Cherie King recently produced her first off-Broadway show, but it was not her first major production. Earlier, she and husband Jonathan Brielle, a noted composer, had tackled a similarly complicated challenge, meticulously restoring a historic homestead in Tewksbury Township. True to form, the restoration was staged with style and flair.
Flashback to 2005; King was living in Morris Township with son Dylan, then 14, when the boy—eager for more space—discovered the Tewksbury house online. The property had a main house, circa 1742, set on nearly 10 acres. King took one look and was hooked. She and Brielle married a short time later and began the elaborate renovation, eager to complete it so they could move there with Dylan as well as Brielle’s twins, Lauren and Jeremy, then 13.
In addition to the main house, the expansive property includes an old schoolhouse, a springhouse, two ponds and a waterfall. Two additions had been tacked onto the original 1742 structure, first in 1850 and again 100 years later.
The couple initially turned their attention to the schoolhouse. Built in the early 1800s, it had been moved from Farmersville Road to the Tewksbury property by an earlier owner. Brielle, a theatrical composer, lyricist and author, needed a writing room and studio; the schoolhouse—oddly shaped with dirt floors—would be reconfigured to play the part.
Brielle, with King’s help, drew up an idea on a napkin, which morphed into the plans they collaborated on with Gladstone architect Art Palombo.
“Jonathan was the expert when it came to the studio,” says Palombo. “I just carried out his plan.” The job took three months. The old schoolhouse now contains an elaborate recording studio that has hosted, among others, jazz saxophonist Andy Snitzer and Tony-nominated recording artist Melissa Errico. In his writing room, Brielle completed the score for Himself and Nora, a musical he wrote based on James Joyce and his lifelong love and muse, Nora. The show opened in June at the Minetta Lane Theatre in New York City.
With the studio complete, King and Brielle focused on the main house. The goal was to “strip off all the years, including the 1950s addition,” says King. “It was awful.”
In creating his plan for the renovation, Palombo wanted to provide his clients with sweeping views of their spectacular property, with its ponds, rolling lawn and surrounding woods. He designed a new family room with walls of windows on three sides to open up the backyard view. Directly above is the new master bedroom with a similar vista.
“Art has a great sensibility for someone’s lifestyle,” says King. “Along with the architectural details, he gets how to make a home livable.” The family room is two steps down from the kitchen, also new, but designed to look like it has been around for years. The floor and countertop are stone, and there are two styles of cabinets, adding warmth to the space.
Like the adjoining family room, the kitchen provides a panorama of the property. But it’s the family room where the family spends the most time. Palombo designed the room’s coffered ceiling for character, but also to provide sound insulation. “It softens the sound since the room is mostly glass,” he explains. To complement the period look, the fireplace surround came from a salvage yard.
Other rooms from the original structure were meticulously restored, including the 1850s piano room and the cozy library, dating back to 1742. As with any old-home restoration, there were surprises along the way. The crew uncovered sandbag insulation deep inside the home’s original framing and revealed the original—and beautiful—pine and walnut floors after removing the newer oak planking.
Attention to detail was paramount. Much of the new trim was cut by hand so it could be seamless with the old. The couple also restored the elaborately carved stairway handrail. Upstairs, six bedrooms ramble through connecting hallways; their odd intersections add to the overall charm. Only the master-bedroom suite is new.
An existing entry was ramped up to create a more private main entrance. The original front door leads to the smaller of the two ponds and the springhouse. The charming stone structure was originally used for food storage before refrigeration. “It keeps things cool in the summer and warm in the winter,” says King. The springhouse connects to an old brick patio where the kitchen was once located. “The original kitchen was never part of the house. It was next to the house,” says King. It’s now a dining terrace where the couple entertains.
To tie the space together, King and Brielle brought in Anthony Sblendorio of Back to Nature, a landscape-design firm in Basking Ridge. Sblendorio designed the pool and surrounding stone-and-brick patio to blend with the natural area. “It’s important to us that everything looks like it all belongs,” says King.
Another surprise popped up while digging the pool. The landscapers hit an underground spring, a water supply that continued to fill in the hole as quickly as the workers could dig it out, says King. Ultimately, the water was channeled away from the excavation site and the pool completed. Naturally, it has become a favorite gathering spot for the family.
Back inside, King and Brielle adorned the rooms with their extensive art collection. Among their prized possessions: the Salvador Dali sketches of Shakespeare plays displayed in the upstairs hallway and a painting by 20th-century American artist Walter Stuempfig, which hangs in the living room. Another notable piece is the hand-blown Venetian-glass chandelier purchased by the couple during their Venice honeymoon. “We shipped it here,” says Brielle. “It arrived with millions of pieces, all individually wrapped.”
With the home project complete, the couple turned to Brielle’s show. King had never produced before, but decided she was up for the challenge. Billed as the untold story of James Joyce and Nora Barnacle, Himself and Nora found a home first in San Diego, and later on Rahway’s Hamilton Stage. Its three-month off-Broadway run ended on August 6. The New York Times called it “a lively, sometimes lusty, spin through the love life, troubles and literary times of the great Irish writer.” Be it home or show, the couple has proven its mettle as a production team.Click here to leave a comment