This article was originally published in the March 2018 Princeton Echo.
A recent cold Saturday, and all is blue above the Clarke Cottage on Mercer Road near the Battlefield. A wood fire burns in the hearth of its oldest section, much as it has for some three centuries.
But although the crackling fire is appealing, the cracked and peeling paint on the adjacent walls is not. The turquoise over the historic home is not the color of the sky but of a huge plastic tarpaulin, lashed tightly around the structure. Everywhere within the once-genteel dwelling is a general chaos of ripped out walls and torn down ceilings. Window frames lie about, awaiting their reclamation.
“At least the most historic part of the home is intact,” owner Joseph F. Guarnaccia observes.
Ten months prior, on May 2, 2017, a heavy section of a tall ash tree broke off during a storm. Although it spared the colonial-era wing where the fireplace now warms us, the tree laid waste to the roof and attic of a 19th-century addition. It brought an immediate tragedy into the life of Guarnaccia, who had bought the house only a few months before.
And the tree fall unleashed a cascade of frustrations during the repair and restoration process that is only now abating, offering a 21st-century educational tale for owners of historic Princeton homes.
“These ash trees are in different stages of death from ash borer beetles,” says Guarnaccia, clad in work clothes and boots, with a knit cap against the cold and dust while supplementing the efforts of his repair contractor. “That one was on my radar, but I just didn’t get around to it.”
In December, 2016, Guarnaccia had purchased the venerable home and its full, garden-like acre at 545 Mercer Road, situated within the Stony Brook historic district, which predates Princeton’s downtown settlement by several decades. The house is known as the Clarke Cottage because of its association with the early Princeton family that owned the surrounding land. (The Battle of Princeton was fought nearby on the farm of Thomas Clarke.) The exact origins of the home’s earlier section are unknown. However, it’s typical of the one-and-a-half story, clapboard-exterior, “vernacular colonial” type constructed by early settlers — a single downstairs room with fireplace, plus a short stairway winding up to the attic garret sleeping quarters.
Researchers have proposed various years for its construction — a plaque installed by the previous owner on a side door gives 1725 — but it’s certainly from the early 1700s. And there’s no current consensus on where it was built — on this spot or moved here from another location.
Previous owner Donald Warnock wrote in a privately circulated monograph (“The History of a Cottage in the Stony Brook Settlement, Princeton, New Jersey, Circa 1725”) that the little house had been built on land north of Stockton Street owned by the Johnson family. (This area later became the Russell estate which, in turn, became the upscale Edgerstoune Road development and the present-day Hun School.) In this version of events, the little house was moved to its current 545 Mercer Road location in about 1858 when Alexander Schenk purchased the lot from John H. Clark.
However, Warnock offered an additional theory: Three such colonial cottages had been built on the nearby rise overlooking Stony Brook (between today’s Stockton Street and Mercer Road). This might have been one, moved after a fire destroyed the others in the early 1860s.
And yet there is also the tantalizingly possibility that this 1700s section was, in fact, built right where it stands today.
Guarnaccia reports that its foundations are dry stone, fitted without mortar — much more typical of the early 1700s than the mid 1800s. Also, its front door faces toward nearby Stony Brook and Quaker Road. This is significant. The Princeton Pike (today’s Mercer Road) was put through in 1807. If the cottage had been moved to the property after that, it would have been oriented with its front door toward this main road. But if erected in the 1700s, it would almost certainly have been built to face Quaker Road and the rest of the Stony Brook settlement, just as it does today.
“That’s part of the folklore of Princeton and its charm,” Guarnaccia says. “It has a significant historical component.”
Similar colonial vernacular houses still stand in Princeton. But only the Clarke Cottage and the William Olden Homestead (on the grounds of Drumthwacket at 344 Stockton Road) can be seen: the other survivors are enwrapped and hidden by later additions.
What of the larger — and now heavily damaged — wing of the Clarke House?
After Guarnaccia applied to rebuild the house, it was examined by Elric Endersby on behalf of the Princeton Historical Preservation committee. (An energetic local historian, Endersby now runs the New Jersey Barn Company, rehabilitating old barns for new uses.) The rough and occasionally mismatched timbers of the larger wing plus its general construction led him to immediately identify it as having originally been a small barn that was moved to the site and repurposed as two-story-with-attic attachment to the colonial structure’s south end, its door facing Mercer Road.
The year of this move is unknown. Some sources have it as early as 1810, soon after the Princeton Pike was established. But it might have come with the Schenk ownership after 1860.
The Clarke Cottage was essentially reinvented in 1942 by then-owner Dorothea Smith, a professor of bacteriology at Penn. (Smith’s father headed the Forrestal Campus of the Rockefeller Institute in Plainsboro and she married James Farr, whose family owned Farr’s Hardware on Nassau Street.) She added a kitchen extension, interior plumbing, and a coal furnace. (The home converted to fuel oil use and finally today’s gas heat.)
Guarnaccia purchased the property from the estate of the late Donald Warnock, local business owner and historian. Fittingly, Warnock had been a longtime docent at Drumthwacket, once the estate house of wealthy Princeton alumnus and businessman Moses Taylor Pyne, and now the governor’s mansion.
“One day I was driving into town and just saw this place,” Guarnaccia recalls. He was recently divorced and living in motels. “Just me and my dog. I was looking, saw the for sale sign. There was a project.”
The property had been on the market for almost two years, with many viewers. But the Clarke Cottage is not suited for a family with children, and it’s on a heavily trafficked road. After six months of negotiations, Guarnaccia purchased it for $440,000 — a modest sum for a quaint and historic Princeton home with an acre of garden-like land.
Guarnaccia, 61, is an environmental health and safety remediation officer for BASF, the international chemicals giant. He was born in Rye in Westchester County, New York, near Long Island Sound. “Next to our house was a large open space, marshland,” he recalled. “My brother and I spent a lot of time there, just walking through nature. And maybe that’s why we both ended up in environmental services.” (His older brother does assessments for wind energy sites.)
Their father, David, came to America as an immigrant from Italy. He excelled in Latin and Greek studies and won entry into Harvard, graduating in 1929. He was perhaps the first student of Italian heritage to play on the powerful Harvard football team and is today in its Hall of Fame. The senior Guarnaccia eventually became a leading salesman for Monsanto, marketing its plastic to manufacturers of toys and household goods.
Joe went to graduate school at Princeton, earning a PhD in civil engineering in 1992. He had already been working for the Ciba Geigy chemical company (now BASF), overseeing a superfund cleanup site in Toms River. “I have a virtual office,” he says. “I work from my house and travel to my sites.”
Guaranccia closed on the property on December 23, 2016. “During January I did some renovations. February, I moved in my stuff.” He had the companionship of a kind and devoted friend: “A beautiful little Sheltie. He was the only thing I had left from the divorce. I do a lot of work up in New England, and I’d take him with me, find dog-friendly hotels.”
Then came March, in like the proverbial lion. A wind storm blew down a heavy bough from an large ash tree, which struck and collapsed the front porch. A nuisance but not a disaster: It was a rotted and nondescript screened-in replacement for a stately Victorian-style porch that had been added when the barn became the home’s main living area.
Realizing the threat of ash borer damage to his trees, Guarnaccia planned to have an expert make an assessment and take down this tree first. (Another large, decrepit ash tree on the other side of the house had been topped off prior to the property’s sale.) “Yes, it was in the works,” Guarnaccia says with a shrug. “But getting a tree guy out here was like pulling teeth.”
Then on May 2, 2017, a storm with even mightier wind gusts howled through Princeton. “I was in the living room, sitting working,” Guarnaccia says. Hearing the crash upstairs and feeling the house shake, “I knew what had happened. Dust coming down, plaster. A beautiful oak column was split in half,” he says sadly, adding, “those beautiful oak beams probably saved my life.”
His beloved Sheltie was not so fortunate. “When I went outside, I heard this little yelping. I found him under a bough, just looking at me. I couldn’t pick him up by hand, he didn’t like that. So I put him on a board and got him into the car that way.”
Guarnaccia raced for an animal hospital. But halfway through the drive, he checked and saw that his dog had died. “I think his back had been broken.”
Upon returning just 40 minutes later, he found his newly purchased house was declared uninhabitable. “No electricity, no gas, police tape all around here.” Guarnaccia says that he did not receive a formal revocation of his certificate of occupancy. “But I was told emphatically it was too dangerous.”
Now came time to repair and, perhaps, improve.
Owners of Princeton historic houses have great latitude within the established building and safety codes to make interior modifications. But in the interests of retaining the town’s historical character, exterior changes are closely restricted. The repairs to Clarke Cottage would be so extensive that Guarnaccia would have to get approvals not only from the Building Department, but the Historic Preservation Commission, which is administered by the Office of Historic Preservation.
“The minutia of the Historic Preservation Commission were a surprise to me,” says Guarnaccia, while adding that he understands and respects its mandate. “They’re commissioned to preserve. [But] every time I tweaked something, they wanted something more. The commission is not well liked,” he says, a bit wryly.
Elizabeth H. Kim, Princeton’s historic preservation officer and development review official, good-naturedly acknowledges this: “We’d love it if everybody loved us, but we know not everyone does,” she says. “It’s all for the good of the community, and people need to realize that.”
Kim says that she had inquiries about 545 Mercer — and had to disappoint some would-be buyers — long before Guarnaccia purchased it. “Some people asked if they could move the house back from the road,“ she says, adding “I told them, I don’t think it will be allowed!”
She also recognizes that historic house owners often find their enthusiasm running up against the commission’s carefully measured review process. In Guarnaccia’s case, she acknowledged, “He had a strong level of frustration. Every time there was another stumbling block.”
For example, Guarnaccia had hired an architect who wanted to take the rebuilding opportunity to raise the roof line for a more pleasant ceiling height. But raising a roof line even a few inches makes a major change in the overall aesthetic and historic character of a house.
In general, the Historic Preservation Commission doesn’t regulate interior design; hence, the myriad of historic homes whose exteriors are virtually unchanged from the 19th century but feature ultra- modern kitchens and amenities.
However, homeowners who have heard that exterior modernizations are allowed on the rear of a house, so they won’t be seen from the street, are getting only half the story.
Kim explains that there are two Princeton preservation districts: District 1 corresponds to the former township, District 2 to the former borough. In District 2, exterior changes not seen from the right of way are generally allowed. But in District 1, if significant exterior alterations can be seen from another historic property, they are not.
The Clarke Cottage is in District 1. Although its immediate mid-20th century neighbors are not classified as historic, the former Pyne estate dairy barn on nearby Parkside Drive (now a residence with office space) is definitely historic. “I was told, ‘When the leaves are down, they can see your house.’”
“My first meeting with the commission, four months in, they didn’t know who I was,” he says, but adds, “They have a lot on their docket.”
“I didn’t know it was the property that had the tree come down,” Kim acknowledges for her part.
Guarnaccia was eventually informed that he qualified for an emergency review because he was no longer able to live in his house. He says that “it took four months for me to realize to realize that clause exists. I poorly managed it.”
But soon the process got moving. “I had the committee over to the property. Some of them were very knowledgeable about post with beam construction.” Guarnaccia was especially grateful for the input of Endersby and also Robert Von Zumbusch, a local architect and preservationist who himself dwells in an historic structure. Says Guarnaccia, “Their attitude was to retain as much as possible.” The final version of the roof repairs, for example, retains the original slope, height, and proportions, and was approved.
But the collapsed roof was by no means the only contentious issue. The tree’s impact actually compressed the structure and slightly pushed out the front of the house. Also, the siding was old and cracked; the walls have no interior insulation. Guarnaccia also wanted to replace the windows, several of which were aluminum-frame storm units added before preservation codes.
Guarnaccia’s proposed re-siding would add three quarters of an inch to the building’s exterior, which the preservation commission resisted. Why would a seemingly miniscule three-quarters of an inch become a major measurement?
Kim explains: “This three-quarters inch [on new siding] would be in front of the windows. Now the windows will become recessed. All of a sudden, they’re three quarters of an inch deeper.”
Admittedly, recessed window frames would noticeably alter the home’s appearance. Fortunately, just as one problem caused another, one solution helped another. Guarnaccia will get new exterior sheathing with insulation inside it and restore the original wood window frames. Then the restored frames will be set out three quarters inch further, so they won’t appear recessed.
Are there takeaways from the story of the Clarke Cottage?
“Your realty agent should let you know what you need,” Kim says. “There is a level of frustration if you are the owner of an historic property and they’re not aware of what that entails.”
On a hopeful note, Kim reports that more potential buyers “come to this office with questions before they have the problem. Buyers are becoming more aware of it, so they aren’t caught off guard.” She encourages buyers and owners to explore the Office of Historic Preservation website.
“It’s not because we’re trying to give people a hard time,” she says. “We’re trying to maintain the historic character of Princeton. Believe it or not, it makes more work for us.”
Guarnaccia also now takes a positive view. “The good news is, with the renovations it’s going to be a beautiful house when it’s done. I had great insurance. But,” he adds with a laugh, “I’m still living out of a suitcase!”
His major priority is getting the roof and the heat back on. While delayed during the months of the review process, the cold and damp caused the wall paint to crack. “Time has not been kind since the accident,” he says. “That’s disappointing. But it’s a 300-year-old wood house, so it’s amazing it’s still standing.”
And now that the gray skies of disaster are a memory, and the red tape of building restoration has been unwound, Guarnaccia looks forward to removing the blue tarp that’s been in place these many months. “It’s starting to leak,” he laughs a bit ruefully. But Guarnaccia speaks enthusiastically about restoring the floors and interior woodwork with antique repurposed lumber.
But a large amount of a certain exterior wood has to be removed, too.
“There are 13 ash trees on this property,” he says somberly, “and they’ve all got to go sometime.” (This might set him up for interactions with yet another bureau, the Shade Tree Commission. However, the commission makes allowance for removing trees that present an immediate hazard, and it also highlights the dangers of the Emerald Ash Borer on its webpage.)
“I’m bringing back the place to the way it was in the 1800s,” Guarnaccia says. “That’s the plan. But there’s an emotional piece to it. It’s not just about money and deeds.”
Richard Smith, a journalist and author, has written four illustrated books on Princeton history for Arcadia Publishing.