century—but the one-acre site could be subdivided into two buildable lots. I bought it without conditions.” He paid $1.6 million—what some who admired the property might consider a steal, while Grant was calculating whether he’d be able to recoup his investment.

The initial problem Grant confronted was the subdivision would have to go straight through the house, splitting it in half. “It would break my heart to tear it down, but I’m in the business of building and selling,” says Grant. “We did our application for the subdivision, meeting all criteria—they can’t deny an applicant the legal right to use the land as zoned.”

Grant brought in his tennis buddy, architect Peter Dorne, recognized for his work in new design as well as historic preservation, renovation and adaptive re-use of existing structures. According to his website, Dorne appreciates “design elements in the stately mansions and palaces of England and France, the gracious homes of Colonial and Victorian America and the austere lines of Early American Homesteads.” Among his credits are the Ryland Inn in Whitehouse Station and the Thomas Kean Reading Room at Drew University. A one-time Chairman of the Historic Preservation Committee of Morris Township, Dorne uses cupolas, turrets, gables and balconies in his designs.

“Peter has an eye,” recounts Grant. “He came one Sunday morning to look at the house and said ‘You can’t take this down, it would be a sin. This house has great bones—you could never build a house like this today.’

“’I get that, but I have millions invested,’” Grant recounts. “I told him that if he could show me his vision I would make it happen.”

Grant’s strategy was to enlist the help of the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission, which wanted to preserve the house, and to approach the Planning Board for the needed variance. The approval was granted to subdivide the property in a way that would preserve the main house and carriage house, but also allow Grant to build a new house on the lot, with an address at 70 Lafayette. With construction on the new house expected imminently, Grant hopes 75 Cleveland will be complete by summer. Although not of the same genre, Grant says, these two houses, both surrounded by a stone wall, will be related. “More of a cousin that a brother,” he says.

The new house is expected to cost $3,300,000. The house at 75 Cleveland “will cost significantly more,” says Grant. “It’s been an extraordinary experience, complex and challenging. I had two guys chiseling concrete, putting in steel beams, shoring up the house, cutting holes in the bottom…” Experts from Philadelphia with special concrete saws were brought in for the 12-inch thick walls. “Hopefully the end result will be an awesome place to live and make a statement from which the neighborhood will benefit.”

One problem Dorne addressed was that the back of the house faced the road. Dorne’s idea was to move the front entryway to the street side, making it more inviting.

The 21st-century features include a redesign of the grand ballroom, adding French doors and large windows to the lower-level billiards room, and increasing the light and the interaction with the exterior. “The house will have larger rooms, heated floors, central AC, and blown-in insulation so it is energy efficient,” says Grant. “I brought in a crew from North Jersey that specializes in slate roofs—that roof will be around longer than I will. The ideal buyer will want to entertain in large spaces. It will be a family that appreciates history, and they will have a home that couldn’t be built today. They will even have an apartment for a family member or nanny, all within walking distance from downtown.”

AT HOME IN THE 21st CENTURY

The brand-new construction at 45 Hodge Road is a modernist’s dream. The owners, who requested their names not be used, learned about the A.I.A.-award-winning Wesley Wei when they were shopping at the Philadelphia showroom of Bulthaup Studio, which just happens to be run by his wife, Rachel Hoffman, an interior designer. Influenced by Bauhaus, Bulthaup is a German engineered cabinet system. “It’s so well thought out, I became a convert,” says Wei.

During his childhood outside Philadelphia, he wanted to design bridges. “But then I discovered that great bridges are designed by engineers,” says Wei, who served on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania for 25 years. He considers his influences to be Spanish architect and engineer Santiago Calatrava Valls (known for his bridges supported by single leaning pylons), and architects Carlo Scarpa, Louis Kahn and Le Corbusier.

“The owners wanted a new house close to town, where they could walk to do errands and go for dinner,” says builder Tom Pinneo. “Marc Brahaney was the architect of record, and Wes was the design architect.” Pinneo, who does both new construction and restoration, says he sees a growing interest among younger homeowners for new construction. “We now do about 75 percent modern houses,” he says. Current projects are on Lake Drive and Prospect, but in the past he’s received historic preservation awards from the Historical Society of Princeton for Beatty House on Vandeventer, a Carriage Barn on Winant, and an addition and renovation at 19 Linden Lane.

75 Cleveland Lane

Wei has designed homes in San Francisco, Montreal, Miami, New England and on the Jersey Shore. “I’ve always been interested in modernism, with its sense of space, light, simplicity and minimalism,” he says. “I’m attracted to things that don’t have visual static, but have a sense of calm and serenity.”

Taking their shoes off before walking on the pristine floors, Wei and Pinneo discuss how, in traditional architecture, molding serves a hidden purpose of resolving where one plane or condition meets another. “The challenge in a house like this is greater,” says Pinneo.

Another challenge is the scale of a modern building in a historic neighborhood, and setback variances had to be secured. If the house were surrounded by open space, there might be more glass walls, but the windows facing the street are smaller, saving the large glass walls for views of the garden.

“I see my work as an assemblage of components, and I’m fortunate that I have clients who have art collections,” says Wei. “We talked about how many cars, bedrooms, bathrooms, but the important thing was going to their house and looking at their artwork and furnishings.”

The front of the house had to fit in on the street, being symmetrical, proper and formal. Once inside, a wall, tiled in an Italian ceramic that resembles corten steel, becomes an organizing element around which all the space is spun off—the “bridge.” Extra-large white porcelain floor tiles, with radiant heat, extend from inside to the outside parterre, pavilion, pool and terrace.

The first thing that strikes a visitor upon entry is the Buddha set into a wall—just one example of how the house was designed for the owners’ artwork.

“The design didn’t spring full blown from my head like Athena, but it was organic over time,” says Wei. Even the lighting design, by Eve Quellman of Narberth, Pa., was sent to Boise Cascade so the framing could work around it. “We get excited about things that make it work that the client doesn’t even think about,” says Pinneo.

“This is the biggest house in my 27-year building career,” says Mike Danna, the project manager. “Everything has a purpose and I wasn’t used to it and had to learn it. Wes is unique and has a vision. The owners are peaceful, quiet and warm, and when the project was finished they had a soirée for everyone who worked on the project.”

“Doing a custom home is like couture, not off-the-rack but tailored,” says Wei. “I had to find a good home for the elements of their lives.”

The cabinets, from Hoffman’s Bulthaup Studio, are a smoked oak, minimal and clean, and it’s hard to believe any cooking goes on here, but when the cabinet doors are opened one finds, indeed, the hidden tools of a passionate cook. The smoked oak extends to coat closets and the cabinet surrounding the TV in the sitting room, which also houses a fireplace.

On the lower level, even the gym and the fully stocked wine cellar have paintings on the walls. The artwork continues upstairs, where every window frames a view, as if these, too, were landscape paintings.

Before Pinneo became a builder, he was studying philosophy with the goal of teaching Taoism, but the greatest lesson he learned was from a carpenter: “What we know in this life we know from doing,” he recounts. “I had no training in building, but I had life training, knowing how to pull together the right people and step back.”

Wei, too, has learned to work with consultants. He is deliberate about calling the house’s design “modern” rather than “contemporary.” “For me, modern is an attitude, whereas contemporary is a style,” he says. “I hope my work is not a style but an attitude.

I tend to stay away from design magazines. I’d rather read about fly fishing.”

70 Lafayette