Newsweek Columnist Jonathan Alter interprets history as it happens.At home,he steeps himself in the past ,including the edigree of his Victorian dream house.
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Jonathan Alter is a writer, not an actor, but in the summer of 1994 he and his wife, Emily Lazar, put on a performance as if their futures depended on it.
Every actor needs a motivation, and theirs was stark and simple. Living in a two-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with their new baby and two older children, they knew they needed to move, and soon. After looking at other towns, they decided Montclair suited them best. (Why Montclair? See box, page 137.) But after months of frenetic house-hunting, they had come up empty. It was desperation time.
“We wanted a Victorian, but they didn’t come on the market very often in our price range,” explains Alter, the award-winning Newsweek media and politics columnist and author of The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. “We saw many houses that didn’t speak to us at all. We looked at a lot of modern houses that were so flimsy you could easily punch your fist through the doors. They also had no character.
“We had almost given up. Then our agent said, ‘Go to this open house.’”
They sped to the address on Montclair’s stately Upper Mountain Avenue and were charmed before they even went inside. The 1879 Victorian—designed by Henry Hudson Holly, the same architect responsible for Glenmont, Thomas Edison’s Queen–Anne style estate in West Orange—had an intriguing asymmetrical design with a ground-level porch, intersecting roof lines, and a satisfying balance of detail and stalwart simplicity.
Opening the front door, they stepped into a large, bright foyer, illuminated by a decorative window on the staircase landing. For Alter, the foyer was “love at first sight.” They took a quick look around. The house, Alter was delighted to discover, “was surprisingly open and airy, unlike some Victorians, which can seem small and dark.
“We were there about two minutes when we called in a bid.”
Now came the acting. Not wanting to betray their excitement and spur competition, they assumed the role of dour, disparaging doubters. “We stayed for the rest of the open house, doing method acting, mumbling comments like, ‘This kitchen is so old,’ and ‘This house needs a ton of work,’” Alter says.
Though clearly no threat to Christine Ebersole, Joe Morton, or Montclair’s many other fine actors, the couple did manage, after fending off a few other bids, to land their dream house.
“We did an inexpensive finishing on the basement and knocked out a false ceiling as part of a third-floor renovation,” Alter says. “We also added central air. The living room had been painted pink, and we changed that, but fortunately the previous owners had good taste, and we even bought several fixtures and pieces of furniture from them as part of the deal.
“I wanted to redo our kitchen,” he adds, “but my wife had the foresight to see that the expensive white kitchen we would pay through the nose for would be out of fashion soon enough.”
The kitchen they kept radiates character: It has antique tile, wood paneling, exposed brick and a stove built in 1957—the year Alter was born. That stove, he points out, has produced “many fine turkeys.”
Old houses do require more care and feeding than young ones. “We’ve had to do work on our furnace and in the basement to prevent flooding, and our heating bills are a bit higher than in a new house,” Alter admits.
Alter and Lazar, who books guests on Comedy Central’s The Colbert Report (whose host, Stephen Colbert, also lives in Montclair),partially renovated two of the house’s four bathrooms. But they left intact the bathroom used by daughter Charlotte, now 17. (Tommy, 15, and Molly, 13, round out the crew.) Charlotte’s bathroom has light green tiling with a pink sink, tub, and toilet. Alter shows it off proudly.
“I love this bathroom,” he says. “It’s so Marilyn Monroe/Hollywood.”
Not too big, not too small, the house seems to fit the family just right. “The previous owner to us ran a cruise line,” Alter says. “He and his wife had no children. Our house is not so big that you’d get lonely in it without children, though we no doubt will, when in five years the last one goes away to college.”
One reason Alter and Lazar wanted to buy a Victorian is because the style evokes pleasant memories for both of them.
“The house I grew up in during the 1960s and 1970s was built in 1890 on Chicago’s North Side, on what was then farmland,” says Alter, 49. “It was a rambling Victorian with a lot of yard for the city. I have fantastic memories of that house and still dream of it often, although my parents sold it in 1986. Emily grew up in an old house, too, in Middletown, New York.”
The writer’s fascination with history began in that Chicago house. His parents— Jim, a refrigeration and air conditioning wholesaler, and Joanne—were active in Democratic politics. In 1972, Joanne became the first woman in the Chicago area elected to public office. She won the job of commissioner of the water reclamation district, and later ran for lieutenant governor.
“My parents threw memorable parties there that included many governors and senators and Martin Luther King Jr. and Oprah Winfrey, among other guests,” their son recalls. “I became interested in American presidents when I was about three or four. When I learned to say them in order, my parents called me the only historian in the world who didn’t know how to read.”
Alter became an inveterate collector, starting with plastic presidential figurines he bought at a local supermarket as a boy. Today, the complete set (the last figure made was Nixon) is among many pieces of Americana and personal history displayed in the seven-bedroom Montclair house. There are busts of Lincoln, FDR and Kennedy; framed political cartoons clipped from the nineteenth-century satirical magazines Puck and Judge; photos of the columnist and his children with Colin Powell, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ted Koppel, and other notables.
One favorite piece of memorabilia is a replica of a voting-machine panel, complete with little levers, that was used in Chicago to show people how to vote.
“These were sold by the Chicago Board of Election in the 1980s for less than $100 apiece, and my parents bought one for me,” Alter says. “The ballot in the contraption is from 1960—Kennedy versus Nixon.”
The historian in him cannot resist adding, “As you may recall, that was a rather controversial election in Cook County. However, it’s a myth that the Democrats won the White House by stealing votes in Chicago. Even had Kennedy lost Illinois, he still had enough electoral votes to win.”
History resonates not only on the walls, but also in the bones of the house. The structure, Alter says, is one of the few remaining buildings designed by Holly, an important nineteenth-century architect who was an early proponent of the Queen Anne style. Alter has been researching the architect in hopes of having the house designated a landmark to protect its future.
From fellow Montclair author and Edison biographer Neil Baldwin, Alter says he learned that Edison fired Holly, accusing him (unjustly) of using inferior materials. Edison’s pretext gave Alter a laugh. “Everything in this house has lasted so long and is of such better quality than the construction built today,” he says.
In a book by Yale architecture professor Vincent Scully called The Shingle Style and the Stick Style, Alter came across another slap at Holly. This one he takes serious issue with, as it impugns the room that Alter fell in love with at first sight.
“Scully wrote of Holly’s Queen Anne Victorians that the large foyer in the design unhappily chops [the space], and that it‘s neither fish nor fowl,” says Alter, frowning. “To that I say, ‘Fiddlesticks!’”
Amazing guy. He not only collects Americana, he speaks it, too.
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