Living Large

Downsizing with style is just a matter of passion, planning, patience, know-how—and, yes, resources.

Andy Brown, former dean of students at Princeton University (“I loved the position—it was like being mayor of a small town that all the inhabitants cared about”), and his wife, Jerry (founder of the Paddle Company, which makes paddle-sports equipment), are inveterate travelers. An antique wooden puppet head from Burma, painted bottles from Stockholm, a wooden bowl from Costa Rica, and a ceramic table and chairs from Vietnam are just a few of their many exquisite mementos.

When, contemplating retirement, they decided to downsize from a 5,000-square-foot home in Skillman, it was important to them to display their collection. But not just display it—incorporate it into the very structure of their new home. “The house was designed by both of us to best meet our wishes and needs,” says Andy.

Though not an architect, Andy has an engineering degree from Princeton and had previously designed four homes for others. “I tend to learn quickly and have done a number of different things,” he says. “I taught school for a number of years, started an ice cream company in California, developed real estate. When the learning curve flattens out, I tend to change careers.”

When the design of their new home was complete, the Browns hired a local architect—Daniel Ward of Pennington—to transfer their drawings to a CAD system “for printing and delivery to the town for permits,” Andy says. “We also had him review the plans to ensure structural integrity, although occasionally we would overrule his suggestions if, for example, it hindered our ability to use the house as we had planned.”

The couple consider themselves fortunate to have found a rare empty lot in downtown Princeton—a convenient walk to restaurants, the university, the McCarter Theater, and other favorite places. The lot is 60 feet wide, and ordinances require 15-foot side-yard setbacks, meaning the exterior of the house could be no more than 30 feet wide. They surmounted the challenge by positioning the house’s 2,400-square-foot footprint sideways on the lot.

“We realized that we wanted a few large, interconnected spaces,” Andy notes, “so we needed to limit the space devoted to hallways and other transition spaces.” That led them to locate the stairwell (and a small elevator) centrally to reduce the need for long hallways on the main and upper levels. That decision led to the next—locating the entry on the side of the house, also in the middle, creating an interesting arrival experience. A curving walkway guides guests through front gardens and a cedar gate along the side of the house to an arched portico.

On the below-ground level, the Browns designed deep wells to hold large windows that would let in plenty of natural light, making the lower level—with its media room, kitchenette, sauna, and temperature- and humidity-controlled wine storage area—feel like anything but a conventional basement. A clever arrangement of joists allowed the Browns to gain ceiling height for the lower level without digging a deeper and more expensive foundation. It also enabled them to position the windows on the main level closer to the ground, “making the patios and the outside gardens feel a greater part of the whole,” Andy says.

A door manufacturer told Andy that it was impossible to build French doors at the rear of the house the way he wanted them. Andy wanted the doors to open outward onto a patio, but he also wanted the doors to have screens. That was the deal breaker for the manufacturer. So Andy figured out a way to install sliding screens that would disappear into the wall when not needed.

“We also had very strong feelings about making our house relatively maintenance free,” he says. “On the exterior we used stucco walls made of a Portland cement which should last forever. It has an acrylic coating to prevent cracking. The composite slate roof tiles are probably good for 50 years. The stained cedar trim is for looks, but cedar lasts a very long time. We will probably treat it with a preservative or stain every six years or so. All the soffits, ledger boards, and white trim boards are Azek, which is a maintenance-free material.”

Jerry affirms that the low-maintenance theme carries over to the landscaping. “Our small and manageable yard has no grass, just trees, shrubs, and ground cover,” she says. Even the deep roof overhangs, which enhance the Southeast Asian overtones of the home, mitigate the need for gutters and downspouts, eliminating another maintenance headache.

The Browns’ love of travel and adventure began in the 1990s. “Andy and I decided to go on a Princeton University alumni trip to Nepal to trek the Annapurna Circuit,” Jerry relates. “That really whetted our appetite for doing more.” After a disappointing trip to overdeveloped Thailand, Jerry signed up for a bike a trip in what she hoped would be a less touristy Vietnam.

“All the hotshot adventure bikers were there,” she says with a laugh. “I was pretty pitiful, but I did get to see the country by bike, and that was the goal. I’ve since biked all through Malaysia twice, top to bottom. Southeast Asia became our stomping ground, by bike, by foot, and by motorized vehicle only when necessary.” Among Jerry’s many biking accomplishments, she has pedaled the 1,200 miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min City a dozen times. 

Jerry’s deft touch brought the interior design to life. She started with one detail—colorful pendant light fixtures in the kitchen—and worked from there to choose colors and patterns for the rest of the home. Many of the appointments came from eBay and other online sources: the bathroom vanities, lighting fixtures, and the mahogany wine cellar, for instance.

Jerry is also fortunate to have a designer friend who let her tag along to the internationally known Designers & Decorators (D & D) Building in Manhattan to forage for product and design ideas. She found a number of things she liked, including wallpaper.

“I was dismayed by the prices,” Andy says, “so we researched a number of products online and were able to get the same result at a fraction of the original price.”

The vanities in the bathrooms, for example, are bureaus purchased from eBay and fitted with vessel sinks. Wall coverings include a gorgeous knockoff that Andy found online for a fraction of the $100-a-yard designer original. The emerging Asian theme was further developed with other wall coverings in bamboo and cork. Hand-carved doors were selected and shipped from Asia.

“The shipping was more than the cost of the doors,” says Andy with a laugh. “We wanted to transition from one room to another without a thin wall that would make an abrupt change,” says Jerry. “So the sitting room and living room have doorways that accommodate deep bookshelves at the entrances to the rooms.”

Aesthetics and practicality proved to be compatible virtues. “There are things we’ve put into our home which make life much easier,” says Jerry. The kitchen features a sink with a convenient foot pedal and a built-in steamer for preparing rice and vegetables. Handsome wooden panels open to reveal refrigerated drawers as well as warming drawers, which are especially handy when the Browns entertain.
“I put everything I’ve shopped for and am going to cook in a bottom refrigerator drawer, and then Andy knows not to eat it,” Jerry says. A small refrigerator in the master bath safely stores temperature-sensitive medications and also holds wine for the “occasional glass on the balcony.”

Overnight guests are easily accommodated with two bedrooms and baths on the upper level. In addition, Jerry notes, “all the couches are sleeper sofas, so for Princeton reunions our house can hold quite a few people.” Comments Andy: “We will be tested this year when my niece returns to Princeton to celebrate her tenth reunion with her friends. If the three sofa beds are used, we can sleep twelve.”

A third-floor loft is Jerry’s domain. It has built-in file cabinets and a place to wrap gifts, with dowels to hold supplies.

Though Andy has had double hip- replacement surgery, the Browns are in good health and quite capable of negotiating all levels of their home. But they built with an eye to the future—part of the reason for the elevator. In addition, the main level—with its full bath, kitchen, dining room, living room, and sitting room (easily turned into a bedroom)—could become a complete one-level apartment. The laundry is located on the upper level near the bedrooms, which is fine for now, saving the couple from hauling laundry up and down.

What Jerry loves most about the home is that, despite its generally open floor plan, it retains a dramatic intimacy. Like the intrigue of traveling from one exotic place to the next, each area of the Brown home invites exploration and stirs curiosity about what’s around the next corner. The Browns continue to travel and gather treasures. At the end of the journey they return to their exceptional home, the design and construction of which rivals all their other journeys.

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