A New Jersey mansion tied to a fabled family of jewelers gleams once again in a historic Newark neighborhood
By Eric Wills | From Preservation | September/October 2011
Sergio Guardia never thought he'd live outside Manhattan. But when the Bolivian-born architect and owner of a New York-based firm began looking for an apartment, the price of units in the city forced him to broaden his geographic horizons. And so, after losing a few bidding wars for townhouses and apartments, he found himself across the Hudson River in Newark, N.J., standing before a three-story Forest Hill house that the listing agent told him had been built by the Tiffany family.
Guardia hadn't considered Forest Hill, or even heard of it, until The New York Times ran an article titled, "Yes, We're in Newark." The November 2007 story described the National Register-listed neighborhood as an oasis in a city usually derided for urban blight and crime, noting the quiet, tree-lined streets and historic houses with stunning architectural details. Many New Yorkers had already identified the tight-knit community as an affordable alternative to nearby suburbs. That such a neighborhood existed in Newark, located just 30 minutes from Manhattan, and had somehow survived unscathed through decades of decline, proved a revelation to Guardia.
Which is how he found himself walking through the Tiffany house that day, taking in stained-glass windows, intricately designed parquet floors, remarkable woodwork—each room, he says, revealing "one wonderful surprise after another." He was smitten. To be sure, the house had been horribly neglected and needed years of work, but the bones were magnificent. And the structure, just a short walk from a historic park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, was massive—eight bedrooms, 5,100 square feet plus a 1,600-square-foot basement—much larger than anything he could have afforded in Manhattan or Brooklyn. "I decided to buy it the moment I saw it," he recalls—a decision that began his ambitious quest to restore this architectural link to Newark's early-20th-century heyday.
Surprisingly, despite the association with the Tiffany name, historic details about the house remained hazy. It was built c. 1890 for Louis Comfort Tiffany, according to the nomination form that secured Forest Hill's status as a local historic district. But Guardia believes the house may have been constructed later, possibly after the turn of the century, based on architectural details. And he suspects that the house, modest for a family of means, may have been constructed not for Louis but for a manager of the Tiffany factory that opened on nearby Highland Avenue in 1892.
After immigrants began flocking to Forest Hill in the 1940s and '50s, the house was subdivided into apartments. The owners prior to Guardia lived there for more than two decades but showed little interest in the history or integrity of the home: Guardia found holes in the stained-glass windows, significant water damage and cracks in the plaster, and losses to the parquet flooring caused by termites. "The floors were basically gone in two areas," he remembers.
Before moving in, Guardia spent four months on initial renovations, tearing out inappropriate 1960s details and a bathroom added when the house was subdivided. Workers also made repairs to plaster walls, reworked plumbing and electrical systems, and replaced deteriorating ceilings in the bathrooms. "The idea was to make the house habitable," Guardia says.
When he was able to move in, he initiated intricate restoration work, tackling everything from the original light fixtures throughout the house, to the historic tile work in the master bath and kitchen, to the parquet floors—different in every room.
One space demanding attention was a solarium, added to the house in the early 1930s. A previous owner had installed acoustical tiles that obscured a vaulted ceiling, and a roof leak had left significant water damage. Guardia directed workers to rebuild the roof and restore the ceiling. They also repaired the terrazzo floor, which had cracked and discolored to a brownish hue. The restored room, which retains the original copper-clad windows and frames, has become Guardia's favorite place to lounge.
Though Guardia has preserved the house's outstanding details—the marble fireplace mantel, the white built-in cabinets in the kitchen, the stained-glass windows in the living room and baths—he has modernized the interiors with his choice of furniture: A white fiberglass Eames chaise stands in the living room, a marble Saarinen tulip table fills the kitchen. The contrast is pleasing, playful; the Modernist décor helps accentuate the distinguished 19th-century architecture and keeps it from seeming stuffy or dour.
Guardia's work is hardly done. Copper trim on the outside of the house, painted an unfortunate green, can't be stripped but can be repainted to resemble its original color. The windows—all 62—need extensive restoration work. A wood deck built onto the back of the house must be demolished. Guardia jokes that the experience of purchasing and restoring an ornate historic house has given him a newfound respect for clients: "Now that I've been through this, I know how difficult and time-consuming it is," he says.
Yet for all the temporary setbacks and frustrations, he never questions that he did the right thing by taking on this forgotten gem in a historic neighborhood. "I love it, to see a house like this coming back to what it's supposed to be," he says. "I'm very proud that I'm living here."
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