From the February/March 2011 Issue:

Twin Challenge

    Writer: Mary Carlomagno | Photographer: Marisa Pellegrini | Stylist for Brigden Home: Krista Abdy |

A new generation returns Hoboken apartment buildings to their single-family origins

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enlarge | Top: The Masons' living room offers a glimpse back in time. They installed the 1890s fireplace mantel because a previous owner had removed the original. Bottom: The Bridgens’ sitting room combines streamlined furnishings with period detail. Original features include the fireplace, shutters and molding, which the couple had restored.
Hoboken has been a perennial favorite for hip urbanites avoiding the big prices of Manhattan. Lately, however, the mile-square city has become more than a stop-over on the way to the roomy suburbs as families decide to stay put and convert apartment buildings that were once grand mansions back to their original purpose: single-family living.

While these homeowners may share the same goal, the results could not be more different. For two Hudson Street families, the exteriors of their twin homes hint at their shared history. The land on which they sit was part of a large parcel once owned by Colonel John Stevens, the American inventor who founded Stevens Institute of Technology, which sits nearby. Built by brothers in 1890 and 1891, both houses exemplify the Queen Anne Style, which was popular during the Victorian era.

Inside, however, the décor is as individual as the families who live there.

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enlarge | The Masons found the dining room fireplace and Trenton Tile that forms the surround in a salvage shop in Brooklyn. The antique crystal chandelier marked the homeowners’ 15th wedding anniversary. The cabinet is designed in the style of the American Aesthetic Movement. Etched-glass pocket doors between the dining and music rooms, while not original to the house, date to 1890 and fit the overall design.
Beth and Ricky Mason took precious care to restore their home to its original Victorian grandeur. Thorough historical research told the Masons as much about Hoboken as it did about the pedigree of their home: “In 1889 Martha B. Stevens, widow of a Stevens heir, began to sell off some of the lots, including the adjoining lots where [the two homes featured in this article] will be built. The price at the time was an astonishing $6,000 per lot!”

When the Masons purchased their home in 1993, it had been divided into three units, with the previous owner living on the first floor and renting out the top two floors. This set-up became common in Hoboken beginning in the 1930s, when the city became more transient and its large homes became less about historic grandeur and more about affordable housing and were turned into apartments. But there was never a question that the Masons would return their home to single-family status in grand Victorian style. Thankfully, much of the original detail was intact, including window seats, some light fixtures, sink basins hidden in closets in their two daughters’ bedrooms, and tile in the girls’ bathroom.

When it came time to decorate the spaces, the Masons combined their passion for historical restoration with their love of the Victorian era, taking every opportunity to restore rather than replace where feasible. They researched everything from doorknobs to lighting fixtures and wall accessories. “We combed through catalogs, websites, and out-of-the-way antique stores to get good pieces at reasonable prices,” Beth Mason says. They even purchased a set of pocket doors made in California the same year their house was built to maintain consistency.

Some special touches are courtesy of designers who have experience in historical restoration and an eye toward the Victorian era. For example, Paul Somerville, a Hoboken designer and family friend, selected the curtains for the living, music, and dining rooms. “They add a wonderful finishing touch to the space,” Mason says.

Perhaps the biggest standout on the first floor is the ceiling, which incorporates numerous wallpaper patterns, which was a common decorating practice in the Victorian era.

One of the Masons’ favorite pieces is a French crystal chandelier she purchased for their 15th wedding anniversary. Not only is crystal the traditional gift to celebrate 15 years of marriage, she also discovered the brass lamp that holds the chandelier is engraved with the French word for “love,” the name, and the year, 1879.

The Masons added certain features to bring the home into the twenty-first century, including a wine cellar and workout room in the basement. And while the kitchen has some Victorian features, the equipment is state-of-the-art. An additional kitchen in the basement is convenient when they entertain large groups, including family holiday celebrations and large community events. (Beth Mason is a member of Hoboken City Council, and she and her husband are both active in community activities.)

Asked how long the restoration took to complete, Mason jokes, “18 years and counting.” But the results have won good reviews. The house has been featured on the annual Hoboken House Tour and on HGTV’s “If These Walls Could Talk.” But more important than accolades, the Masons value being part of the living history of a bygone era updated for today. “We feel privileged to own such an extraordinary house,” Mason says.

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enlarge | The family room now opens to the kitchen with crisp colors and clean lines adding a modern ambience while original molding makes a subtle nod to the past. A round table in the windowed alcove stands ready for informal meals or games. Flowers here and in the dining room are by Robert Merino of Wild Flowers in Englewood Cliffs.
It’s hard to imagine in a small city like Hoboken there could be a home too big. But for New Yorkers Gretchen and Julian Brigden, that is exactly what they found when they crossed the river in 2004 to find a new home in Hoboken. The couple had just renovated a pre-War apartment in Manhattan, but when they saw the Hudson Street building that was to become their new residence, even they had reservations about taking on such a big job. But after being outbid on 12 previous houses, they decided to go for it.

As with the Masons, the Brigdens’ home had been cut up into several apartments. Restoring the original layout was a major undertaking. Even though the building was updated in the 1930s, the job was not completed, there was no insulation, and the original leaded-glass in the windows was replaced with Plexiglas.

The Brigdens, very much a how-to couple, took an active role in the 2 1/2-year renovation and give much credit to Valco Contractors in Bloomfield, which “kept things moving along once we got started on the ‘heavy-lifting,’” Gretchen Brigden says. In fact, the company took such an active role that when she gave birth to a daughter during the renovation, the workers “would even take turns to watch Molly while I put finishing touches on the house,” she says. Unlike the Mason residence, there wasn’t as much original detail left at the Brigden home, much of it apparently removed during the 1930 renovation.

To make the house energy efficient, the Brigdens installed a six-zone heating system, the highest level of insulation, and ceiling fans to bring heat up in the winter and pull it away in the summer. To make it more functional and enjoyable, they added an elevator, gym and soundproofing. That’s not to mention the Egyptian ruins, which is how Brigden described the lower level when it had to be dug up to replace century-old plumbing.

The Brigdens also credit two designers for helping them to realize their dreams: Greg Feller of Feller Design, who designed the spaces, and Paul J. Somerville, who helped them select light fixtures, paint colors, furniture, and other finishing details.

Making the house function for their personal needs was considered in every room and on every floor. “We wanted to respect the past, but we also wanted to add modern, transitional touches with bold, bright colors and simple lines, Gretchen Brigden says. For example, they widened the staircase landing and added an eye-catching wall graphic above it. They also spent a great deal of time on their master suite. The Zen-inspired master bathroom is a favorite, complete with a Buddha statue for morning meditation.

The completed project gave the Brigdens exactly what they wanted: an urban retreat with state-of-the-art living space and plenty of room for friends and family to visit. “The expansiveness is something that we have all come to enjoy,” she says.

Mary Carlomagno is a published author, speaker, and owner of Order., a New Jersey company that helps busy people get organized.


MASON SOURCES Overall: living and dining room window treatments, Paul J. Somerville Design Inc. in Hoboken; woodwork restoration, Traditional Line in New York City. Foyer: light fixture on newel post, C. Neri Antiques & Lighting in Philadelphia. Living Room: antique chairs by John Jeliff, a Newark firm active in the mid- to late 1800s; rug, Ethan Allen; chandelier, original to the home. Dining Room: mantel tiles, Good Olde Things in New York City; cabinetry, original; corner cabinet, antique. Kitchen: encaustic tiles on backsplash and floor, imported from England. Guest Room: Murphy bed, antique.

BRIGDEN SOURCES Overall: room layouts, Greg Feller of Feller Design in Hoboken (no longer in business); Paul J. Somerville Design Inc. in Hoboken; styling, Krista Abdy of Haute Bungalow in Chatham. Foyer: chandelier, William-Sonoma Home; console table, Julian Brigden purchased in the United Kingdom for a previous home; console table, lamps, suitcases, urn; British Home Emporium in Madison. Sitting Room: “Saucer Bubble” pendant lights by George Nelson,; sofa, Crate & Barrel; chairs, William Alan/Frontera Furniture Co. in High Point, North Carolina; coffee table, Williams-Sonoma Home; sunburst mirror, tall urns, accessories on mantel and coffee table, British Home Emporium. Family Room: sofa, chairs, alcove table, Room & Board; ottoman, Ikea; alcove chairs, Door Store; flowers, Robert Merino of Wild Flowers in Englewood Cliffs; walls, Benjamin Moore 543 Woodland Hills Green. Dining Room: table chairs, Julian Brigden purchased in Indonesia; rug, Benjamin Rug Imports in Secaucus; rectangular light fixture,; flowers, Robert Merino of Wild Flowers. Kitchen: Apple Valley cabinetry, Merit Kitchen in Totowa; Thermador range, Colonial Appliance in New Providence; countertops, quartz Zodiaq; canisters, pitcher, tongs, British Home Emporium; walls, Benjamin Moore 543 Woodland Hills Green. Master Bathroom: Apple Valley vanity, Merit Kitchen; countertop, tiles, flooring, Carerra marble from Mediterranean Tile & Marble in Fairfield; walls, Sherwin Williams 6664 Marigold.

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