Diamond in the Rough

A Rumson cottage built in the 1800s was in shambles when designer Susan Rosenthal and her family moved in. Nearly a decade later, the restored home’s appeal is on full display—inside and out

Surrounded by greenery and perennials in bloom, Abbey Lake Cottage is an oasis. Ferns hanging from the porch rafters sway slightly in the spring breeze coming from the nearby Navesink River. It’s a picturesque and inviting view. But it wasn’t always this way.

The cottage in Rumson was a wreck when Susan and Bruce Rosenthal discovered it nearly abandoned while out on a Sunday drive. Originally built as a farm manager’s cottage (the original estate burned down in 1920), the dwelling had survived various owners and residents, including an American ambassador to Belgium who was a member of the socially prominent Biddle family. The original owner had been John Patterson, the first sheriff of Monmouth County.

The eight-and-a-half-acre property, once the site of the Lake Marion Ice Co., had evidence to suggest its past—broken steps leading to the river and remnants of a windmill that once stood there. There didn’t appear to be much left to reclaim.

But somehow the Rosenthals fell in love at first sight. They purchased the property from owners who lived in Virginia and moved into the cottage in January 1998, leaving behind their ranch-style home in Fair Haven. The property was not even outfitted with a modern electrical system. No matter. “We saw the charm,” says Susan, an interior designer.

The reclamation project required vision—and a lot of hard work. It took the couple and their three teenage children six months just to get the space cleaned up and “livable.” They completed the kitchen first, combining three small rooms at the back of the house into one space, before starting work on the rest of the structure.KITCHEN: Upon moving in, “I wanted to get the kitchen in as quickly as possible,” Susan says. Three small rooms at the back of the house were opened into one large space, and cabinets were built to match the existing top glass cabinetry. DuPont Corian was used for the countertop. Tile is from Imperial Tile in Shrewsbury. Stove by Jenn-Air.

As they stripped away layers of wallpaper and linoleum and cut into walls, they gained a deeper understanding of their new home. “There’s a multitude of things you find out,” says Susan. “Everything has a story here.” She found an early Edison lightbulb—and an old crank from a generator—in what was once the furnace room (now the laundry room). Another discovery was a window concealed by plaster, wallpaper, and linoleum. Susan also found World War II–era newspapers stuffed within the walls, where they were serving as insulation. And she discovered a novena (a written prayer book) from the 1800s in the wall of her daughter Karrin’s room.

ENTRANCE ROOM: A curio cabinet sits in the entryway that leads to a small dining area. The floor, made of rough-cut slate, was cleaned with muriatic acid and covered with a polyurethane sealer to look like new. Skylights are from Velux. (Editor’s note: Muriatic acid is an extremely hazardous cleaning material. Extreme caution is advised.)

A large foyer leads to an eating area off the kitchen, built at the center of the house; the Rosenthals removed the ceiling and added four skylights to the second-story ceiling above. Working with contractor Jim Garrigan of Point Pleasant, they connected the main part of the house to the garage by turning a shed that stood between them into a home office. The office is now attached to the house by a small hallway and to the garage by a breezeway. The result is a continuous exterior line that curves toward the property entrance in welcome. The garage, designed during renovation to resemble a stable, was topped off with a cupola. By chance, Susan chose a deep raspberry red color for the living room, then discovered while stripping old paint that it was the same color as that used in the room by the original owners.

Susan says that in working with any older home, “You can either restore or you can renovate to bring up to code.” In this case, the Rosenthals did both, salvaging the original moldings and the wood and stone floors while getting a modern electrical system and putting in new appliances. Today, there are automatic garage doors, a sprinkler system, an alarm system, zoned heating and air conditioning, and recessed lights. The owners of the old ice company that once stood on the property might be amused to know that the refrigerator has an ice-maker.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is that Susan and Bruce are still on speaking terms. “We should have moved out,” says Susan of living in the home during the four-year project. But it’s clear that the effort and commitment they gave to the house have now bloomed into an exuberant enjoyment of living there.

“Toward the end of May, we’ll hear the boats and the boat horns,” Susan says as she sits on the front porch, nodding toward the Navesink. All the hassles, it appears, are water under the bridge.

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