Hell hath no fury like a J&J heir scorned. One of the most salacious events in Princeton’s history took place at 75 Cleveland Lane, at a historic house that recently avoided becoming the latest teardown in town.
Designed by architect Ernest Flagg, the one-acre property is encircled by a stone wall and features a 16-room stone mansion and, across the interior courtyard, a five-bay carriage house. It was previously the home to J. Seward Johnson Jr., grandson to the founder of Johnson & Johnson, and his first wife, Barbara Kristina Johnson. (Not to be confused with Barbara “Basia” Johnson, who married Seward’s father and inherited the bulk of her husband’s $400 million fortune after more than $20 million of litigation.)
More than 50 years ago, Seward hired three private eyes to raid his own house in the dead of night. The plan was to frame his two-timing wife. The gossip around town was that one of the intruders, an African-American wearing only a trenchcoat, would disrobe and jump into an unsuspecting Johnson’s bed, upon which his colleague would snap a damning photo. The plot was ultimately foiled when an alarmed Mrs. Johnson, sleeping alone, shot and injured one of the intruders.
Kristina Johnson would continue to stay in the Cleveland Lane residence until her death in 2013. It was listed for sale in 2014 for more than $2.5 million. The asking price a year later dropped to $2 million. Finally, last December, builder Jay Grant purchased the property for $1.6 million, a quick close with no contingencies.
A second-generation builder with 200 spec and custom homes worth of experience, Grant was contacted by a realtor. The seller, Kristina’s daughter, Kookie, was offering the property to builders, the main selling point being not the historic property but the one-acre parcel of land that could be subdivided as-of-right into two half-acre lots. Subdividing the property down the middle, however, would mean knocking down the existing structure.
This was Grant’s original plan.
“When I look at a house, I’m making a business decision, and whether it’s worth preserving, I ask: is there architectural significance, is it structurally sound, is there space and potential?” Grant said.
He demolished a home in the Hun School neighborhood on Edgerstoune Road, a ranch house. “It was a run of the mill ranch that had no architectural interest, it was too small, so that was a tear-down,” Grant said.
However on another project in town, on Haslet Avenue, he made an addition to a preserved Dutch Colonial house while building a spec home on the subdivided half-acre. (The seller did not want her childhood home torn down, and the realtor told Grant that his contractual commitment to preserve the house won out over a bid that was $100,000 higher.)
Yet a similar plan of action at first seemed unlikely to Grant. He knew that preserving the stone house at Cleveland Lane while also getting a buildable second lot required a host of Zoning Board variances.
“It’s not a gimme to get another lot. My business plan has got me in this direction to subdivide and build two homes.”
Grant reconsidered after Morristown-based architect Peter Dorne told him “it would be a sin” to tear down the existing house. The entrance to the house is located past the gate accessed from the interior courtyard, while the back of the house faces the sidewalk and road. Grant asked Dorne to design a house with a front door facing the street and different window treatments, which he thought would lend to a more welcoming and salable house.
“That proved to me that I could have a house that is beautiful from Cleveland Lane, and then we spent time re-imagining the interior space, which has more than 7,000 square feet,” Grant said. “For a preservation plan, the financial outcome is more uncertain. I know what it costs to build two new 4,000 or 5,000-square-foot homes. I couldn’t pinpoint for you what my preservation budget could be. But I still am confident at the end of the day, we can make it a win-win for business and for the neighborhood. My dad thought I should subdivide and build, he asked me, ‘why are you taking on this headache?’”
The next challenge was to get the necessary approvals. Grant already had an appointment with the Planning Board subdivision committee for the as-of-right subdivision. Prior to that meeting, Grant says he approached the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) chair with a proposal. If the HPC supported Grant’s plan to preserve the stone house, he would still proceed with his Planning Board subdivision application but also accept a condition to return before the Zoning Board with an amended subdivision application preserving the stone house.
The Planning Board approved the subdivision in March, and Grant’s Zoning Board subdivision application was reviewed by zoning officer Derek Bridger and land use engineer Jack West.
“Ultimately our plan that was submitted was approved without any deviation,” Grant said. “I’m sure the HPC support was influential in the Zoning Board application, and I made the public commitment to leave the stone house, rebuild it from inside out and outside in. The roof line and four walls of the stone house are not changing.”
The first 0.53-acre lot with the historic house received lot area, lot depth, and accessory building coverage variances. With the pre-existing structures, the floor area ratio (FAR) is 45.53 percent, exceeding the max of 25 percent. An FAR variance was granted, contingent on the preservation of the residence.
The second lot required prevailing setback, accessory building coverage, and FAR variances. A new 5,400-square-feet home 35 feet from Lafayette Road is permitted on the site, and the floor area variance is to accommodate the 645 square feet area of the preserved foundry.
All told, Grant hopes to complete both spec projects within 12 to 18 months.
Zoning Board report:
Two more teardowns
The Zoning Board approved two applications — both builder teardowns — at its June 22 meeting.
The first application was for a 2.17-acre property at 145 Ridgeview Circle, owned by Jeffrey Moser of J.P. Moser Properties. The property was purchased in March, 2015, for $602,500.
The parcel has lot depths of 81 to 159 feet in a zone with a minimum requirement of 200 feet. The applicant sought a lot depth variance to make it legal to build anew on the parcel. Four neighbors spoke in opposition against the builder’s plan to replace the existing 2,800-square-foot contemporary home with a larger structure of about 5,900 square feet.
“The lot specifications were known when you bought the property. There’s no reason to ask for the variance,” said Mark Pollard, who lives next door. “When they purchased the property, they knew the scope of what could be built on the property and that’s what they should stay within.”
“For a C1/C2 variance, the developer also has to show exceptional, undue hardship. The fact they bought this place knowing what the restrictions were, does not to my mind raise undue hardship,” said Baur Whittlesey, who lives across the street. “It raises the situation where they are asking the zoning board to rescue their investment.”
With the variance in hand, more than triple the floor area of the present house is permitted. The plan also called for a circular driveway that would result in the removal of 10 trees — a detail that was discussed by the board. Nevertheless, the application was approved, 3-1.
The second application, a 0.21-acre parcel at 73 Leavitt Lane, was approved unanimously. The property is under contract with builder Roman Barsky, who sought a variance to make it legal to replace the existing one-story house on the lot, which is about 1,700 square feet below the required minimum lot area.
Two neighbors opposed the variance request. “Smaller houses never become available because they get torn down and much larger structures get built,” said Karen Longo Baldwin. “I suppose the hardship in this case is that someone won’t make quite as much money if they sold the house as it is.”
With variance in hand, the permitted floor area is 2,640 square feet.
The town’s study of the impact of teardowns and McMansions on residential neighborhoods, now has a website: www.princetonneighborhoods.org. Visitors can post comments, ask questions, and sign up for E-mail updates.
The following listings of residential home sales, which closed between June 10 to June 17, are based on public records and tax files. The number in parentheses after the closing price indicates the amount above or below the original listing price.
249 State Road. Seller: Didier Bousser. 4 bedrooms, 2.5 baths. Third-acre lot. Split-level near Ewing Street. $520,000 (+$10,000).
41 Robert Road. Seller: John B & Yvonne MacDonald. Buyer: Gong Chen & Yao Lu. 4 bedrooms, 2 baths. 95 by 114 lot. Bi-level near Riverside School. $849,000 (-$900).
117 Leabrook Lane. Seller: Bernard Kreilmann & Kim Mina. Buyer: Jessica & Brian Pomraning. 4 bedrooms, 2.5 baths. 0.87-acre lot. Colonial behind Shopping Center. $975,000 (-$10,000).
27 Marion Road East. Seller: Michelle & Joseph Angelone. Buyer: Jason Rogart & Rafaela Dancygier. 4 bedrooms, 4.5 baths. Half-acre lot. New construction replacing teardown. $1,725,000 (-$163,000)
46 Maidenhead Road. Seller: Forrest & Ruth Houser. Buyer: Daniil Berezoff & Marianna Fundator-Berezoff. 2 bedrooms, 3.5 baths. Attached townhouse in subdivision next to Griggs Farm. $635,000 (+$6,000)
168 Prospect Avenue. Seller: Caroline Argento Spoeneman. Buyer: Vera Van d Velda & Frank Konings. 5 bedrooms, 3.5 baths. Third-acre lot. Historic Colonial near university. $1,085,000 (-$110,000).
16 Cameron Court. Seller: Tim & M Sylane Mack. Buyer: Genevieve Creedon & Shannon Winston. 3 bedrooms, 3 baths. Attached townhouse in Queenston Common. $643,000 (+$14,000).
130 Philip Drive. Seller: Jerome Silbergeld & Michelle Deklyen. Buyer: Xiaojue Wang & Weijie Song. 4 bedrooms, 2.5 baths. Half-acre lot. Colonial near Carnegie Lake. $975,000.
317 Christopher Drive. Seller: Vir & Shashi Madhok. Buyer: Gorge Qing Wang & Song Han. 4 bedrooms, 3.5 baths. Half-acre lot in Ettl Farm. $1,438,000 (-$37,000).
30 Howe Circle. Seller: Tom & Holly Mellis. 3 bedrooms, 2.5 baths. Half-acre lot. Split-level near Riverside School. $820,000
72 Knoll Drive. Seller: RCT Developers Inc. Buyer: James & Lori Owen. 5 bedrooms, 5.5 baths. Half-acre lot. New construction from 2008 replacing teardown. $1,575,000 (-$600,000).
31 Palmer Square West, Unit A. Seller: Clelia Johnson trust. Buyer: Charles & Kimberlee Cory. 1 bedroom, 1 bath flat. $385,000 (-$15,000).
76 Valley Road. Seller: Felipe Cruz. Buyer: Chris Munford & Emerald Thaw. 4 bedrooms, 1 bath. Quarter-acre lot. Ranch house near baseball fields. $500,000 (-$20,000).
335 Nassau Street. Seller: Joseph Stonaker & Julia Coale. Buyer: Donald Denny Jr. & Catherine Knight. 3 bedrooms, 1.5 baths. 49 by 65 lot. Colonial near Harrison Street. $780,000 (-$19,000).
226 William Livingston Court. Seller: Beverly Allen-Plummer. Buyer: Ravi Bala. 3 bedrooms, 2/2 baths. Townhouse in Griggs Farm. $500,000 (+$5,000).