Chic Convert

The top floor of a former Catholic school becomes home for a Hoboken family of four. (Photos by Jeffrey Totaro)

Nick Petruzzelli never fancied himself a real estate developer. He has always been a builder.

“From a young age, that’s all I could do—build things,” he says. “It was my gig. I was never good at much of anything else.”

When Petruzzelli learned that a vacant set of historic buildings—St. Joseph’s School and convent on the rundown south side of Hoboken—was for sale, he convinced a group of buddies to go in with him on the package. Petruzzelli would provide the labor, gutting the enormous stone buildings and creating luxury apartments.

Now, some twelve years later, Nick, 51, his wife, Jackie, 34, and their 2-year-old twins, Nicholas and Joseph, live in the triplex penthouse atop the old school building, surrounded by restored artifacts and sweeping views of Manhattan.

Originally built in 1901, St. Joseph’s School sat vacant after graduating its last students in 1991. It was just another empty building in a rough part of town.

“Twelve years ago, this was not a desirable section,” says Petruzzelli. “Everyone thought this was a ghetto.” Yet Petruzzelli and his pals formed a partnership in 1997 to purchase the two buildings for $750,000. “My partners put their money up, then sat back, and I did all the restoration work.”

The convent was converted first, in 1998. Next, Petruzzelli tackled the school building. As work progressed, so did the neighborhood. “Things really started changing,” he says. “We were in at the start.”

Slowly, the old school and the convent were transformed into 31 rental apartments. Petruzzelli pain-
stakingly restored the tin ceilings throughout the four-story building. He was able to keep many of the original windows and, most strikingly, the original school stairway. Crafted of honed granite with intricate wrought-iron railings, it literally weighs tons. Petruzzelli salvaged a major portion and moved it to what would become his own apartment.

It was not until the individual apartments began to take shape that the Petruzzellis decided to claim one of the four penthouse apartments as their own. Once there, Jackie, a realtor, discovered she was pregnant with twins. What had been a comfortable 2,500-square-foot space seemed too tight. “We were sitting around one night thinking about how we could gain more space and Jackie said, ‘Let’s build up,’” says Petruzzelli. “It was a crazy thought that worked.”

Once the permits were in place, Petruzzelli busted through the ceiling, adding three bedrooms, two full baths, and a sitting room on what had been the roof. There is also a spacious terrace off the master suite, where the growing family can grill and garden. Petruzzelli crafted a replica staircase, complete with honed granite and wrought-iron railings, to join the addition to the loft space below.

Meanwhile, Jackie took on the task of decorating the apartment. For help, she brought in interior designer Tracey Butler, of b.home interiors in Livingston. The two immediately hit it off. “Jackie wanted modern but not crazy,” says Butler. “It had to be comfortable and durable, yet sophisticated. Jackie is big into black and cream, but we did it all in textured fabrics that are durable and stain-treated, since the boys are all over everything.”

Much of the furniture was custom-designed by Butler, including the living room sofa and chairs. The dining room and coffee tables are pressed bamboo. “They’re textured so they don’t show little fingerprints,” says Butler. The dining room light fixtures are wire-mesh nickel—“both formal and industrial looking,” she adds.
In the kitchen, original beams were left exposed, creating a loft-like setting. Appliances are professional grade. “I cook here every night,” says Jackie. “This kitchen really gets a workout.”

In what had been the master suite before the expansion, Butler created a playroom for the boys. “It’s the only room with a punch of color,” she says. The durable plastic cubbies are perfect for stashing toys “but still manage to look sophisticated,” she adds. Butler was able to carve out unexpected desk space for Jackie, tucked under the massive staircase. Custom-designed cubbies, mimicking those in the adjacent playroom, hold papers and family mementos.

Upstairs in the master suite, the design directive “sophisticated” takes on a whole new meaning. “Jackie wanted a spa-like retreat,” says Butler. The neutral color scheme—a restful palette of taupes and creams—allows the view of Manhattan to dominate. The open bathroom, with a soaking tub and wall-less shower (“We originally planned to put up a wall,” says Jackie, “but then we found we liked it this way.”) has river-rock walls and floors. Artwork and decorative accessories are kept to a minimum; wrap-around windows allow natural light to pour in.

The end result is just what Jackie wanted: “It’s a Manhattan look in a New Jersey apartment,” she says.

Tracey Butler, b.home interiors, 973-597-1551,

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