N.J. home makeover: Gleaming new bathrooms in a 1929 cottage

Abigail Falls says her husband, Ralph, wanted a house that needed enough work that they could make it their own, but not so much that the structure itself was in peril.

He got his wish many times over with a charming but challenged 1929 Summit house enhanced by Flemish bond brickwork, a Vermont slate tile roof and the architectural style of an English cottage.

While the house was structurally sound, there had been numerous questionable alterations, including a leaky, nailed-on enclosure with a corrugated plastic roof that made a small sun porch.

Overall, the house had strong features.

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“The rooms are huge, and the way they were laid out is great,” Abigail Falls said. “Whoever built this house wanted you to be looking out the windows. I’m in my basement, and I am looking at New York City because we are perched on a hill. It’s a great house, it was just neglected for so long.”

Outside, neglect produced some surprising good luck. While clearing dead rhododendrons, they uncovered a pile of multicolored bluestones that helped in restoring a bluestone walkway.

“You can’t get multicolored bluestone any more,” Falls said.

They also found a pile of bricks marked Sayre and Fisher, the same type used to build their house.

“We found piles of stuff all over the place,” she said.

They were able to use the bricks in restoring the front stairs and a landing off the mudroom.

These finds supported the couple’s goal of restoring the six-bedroom house in the least invasive way and using as many of its original materials as possible.

“We did 90 percent of the work without pulling down walls,” Falls said. “We took a hard job and made it harder.”

They reused the original forged bronze door knobs and other materials.

“We kept the same footprint in the kitchen. We wanted it to look like it would have looked in 1929, except we have marble and dishwashers,” Falls said of their pure white kitchen. “We gutted the kitchen, and we put it back almost exactly as it was.”

The earliest challenges came with upgrading the home’s systems: The original plumbing was replaced. The house was rewired for greater electric capacity. An oil tank and 38 radiators had to go.

“We were burning 250 gallons of fuel a month to heat the house, and oil was $4 per gallon,” Falls said.

The house now runs entirely on natural gas and electricity with help from wireless internet connectivity.

Perhaps the biggest problem areas when they began the restoration in November 2013 were the bathrooms: three full and two half.

A toilet in the first-floor powder room was dropping down into the basement. It had likely been leaking for years — long enough to have rotted out the subfloor that had previously helped support it.

In what would become their children’s second-floor bathroom, and in the third-floor bathroom that would serve a new guest suite, electrical outlets were curiously placed on a wall near the shower in the first case and just above the floor near the bathtub in the latter. These misplaced outlets did not have the ground fault circuit interrupters that can help prevent electric shock upon contact with water, so their children showered in the master bathroom.

There, the danger was in failing grout. One evening, the heavy plaster soap dish fell off the wall, narrowly missing the feet of their 9-year-old daughter. Investigation revealed that the black tiles that matched the black flocking of the bathroom’s wallpaper were adhered to double layers of sheetrock. It concealed the bathroom’s original pink tiles in this poorly executed shortcut of a previous renovation.

Every bathroom in the house was gutted. The full bathrooms were outfitted with marble tile on walls and floors. The walls tiles are capped by marble crown molding that required numerous cuts to install on the angular walls in the children’s bathroom. In other bathrooms, the marble molding is at the ceiling line.

“The three or four tile guys, who were here for a month straight, hand-beveled the tile edges at the windows,” Falls said. “Aside from the window surrounds and parts of the dormers, there are no exposed edges to the tiles.”

The children’s bathroom has three entrances, one each for their daughters, 12 and 9, and their son, 4. The bathroom, painted a custom Benjamin Moore green, has a sea theme supported by the bubble-like globes of a chandelier by Regina Andrew Design. Above the antique dresser that serves as their vanity, a Robern medicine cabinet has mirrors with touch-operated light strips, interior electric outlets and USB ports.

“The bathrooms all have bluetooth-enabled speakers built into the medicine cabinets so one can listen to news and music and charge up phones as well,” Falls said.

In the master bathroom, the cabinets are placed above his and hers pedestal sinks. A glass-enclosed shower replaced the old bathroom’s tub and shower combination, and Falls chose another dramatic light fixture, pairing Mary McDonald’s Pythagorus pendant lights in the bathroom.

On the third floor, the clean marble tiles surround a glass-enclosed shower with a floor of black and white marble tile in a basket-weave pattern.

Falls, who has a background in art and works on residential projects through her company Grace Baker Interiors, says they selected marble for all the bathrooms because they liked the clean look, its simple elegance, reasonable cost, and how it fits their home’s period.

With four levels and 5,500 square feet, the house offered the family enough room to live in their home during various phases of demolition and construction. The bulk of the work was done in two phases and mostly completed in September 2017.

“We were able to move around the work,” Falls said. “I wanted the money to spend on the house, not on renting a house elsewhere while the work got done. Our builders were amazing, so it was fine.”

The fully finished basement is an entertaining and dining area with a powder room that features the impact of a Waynetopia wallpaper mural designed for Brooklyn’s Flavor Paper by artist Wayne White.

Falls carried the color of blue skies from the whimsical mural up to the ceiling in a Farrow & Ball blue called Borrowed Light. She had a custom light fixture installed that makes her think of the sun.

But it was views of the real world through their home’s many windows that prompted their then 6-year-old first-born daughter to help them see the best in the house despite all the work that needed to be done back in 2013.

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