A Craftsman Christmas in Parsippany

An historic home in Parsippany is the perfect setting for the holidays.

Catherine Mathis and Bob Burchell’s Parsippany house was built by Gustav Stickley in 1912. Dubbed the Mystery House, its original purpose is unknown. Now, it’s the couple’s weekend retreat.
Catherine Mathis and Bob Burchell’s Parsippany house was built by Gustav Stickley in 1912. Dubbed the Mystery House, its original purpose is unknown. Now, it’s the couple’s weekend retreat.
Photo by Laura Moss

Katherine Mathis and Bob Burchell own a piece of New Jersey history. Their weekend getaway is the only privately owned structure remaining on the grounds of Craftsman Farms, famed designer Gustav Stickley’s estate in Parsippany. It’s also the perfect setting for Mathis and Burchell to host friends and family for the holidays.

Stickley, the renowned American furniture designer and champion of the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th-century, lived in the Garden State for much of his adult life. He developed Craftsman Farms on 650 acres in 1908; the main structure, a log home, was intended as a school for boys, but the idea never took off. Instead, Stickley and his wife, Eda, raised their six children there. Stickley built several other buildings on the property, including stables, a dairy barn and chicken coop, and housing for his workers.

Furnishings reflect “the spirit of the home,” says Mathis, including the original card catalog acquired from the New York Times. The original front door is on the adjacent wall; the dining room just beyond.

Furnishings reflect “the spirit of the home,” says Mathis, including the original card catalog acquired from the New York Times. The original front door is on the adjacent wall; the dining room just beyond. Photo by Laura Moss

Stickley intended the farm to be self-sufficient, but the couple’s bliss was short-lived. Stickley fell on hard times and filed for bankruptcy in 1915; he sold the home and land two years later. Parcels of land were subdivided and sold off over the years. In 1989, the town of Parsippany-Troy Hills stepped in, establishing eminent domain and blocking the proposed development of a townhome community.

The preserved main structure now operates as the Stickley Museum and has been designated a National Historic Landmark. Nearby, on the same storied land, Mathis and Burchell have made their cherished weekend home. (They also have a home in Manhattan.)

The 2,500-square-foot cottage Mathis and Burchell bought nearly 26 years ago was built in 1912 as part of the Stickley estate. The house is commonly referred to as the Mystery House or the Herder’s Cottage since its original purpose was never determined. “Some thought it was a cottage for a caretaker, or maybe for a bakery,” Mathis says. “Many call it the Herder’s Cottage, but what they were herding, we’re really not sure.” Whatever the case, the couple have made it their own.

“We tried to make the home contemporary but still have the spirit of the Arts and Crafts Movement,” says Mathis. The spirit is vintage Stickley and promotes his ideals: an abundance of exposed wood, an open floor plan, simple moldings, built-in nooks, shelves and bookcases. Stickley’s design of the Mathis/Burchell home is published in Stickley’s Craftsman Homes: Plans, Drawings, Photographs, by Ray Stubblebine (Gibbs Smith, 2006). The author refers to it as Stickley’s mystery house and describes its “stone first floor and shingle second floor capped by a low-pitched, wide-eaved roof.”

Poinsettias add holiday color to the renovated kitchen.

Poinsettias add holiday color to the renovated kitchen. Photo by Laura Moss

The Renovation

After acquiring the home, Mathis and Burchell upgraded the electrical system, added central air conditioning, and installed a new roof and new patios on either side of the house. The kitchen was another priority. “It needed a lot of work,” says Burchell. “We got rid of a lot of Mexican tile from the previous owners.” Eventually, the couple tackled the second level, a cobbled-together layout of several small rooms.

“The project just continued to morph into a much bigger project,” says Mathis. The couple’s contractor, Tom Menard of Mountain Lakes, recommended they meet interior designer Katja van der Loo, owner of Papyrus Home Design in Boonton. A creative partnership was formed—but first, van der Loo needed to be immersed in the Arts and Crafts concept. That was easy. “Catherine and Bob took me right across the street to the museum,” says van der Loo. She had no problem embracing Stickley’s sensibility. “Balance and proportion are really important to me,” she says.

Next, van der Loo got to work reorganizing the entire second floor. Most notably, she overhauled the cozy family room. Located off the master bedroom, it was clad in knotty-pine paneling, courtesy of the previous owners. Van der loo removed the paneling and added a fireplace and flanking bookshelves. It’s now the couple’s favorite hangout. “You walk into this room and it feels like it’s hugging you,” says Mathis. She selected the sculptural, blown-glass light fixture. “Stickley is so masculine,” she says. “The fixture adds a feminine touch.” Two original doors remain, one on each end of the room.

The rooms on the main floor were redecorated, putting an emphasis on mementos that Mathis and Burchell have gathered on their world travels. “They have these wonderful collections,” says van der Loo. “My main focus is that their collections shine.” For a backdrop, van der Loo used neutrals and earth tones. “It’s all very organic,” she says. “Mossy-blue-grey green. Lots of textures and natural fibers.”

The Mathis/Burchell Christmas tree is adorned with ornaments collected around the world.

The Mathis/Burchell Christmas tree is adorned with ornaments collected around the world. Photo by Laura Moss

To furnish the home, Mathis and Burchell acquired several original Stickley pieces, as well as Stickley reissues, and Arts and Crafts pieces from other period furniture makers (such as Cadillac). “We’ve tried to restore the spirit of the house,” says Mathis, “and that includes the way we’ve furnished it.”

One show-stopping piece: a large, oak card catalog, still chock-full of cards from the library at the New York Times, where Mathis served as head of corporate communications. “When the company moved from 229 West 43rd Street to Eighth Avenue, many of the old pieces were auctioned at Christie’s,” she says. “When I saw this, I just knew I had to have it.”

The Holidays

Mathis and Burchell deck the halls, literally, for the holidays. Evergreen garlands and wreaths adorn every doorway. Fresh greens, holly berries, pine cones, and bright red amaryllises and poinsettias cover every available surface.

Their tree, set in a corner by a little-used Dutch door original to the house, is loaded with ornaments collected from all corners of the globe. “We buy an ornament wherever we travel,” says Mathis. “There are ornaments from Tibet, Costa Rica, a camel from UAE.”

The couple open their house to friends and family every Christmas, hosting a large holiday gathering.

Says Mathis, “This is a house that says ‘Come in and make yourself at home.’”

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