Traditional Building Portfolio



Victorian Revival

A Queen Anne restoration updates the bathroom and kitchen to meet contemporary needs without sacrificing style and atmosphere.

Project: Fearn residence, Morristown, NJ

Architects: Clawson Architects, LLC, Maplewood, NJ; Marvin Clawson, AIA, NCARB, and Mary René Clawson, AIA, principals

By Nicole V. Gagné

When Todd and Gina Fearn purchased their Queen Anne-style home in 1991, they were fulfilling a dream that dated back to the early years of their courtship: to own and restore an old Victorian house. But they had to use a good deal of imagination to picture the true beauty of their new home. The Morristown, NJ, residence was a large, three-story structure, built in 1900, which had been converted into a boarding house by its previous owner, and was covered with white aluminum siding – and further adorned with fire escapes for its previous tenants. The Fearns soon realized that they would need professional help to restore the house, and so they turned to their friends Marvin Clawson, AIA, NCARB, and Mary René Clawson, AIA: the principals and founders of Clawson Architects, LLC, in Maplewood, NJ.

"Marvin and I have known Todd and Gina since 1989," Mary René Clawson recalls. "They were only the third owners of the house, but it was still in need of repair. They wanted to take their time and plan the work properly, to avoid doing things twice. So they started by moving in and fixing the little things, minor repairs, while we developed a master plan for the restoration of the house. Fortunately, the original clapboard and cedar shingles of the exterior were still there after the siding and fire escapes were removed. The red slate roof had been neglected, and because red slate is typically fragile and breaks easily when walked on, Todd and Gina went ahead and bought a palette of red slate, to be used for whatever roofing repairs might be necessary – there’s still some of it in their garage." Once the house was freed of its aluminum straitjacket, all the exterior required was a careful paint job with historical colors – gold and green, with dark red to accent the window trim, porch columns and rails – to make it a handsome feature of the streetscape again. The interior, however, demanded a great deal more effort.

Complicating that effort was the steady expansion of the Fearn family, blessed with three daughters born between 1994 and 1999. With these young girls in mind, Mary René Clawson devised an inspired design for the main-hall bathroom, a 10x12-ft. space that all the children would be using: "We thought it would be nice to design it in such a way that the girls could share the space but still be separate, and I came up with a plan that also enabled us to move the fixtures as little as possible. Basically, the shower, sink and toilet are still in the same location; we just turned them around and enhanced them. The sink was replaced by a vanity with a double sink, and the shower door was relocated to make room for the vanity." The Fearns also added a ball-and-claw slipper bathtub, and the bathroom was subdivided into four discrete sections: an alcove for the tub, a separate shower stall, a private water closet for the toilet and the vanity/sink area. A stained-glass window, discovered between the house’s sun porch and a closet, was removed and installed in the wall between the toilet and tub, permitting sunlight from the water-closet window to further brighten the bathroom while still maintaining privacy in the W.C.

Appropriately, angels became the design theme of the bathroom, with cherubic images appearing on the bowls of the marble sinks and in the custom mantel-framed mirror above the Victorian-style vanity, which was designed by Mary René Clawson and built by Peter Medias of Fine Woodworks, Inc., in Brooklyn, NY. "It’s a timeless design and looks like it’s always been there," enthuses Marvin Clawson, and Mary René Clawson adds, "Todd and Gina were just thrilled with the layout. To this day, visitors always ask them about the bathroom – everyone who sees it gets excited. It is still turning heads and probably will for a long time. With its classic elegance and its traditional period look, it will never go out of style."

As work on the house progressed, the Clawsons had to deal with one unexpected development after another. "The job required a lot of thinking on your feet," Marvin Clawson says. "There were plenty of surprises as we opened up the house, such as the kitchen windows, which had been boarded over with insulation and drywall by the previous owner." Even after they were reopened, the Clawsons realized that the kitchen would require more light, and so they added a new double window above the sink. "We had to bring in a structural engineer to make sure that the lintels would be strong enough to carry the load of the wall," Mary René Clawson notes. "The window was built by the same person who did the custom red oak kitchen cabinets, and they were made to very closely resemble the cabinets in the butler’s pantry, which were original to the house. The only real difference is that new cabinets are higher than the originals, and they have slides on them, as opposed to the box drawers of the old cabinets."

The goal with the 28x14-ft. kitchen was to make it into "a working kitchen that has some weight to it," she says. "That’s why we went with the big copper hood and the two farm sinks. But it was also important that the kitchen, like the girls’ bathroom, should look as though it’s always been there. We took some artistic license in its design, but made sure to stay faithful to the period and style of the house." In this effort, the Clawsons added custom French doors to the kitchen. "In the proposed design, we called for the demolition of an area that looked to be an ad hoc addition to accommodate a sink in the existing kitchen," she explains. "But once the plaster was down, we saw from the framing that the placement of the doors was in fact original to the house."

The Clawsons’ efforts to keep these redesigned rooms within the house’s Victorian idiom became all the more important because the house itself was so sparing in its use of ornament. "This house originally didn’t have much of the heavy detailing often seen in Victorian interiors, and we kept it that way," she comments. "That’s one reason why Todd and Gina’s visitors are constantly remarking on how light and cheerful the house is." Instead, much of the home’s fine Victoriana consists of antique furnishings brought in by the Fearns for their eight bedrooms, along with other eye-catching items such as a vintage carved-walnut sideboard in the dining room and an antique cast-iron parlor stove, which has been refurbished to work with gas.

The Fearn residence epitomizes the avowed aim of Clawson Architects: "When working with historic homes, we respect the existing details and style. We preserve and enhance the original architecture, while including modern amenities, making a seamless transition between what is new and what is original to the home…. As residential-design specialists, we are fortunate to work with our clients as an integral part of the design process in an effort to realize their dreams." The beautiful dreams of Todd and Gina Fearn are today a reality that will continue to bring joy and satisfaction to their family in the years to come.  

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