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Saving Animals And An Historic Home

By Greta Cuyler

Photography by Andrew Wilkinson and James T. Callahan


SAVE, A Friend to Homeless Animals, will soon move from its longtime home on Herrontown Road in Princeton to a 10-acre property in Montgomery Township, complete with a new animal shelter and a renovated home for administrative offices. The plan is to move in early 2015, hopefully by March 1. It’s a project that’s been a long time in the making.

“SAVE has been at its current location since 1941 and the buildings are literally crumbling to the ground” SAVE Executive Director Piper Burrows said “There is not enough space to adequately house the animals, let alone comfortably accommodate the staff and volunteers.”

The new shelter will be able to accommodate 100 animals-up from 75-at the property on Route 601. That means the shelter can house up to 75 cats and 25 dogs.

“The best thing is that SAVE will become a model shelter for the state of New Jersey and for the region and the project will also serve as a great incentive for other non-profit groups to do what we did-to invest in adaptive reuse for a historic building,” Burrows said.



SAVE acquired the James Van Zandt home and property in the Skillman section of Montgomery as a result of its merger with Friends of Homeless Animals. Both shelters had considered plans for more space, but Friends of Homeless Animals bought the Van Zandt property from the State of New Jersey in 2001. It cost $50,000 but came with a requirement that the home be restored with a minimum $1 million investment, Burrows said.

Built in 1854 by wealthy local farmer James Van Zandt, the home was owned by the State of New Jersey beginning in the 1930s. According to Town Topics, it was being used as a low-security detention center by the 1990s. The condition of the house got worse with time like any building would. Of course, timely maintenance could save big mansions from deteriorating. Storm damages, roofing repair, and structure renovations are usually part of every home maintenance. However, that is not all. Following a long period of vacancy, such mansions must be checked for insulation capacity by the new owners. However, to ensure that, they might have to opt for a Home energy audit. After all, no one would like to stay in a house that cannot retain warmth during the coldest months of winter.

That said, as it seems that this mansion was not really left behind for any of the above-mentioned reasons.

“I’ll never forget walking into the Van Zandt mansion for the first time. I was practically in tears,” Burrows said. “It was such a disaster.”


Local architect Max Hayden evaluated the house for the nonprofit in 2001. He said the building had “great bones” but had been abandoned for 10 years and unused for 20. Built in the Italianate-style of Victorian architecture, the three-story brick building has large eaves and windows and a large central spiral staircase that extends from the first to the third floor.

“The basic plan of the house is equal sides of the cross and in the middle is a circular staircase,” Hayden said. “Until sometime early this century, there was a cupola on top full of windows and it let light into the middle of the house: the staircase was filled with light.”

Decay and institutional use had damaged the elegant building–Hayden described multiple roof leaks, fire damage, pigeons living inside, linoleum floors, baseboard heat, rubber stair treads, corroded metal doors (which urgently needed buying a new front door and replacing the old one), and multiple coats of stained brown paint. The large open windows could prove to be a safety hazard, either due to rusted grills or simply open spaces that people could fall out of. One of the first restoration efforts would be to create safety without losing the antique aesthetic of the place. To that end, a glass balcony similar to the ones provided by juliet balcony installers north east could prove to be the best solution. Similarly, a lot of repair and restoration tasks seem to be in order for the project.

Although he did an initial building assessment for SAVE around 2001, Hayden’s work on the project didn’t begin until several years later, after Montgomery Township had approved the mansion renovation and new animal shelter next door. Hayden has worked on multiple historical renovations, including Grover Cleveland’s former home, Morven farmhouse and a coach house at Drumthwacket, all in Princeton. He opened his own firm, Max Hayden Architect, in 1991.

Inside the Van Zandt home, Charles Donohue Construction and Twomey Builders stripped the building of its institutional look and transformed it into administrative offices for SAVE, plus a conference room for board meetings and a staff break room. The home is furnished with items willed to SAVE by a local resident and animal lover.

Outside, just feet away from the Van Zandt building, Valley Contractors built SAVE’s new animal shelter, with approximately 10,000 square feet of space on two floors. Upstairs is a large meeting room for dog training, volunteer meetings and adoption day events. Downstairs is a reception area, adoption rooms, isolation rooms, veterinary care, a surgical suite, an on-site pharmacy, rooms for nursing dogs and cats, food prep, storage and laundry. There are also 10 interconnected rooms filled with cat cages and four rooms containing dog kennels. There is an abundance of natural light. Each dog kennel has a run and a view of the outdoors.

Outside, there’s a half-acre dog run and plenty of land where volunteers can walk the dogs. “There will be a lot more room, it’s a lot cleaner and more energy efficient,” Hayden said. “The animals are kept as well as they can in the existing facility, but they don’t get a sense of light or fresh air.”

As the project comes to an end, Hayden admits it hasn’t been easy. “Everyone’s been really helpful, but there’s a lot of red tape these days and everyone has a different responsibility and it’s a little like reinventing the wheel.” But he thinks it was worth it. “This is the only building of historic importance that remains in the Skillman Village area,” Hayden said. “I think it’s important that we save a piece of history.”



The Van Zandt home renovation and the new shelter, along with associated site work (gas and water lines, new driveway, parking lot, etc.), cost approximately $4 million, Burrows said. SAVE launched its New Beginnings capital campaign in May 2011, with plans to raise $3 million on top of the $900,000 the organization had already raised in prior years. With about $300,000 still needed, SAVE recently received a three-year, $500,000 matching grant from The George H. and Estelle M. Sands Foundation that will run through Dec. 1, 2017.

“For me, the fundraising is never going to end, because the new facility will cost more for us to run because of its slightly larger capacity,” Burrows said. “I basically have to rebuild SAVE’s endowment.”

The organization is offering naming opportunities at the new site-donors can name a cat cage for $1,000, name a dog run for $2,000 or buy into a pet memorial garden SAVE hopes to build. Donors may also make gifts online at, make gifts of stock or in kind donations.



With a larger facility and more animals, Burrows anticipates she will add more employees to the current staff of 16, many of whom are part-time. She estimates adding one full-time and two part-time employees. She also hopes to expand SAVE’s services and volunteer opportunities.

She also hopes to expand SAVE’s services and volunteer opportunities. The non-profit currently contracts with Princeton, Lawrence and Hopewell for animal control services. Burrows hopes the organization can partner with more, including Montgomery Township, going forward. “We are moving into Somerset County and we have never really tapped into those areas, it’s going to open up so many more possibilities,” Burrows said.

Meanwhile SAVE’s property at 900 Herrontown Road is under contract in a private sale, Burrows said. The property, approximately three acres in an irregular lot, is currently zoned commercial.

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