This article was originally published in the June 2017 Princeton Echo.
Which kind of house would you choose: One with immaculate appointments, modern amenities, an historic pedigree, and a price tag of $2.5 million? Or another one in the same neighborhood with few frills, no prominent known historic connections, and a price of $789,000?
The choice is playing out now in the Tree Streets of Princeton. Both properties are just a few feet from Nassau Street and within an easy walk of everything in town. The higher priced one, at 19 Linden Lane, has undergone massive improvements and careful historic restoration since it was purchased in 2001 for $750,000. The other one, at 15 Chestnut Street, has been owned by the same family for generations. It has been well maintained but not subject to the kind of high-end improvements that are now common in Princeton houses.
Could it be that a $789,000 investment today could turn into a $2.5 million property in 15 years? Probably not. The Chestnut Street property sits on a smaller lot than Linden Lane, .16 acres compared to .41 acres. And the structure itself is smaller: Three bedrooms, one full bath, and one half bath on Chestnut vs. six bedrooms, five full baths, and two half baths on Linden Lane.
Chestnut Street has a partial basement and it’s unfinished. The basement on Linden Lane is huge with heated concrete floors. It includes a recreation room with widescreen television. Chestnut Street’s air conditioning is delivered via a wall unit. Linden Lane has central AC. The Chestnut Street house has a two-car garage. Linden Lane has a four-car garage that has been upgraded into working shop space for a serious car enthusiast.
But given its location, three blocks closer to the center of town, the Chestnut Street house still has plenty of potential, beginning with the deep backyard. The long driveway leading to the garage at the back of the property affords the opportunity for additional off-street parking.
On the first floor, as the real estate agency’s listing description points out, the eat-in kitchen is “well maintained but ready for transformation.” Upstairs the three bedrooms share a single bath, but the listing description notes, there is also a “bonus room.”
The new owner of 15 Chestnut Street clearly could look forward to many opportunities for improvements and upgrades. As always each would have to be weighed individually to determine which would have the greatest impact on a future selling price.
At 19 Linden Lane, with the possible exception of getting zoning permission to break the spacious house into separate condominiums, it is hard to imagine any additional improvement to what has already been thoughtfully carried out.
As Richard D. Smith reports in the May 24 issue of U.S. 1 newspaper, the house was built about 180 years ago by Charles Steadman, the self-taught builder and architect who created more than 70 buildings in Princeton, of which about 40 are still standing.
The house at 19 Linden Lane was in considerable disrepair when Brandon and Lynette Hull bought it in 2001 from the estate of Princeton University English professor E. Dudley H. Johnson, who died in 1995, and his wife Laurie Vance Johnson, a professional photographer who used much of the house as gallery space. In Mrs. Johnson’s later years repairs went unmade. After she died in 2000 at the age of 84, her family put the house up for sale.
Brandon Hull, the co-founder of Cardinal Partners, a venture fund, is the son of a building contractor. He grew up working on his father’s house renovations. Lynette Hull is an artist whose works can be seen in the photo gallery at house’s website. She grew up in a real estate family — her mother, Celeste Bashaw, was active in the Princeton market in the 1980s and 1990s.
With two owners who appreciated the lineage of the house, 19 Linden Lane got more than its share of tender loving care. “We always loved the Steadman architecture, but this house was in an advanced state of decline,” Brandon Hull told U.S. 1’s Smith. “So I approached this project with full knowledge of what we were getting into, and committed from the outset to the type of end-to-end, comprehensive restoration and rehabilitation that would both preserve what was important and beautiful about the old structure, but fully satisfy the requirements of contemporary life.”
The Hulls credit the final outcome in part to architect Andrew Sheldon and principal contractor Tom Pinneo. Some parts of the house were “basically gutted,” said Lynette Hull. “We replaced everything — A.C., heat, bathrooms — everything.”
One can imagine two very different sets of buyers for these houses: One willing and able to pay to enjoy their life at a new location. The other ready to embark on a series of home improvement adventures. Diverse housing leads to diverse neighborhoods.
15 Chestnut Street, $789,000. Listed by Jud Henderson, Callaway Henderson.
19 Linden Lane, $2.5 million. Listed by Susan Gordon, Coldwell Banker.
Richard D. Smith contributed to this article.