Before the storm: the Clarke Cottage at 545 Mercer Road. The porch is the next scheduled repair.

For some, the continuing story of the Clarke Cottage may be a cautionary tale about the challenges and frustrations of repairing an historic Princeton house — especially when a $2,000 fine is involved.

But for others, it could be a hopeful story about how seriously the town takes building restoration and how the historic house owners and the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC) can achieve cooperative understandings.

It’s an irony that the Clarke Cottage on Mercer Road — originally a one-and-a-half Colonial Vernacular structure, circa 1725 (later to have a 19th-century addition) — survived the nearby Battle of Princeton on January 3, 1777, but was nearly destroyed 240 years later in 2017 by a storm-shattered ash tree.

The house stood empty for some time after the death of its previous owner, Donald Warnock, a businessman with a keen interest in Princeton history. In 2016 it was purchased from his estate by Joseph Guarnaccia, who was fortunate to have good insurance when the tree crashed upon the later addition, laying waste to its roof and second floor. The original 1700s section was untouched, another ameliorating circumstance.

Guarnaccia set about making repairs. But the property is within the Stony Brook historic district (Princeton’s original settlement) and is thus under the purview of the Historical Preservation Commission. Guarnaccia chafed at what he felt were overly exacting requirements, including fractions of an inch measurements on replacement windows and sidings. The HPC’s position is that even small variations, when multiplied across an entire structure, can significantly alter a building’s character.

Still, all seemed well until Guarnaccia replaced eight windows with custom-made units. He maintained that these completely fulfilled or even exceeded the preservation ordinances, not only in their appearance but in quality and sustainability. The Commission found, however, that the now-installed windows were not what it had specifically approved. The Princeton municipal court agreed, ruling against Guarnaccia and fining him $2,000.

Guarnaccia paid the fine. Then, on the afternoon of November 19, he appeared before the HPC to amend the previous HPC window approval. Clearly, it was a fraught situation.

There was a hopeful start when all agreed that the summons and fine would not be debated and the emphasis would be on moving forward. “There was a fine, which was paid,” said Anthony Tadaro, an attorney attending the meeting on behalf of the town. “From a municipal standpoint it’s concluded.”

Guarnaccia and Christopher S. Tarr, an attorney representing him, agreed that the emphasis should be solely on moving forward.

Guarnaccia gave a detailed PowerPoint presentation on the old versus the new windows. By way of introduction, Tarr said: “He’ll explain why replacing the single pane windows with double pane custom windows was appropriate.”

“The intent is to be fully aligned with the preservation ordinances,” Guarnaccia said, adding that in his view, “It’s not the intent of the ordinance to discourage change but to preserve the integrity and authenticity of the historic district.”

With slides such as “Criteria” and “Rationale for Window Replacement Need,” Guarnaccia made a highly organized case. Interestingly — and perhaps appropriately, given the agreement to move forward — no one raised the issue of why Guarnaccia had not come back earlier to make this case for a modification of the window replacement agreement, but changed his plans without notifying the HPC and thus becoming liable for the fine.

Guarnaccia pointed out that Clarke Cottage’s original 1700s section was “undisturbed [by the tree fall] and is unchanged,” and that the eight controversial windows were in the 1800s addition. He stressed that they were custom-made, not off-the-shelf replacements and very unlike the “unsightly” aluminum windows installed by a previous owner. Also, he has preserved the original window trim.

These units totally fulfill the intent of the historic preservation ordinances, he said. They preserve the original grid pattern of the windows and fulfill best practices for energy efficiency and sustainability in the ordinances.

Historic preservation officer Elizabeth Kim noted that “the porch will be coming up at another stage.” The porch, a front attachment to the 1800s wing, was destroyed by the tree fall, and, Kim added, there is an issue of shutters yet to be addressed.

Tarr made a case for compassion, noting that due to the storm devastation and subsequent restoration activity, Guarnaccia “is not living in the house. He needs to move in.”

“I’ve only lived in it for four months total,” Guarnaccia said.

“You ought not to act arbitrarily, unnecessarily, or capriciously,” said Tarr. “This man has faced a disaster and dealt with it in a way that has beautified the home. He found the money to install custom windows that are virtually the same, with all the additional benefits.”

Another part of Joseph Guaraniccia’s presentation was endorsement of neighbors who attended the meeting. Guarnaccia noted — with understandable indignation — that during the court proceeding against him it was claimed that neighbors had objected to how the window replacement activities were proceeding, though no such neighbors testified to that effect.

By contrast, the statements of Lynn Vaughey, who lives with her husband directly across Mercer Road from Clarke Cottage, were entirely positive: “We think he’s done a beautiful job,” she said at the meeting. “It was deserted and rotting away. He has lavished love on that house.”

Not surprisingly, frustrations occasionally blew through the room like a cold wind around ill-fitting window frames.

“I’m getting the message from this committee that I’m destroying this house,” Guarnaccia said. “I’m not getting any empathy in this room.”

“I don’t see any contrition,” replied Roger Shatzkin, a commission member. “If we lack empathy, you lack contrition.”

Elric Endersby, another commission member, had lent his considerable expertise in 18th and 19th-century American wood-framed structures to evaluating Clarke Cottage during on-site visits. He disagreed about a lack of empathy. “My sympathies are with you,” Endersby said, noting that the HPC had accommodated Guarnaccia on several modifications, such as allowing slight changes to the height of the addition’s second floor and the pitch of its roof.

“We went out, saw the house, made an assessment,” Endersby said. “I think we worked with you. I’m convinced you have every reason to preserve this house.”

“I give you credit for that,” Guarnaccia acknowledged.

Endersby took the occasion to make greater observations, stating, “We made it abundantly clear about the [approved] windows. But you took it upon yourself to change the windows.”

Guarnaccia expressed regret over “a mistake of judgment.” Endesby added, “It’s not the windows. It’s to foster the kind of stewardship that historic buildings deserve. As a commission, we need a better set of criteria in responding to applications like this.”

“I think the main point here is process,” said Julie Capozzoli, chairwoman of the Historic Preservation Commission. “The process hasn’t gone well so far.” Reinforcing Elizabeth Kim’s earlier comment, she urged the commission to move forward with a vote on the windows “because there’s a porch to be added,” this being “probably the most visible element in the front.”

It suddenly seemed as if the momentary chill of ill feelings had been replaced by a warmer practicality.

“Does this adversely affect the structure?” asked Capozzoli.

“I think the overall effect is acceptable,” Shatzkin replied, to general agreement.

The vote was unanimous in accepting the new windows as currently installed, although some members stated they were giving approval with the expectation of cooperation by the applicant.

“We’ll permit the windows with the understanding that we’ll work collaboratively on the porch,” said Cappozzoli, to which Tarr and Guarnaccia agreed.

And so ended, cordially and constructively, this portion of the meeting of the Princeton Historic Preservation Commission officially devoted to “Application of Joseph Guarnaccia, 545 Mercer Road — Clarke Cottage, Application to Amend Previous HPC Approval.” The commission next took up an application for exterior improvements to a John Street residence.

In the hallway, Guarnaccia thanked neighbors who had attended the meeting to speak on his behalf. And the moment suggested a thought: that the U.S. Congress would certainly do well if it resolved contentious issues with as much frankness and ultimate cooperation.

This article was originally published in the January 2019 Princeton Echo.