Mission Possible

With a passion for arts and crafts design and the serene lifestyle it represents, an Oradell family restores an original Gustav Stickley home, step by painstaking step. (Photos by Ray Stubblebine)

Ray Stubblebine just may be Gustav Stickley’s biggest fan. He has collected Stickley furniture and decorative accessories for years, amassing a virtual museum of original and reproduction (he prefers the term re-issued) Arts and Crafts pieces. He sits on the board of trustees at the Craftsman Farms Foundation—the organization that oversees operations for the Stickley Museum and Craftsman Farms property in Parsippany—and conducts seminars on Arts and Crafts style. He wrote the definitive book on Stickley-designed homes, a 526-page, 7-pound tome titled Stickley’s Craftsman Homes (Gibbs Smith, September 2006), which features the 254 Stickley houses. And finally, he and his wife, Ulana Ilnytzky, have meticulously restored—over the last 26 years—an original Stickley home, built in 1911 in Oradell.

Gustav Stickley (1858-1942), while not the father of the Arts and Crafts movement, was perhaps its most prolific practitioner, leaving behind a wealth of material, much of it in New Jersey. He popularized the style—also referred to as Mission—in the early 1900s in his home plans, furniture, and decorative accessories, and promoted it in his publication, the Craftsman magazine. His family’s homestead, Craftsman Farms, is in Parsippany. The massive log home there, on what was once 650 acres of farmland, is where Stickley and his wife, Eda, lived with their six children, and where Gustav had his most productive period.

Historians agree Stickley was ahead of his time, promoting a simple lifestyle thoroughly connected to the environment, a mantra he and his family lived by. The property was awarded National Historic Landmark status just twenty years ago, and since then, gradual restoration and preservation has returned it to a near-original state. It’s now open to the public. (This fall a series of special events will kick off the Centennial Celebration of Stickley’s Log Home. See story, next page.)

Similarly, Stubblebine has spent the last two decades restoring his home. Ray and Ulana started out as collectors in the mid-’80s and discovered they were attracted to the simplicity of the Mission style. “We started picking it up in auctions and flea markets,” says Ray. “Eventually we replaced all the Victorian stuff we had with Arts and Crafts pieces.”

His attraction to the style became a near-obsession. “It’s honest furniture,” he explains. “It is what it is. It doesn’t pretend to be something else.”

Having amassed a significant collection, the couple set out to find an Arts and Crafts home to display their finds. They happened upon the Oradell house, knowing it was the right style but having no idea it was a Stickley original. “We knew it had potential under layers of paint, but we had no idea what we would discover,” says Ray.

After stripping the woodwork, they discovered bare spots where stain had never penetrated the wood. They looked closer and discovered that the inglenook—a recessed area with two benches alongside the massive fireplace—had been torn out. One thing led to another, and they realized what they had: Craftsman House number 104, designed by Stickley and sold as architectural drawings in the early 1900s.

After purchasing the home, Stubblebine came across Gustav Stickley, The Craftsman by Mary Ann Smith (Dover Publications, 1992). “It was basically the first biography on Stickley, and it made me more aware of his architecture,” explains Ray. “No one had really looked at that. It was all about the furniture, that was the big deal.” Subsequently, Stubblebine went on to publish a book of all Stickley’s home designs—254 different floor plans in total, a dozen of which were built in New Jersey.

Restoration of the home has been a massive undertaking, especially since both Ray, a photojournalist, and Ulana, a newspaper reporter, work full time. They’ve restored it “respectfully,” explains Ray, doing their best to remain true to Stickley’s original plan.

“We’re almost done—another year or two,” Ray reports. “The kitchen is done, the living room is in good shape.”

Stubblebine insists that his two now-grown daughters loved living in a significant house. “They were quite happy growing up in it. If they had complaints, it was more about the lifestyle than the house itself—we didn’t have a big huge television. We did a lot of reading. But they never complained about the lack of air conditioning or the lack of space in the bathroom.

“We try to keep it uncomplicated, which is what Stickley was all about, ” he continues. “My family is different because of this house. There’s a depth to it, an understanding of nature and beauty and fine design. This house certainly made our life a better life.”

The original sketch (above) of the house, No. 104, from Stickley’s magazine, the Craftsman. The deed indicates the house cost $4,000 to build in 1911.

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  1. Christine Gianni Gardner

    Fantastic article, now to find the other 10 homes in NJ.