Work In Progress
Karsten Staiger and his wife, Jennifer Warren-Staiger, took one look at the grand Victorian house in Newburgh and had to have it. Buying it turned out to be the
easy part. Restoring it is another matter
by Maureen Belden
Photographs by Karsten Staiger
When you visit the 19th-century house that Karsten Staiger and his wife, Jennifer Warren-Staiger, are restoring in the city of Newburgh, they will greet you in kneepads and face masks, work-gloved hands warmly extended. Pointing to crumbling plaster and rebuilt walls, they will then get down on their knees and wipe away construction dust to reveal the elegant, inlaid herringbone pattern of an oak floor, then make sure you see the exquisite molding on a fire-damaged ceiling.
For all the neglect this house has endured, there are glorious details remarkably preserved. Some might be daunted by the scale of the restoration the house requires, but not this couple. Â¡Â°Not at all!Â¡Â± says Warren-Staiger. They embrace the endeavor to make their home a grand residence again.
Â¡Â°I am hopelessly addicted to home improvement shows on television,Â¡Â± says Warren-Staiger. Â¡Â°I love old houses, and I desperately wanted to restore one.Â¡Â± Her husband, a photographer and painter, grew up in the Black Forest region of Germany and played as a child in a castle in his hometown, so he, too, relished the prospect of living in a historic building. Â¡Â°I realized how much I missed it,Â¡Â± he says.
The Staigers, who own a digital photography studio in New York City, fell in love with the Newburgh house in October 2002, when they saw it on an Internet auction site. Originally constructed of clapboard, now covered with gray asbestos, the house was built in two parts Â¡Âª the left side in the late 1830s, and the right side, which features large bay windows, in 1898. According to the coupleÂ¡Â¯s research, it was built by John J. Monnell, a member of a prominent Newburgh family. Only a small number of owners lived in the house before it was finally divided into a four-family dwelling, says Warren-Staiger.
The decrepitude of the house never blinded the couple to its beauty. John Johnson, who had lived in the house since the 1960s, led them inside when they saw it for the first time. Â¡Â°It was a terrible situation, condemned and unsafe,Â¡Â± says Warren-Staiger. They snaked their way into the back parlor, which Johnson had painted black in an attempt to mask the effects of damage from a basement fire. It was dusk in the blackened room, so there was little light. Â¡Â°But we both looked up and could make out the ceiling carving, and we knew,Â¡Â± says Warren-Staiger. Because of the condition of the rest of the house, it was the only space they saw, but it was enough: Â¡Â°We had to have this house,Â¡Â± she adds.
Before the couple could bid on it, though, the house was removed from auction. They ended up buying another house in Newburgh, also in need of massive restoration, and in what people warned them was a bad neighborhood. (They still own that house, too.) But the Monnell house continued to haunt their thoughts.
The couple soon became close friends with Michael Gabor, an advocate for Newburgh preservation who, coincidentally, lives in his own grand mansion next door to the condemned house. Gabor Â¡Â°graciously hosted us every weekendÂ¡Â± during their restoration work, says Warren-Staiger. Eventually, Staiger heard that the Monnell house was again up for sale, and the couple began to explore its other rooms. The more they saw, the more they were determined to do Â¡Â°anything it takes to buy this house,Â¡Â± says Warren-Staiger.
They give Johnson credit for ensuring that the house remained intact, despite its being condemned by the city. Â¡Â°If John Johnson hadnÂ¡Â¯t watched over the property, everything would be gone,Â¡Â± says Warren-Staiger decisively. Â¡Â°He guarded this house. He loved it. He preserved all the details Â¡Âª tiles, woodwork, fixtures, fireplace inserts. We feel extremely grateful to have them.Â¡Â± The Staigers maintain such a respectful relationship with Johnson that he didnÂ¡Â¯t move out until months after they bought the property.
After working steadfastly through difficulties with the title search (Warren-StaigerÂ¡Â¯s extensive research about the houseÂ¡Â¯s previous owners helped set the record straight), they closed the deal in August 2003. They made rapid progress, including ripping down and reframing the left side of the house, replacing the mansard roof on the right side, as well as working on the interior. John Warren, JenniferÂ¡Â¯s father, reglazed, sanded, and reconditioned all the windows on the 1830s side of the main floor. The couple even opened the house for the Newburgh Historical SocietyÂ¡Â¯s annual Candlelight Holiday Tour last December. Â¡Â°We did this so people could see what was involved in a historic restoration,Â¡Â± says Staiger.
When they first began their work, Â¡Â°The house smelled dead,Â¡Â± admits Warren-Staiger, managing even with this comment to sound upbeat. She points out lingering spots of once-pervasive black mold. Â¡Â°We love this kind of work,Â¡Â± she goes on. Â¡Â°WeÂ¡Â¯re not the types to be put off by a challenge.Â¡Â±
The original front entrance steps are being rebuilt. One enters the house through Dutch doors. To the left are double parlors, the front one the most fixed-up room so far. The couple has restored the white oak and cherry floors, and there are matching marble fireplaces. The walls were replastered by a worker from Germany, with wooden laths Â¡Âª Â¡Â°the old-fashioned way,Â¡Â± remarks Warren-Staiger. It was the back parlor that was painted black, the first room that they saw. They are painstakingly chipping off paint layers to reveal the highly ornate ceiling moldings that adorn both parlors. The original brass lighting fixtures were salvaged and will eventually be reinstalled. A small kitchen with stainless steel appliances has been added at the rear of the back parlor.
The wide front hallway leads to a rear dining room with glass-fronted built-ins, a period faux-bois finish on the walls, and a fireplace with tigerÂ¡Â¯s eye tile and an elaborately carved surround with fluted columns. Acanthus leaves and winding tendrils are carved into woodwork and plaster moldings throughout the house. The floors feature different patterns of inlaid wood. An elegant beaded design can be found on the entryway moldings and the main staircase, which winds to the second floor, past a two-story stained-glass window, possibly by Tiffany. The window survived despite heavy water damage that required substantial rebuilding of the outer wall.
The second-floor bedrooms have beautiful fireplace tiles in bold colors and designs Â¡Âª one room with a burgundy-and-gold checkerboard pattern, another in magenta. Almost every room has a large closet, an unusual feature in a 19th-century house. A cozy bedroom at the back of the house will open onto a newly constructed upper porch. There is original white and pink tile with a delicate medallion design in the bathroom, which will eventually hold a Jacuzzi placed in front of the bay window. A former kitchen on this floor (installed when the house was divided into apartments) was in terrible condition, but the floors were well preserved beneath three layers of old linoleum.
Warren-Staiger and her father removed 78 trash bags of plaster from the third floor, where the roof was replaced. Eventually, Staiger will have a light-filled studio on this level, in a space that was originally a schoolroom for the Monnell children. There is a fanciful bell tower and, out its windows, a good view of the chimneys, constructed in a highly ornate zigzag pattern, which were rebuilt with salvaged bricks.
In the basement, originally the summer kitchen and dining room, there is a wonderfully preserved root or coal cellar with a vaulted ceiling, as well as a gorgeous, fire-damaged mahogany fireplace that the couple plans to restore. Johnson salvaged the pristine-condition Minton tiles with griffin and putti designs.
This past summer, Staiger created a waterfall and fishpond in the backyard. The sound of gently cascading water can be heard from within the house.
The support of new friends continues to buoy their ongoing restoration work. Â¡Â°These kinds of projects are community efforts,Â¡Â± says Peter Billman, who pulled up in front of the house one afternoon, on a break from restoring his own home a block away. Â¡Â°And I come over here just to gain inspiration.Â¡Â± Warren-Staiger mentions the many impromptu meals she and her husband have enjoyed at the BillmansÂ¡Â¯. The couple also Â¡Â°canÂ¡Â¯t describeÂ¡Â± how much they owe Gabor, with whom they have practically lived during the restoration (and who has an open invitation to their Manhattan loft). In turn, they have brought up friends to visit from the city; one couple recently bought a historic property down the road.
The greatest challenge of the entire process, the couple says, has been finding and working with reliable contractors and other paid help. They can relate horror stories about deadbeat workers Â¡Âª probably more than their share, given the scale of work needed on the house Â¡Âª yet they remain positive.
Â¡Â°WeÂ¡Â¯ve realized thereÂ¡Â¯s nothing we canÂ¡Â¯t do ourselves,Â¡Â± says Staiger, who has amassed an arsenal of tools and has ripped out and resheathed the entire west and north walls of the house. Â¡Â°ItÂ¡Â¯s been an empowering experience,Â¡Â± adds Warren-Staiger. Â¡Â°You find out that you have strengths and talents you never knew you had.Â¡Â±
Â¡Â°Newburgh is a magnificent place,Â¡Â± continues Warren-Staiger. Â¡Â°When you head down Broadway toward the Hudson, how can you not be impressed? I think some people who have lived here a long time might be a bit jaded and donÂ¡Â¯t always appreciate the beauty.Â¡Â± Staiger, too, recalls driving down BroadwayÂ¡Â¯s wide lanes toward the view of the Hudson Highlands and thinking, Â¡Â°I am home.Â¡Â±
As they progress with their labors, they feel increasingly connected to the houseÂ¡Â¯s history and its place in the community, both through their research and by the painstaking nature of restoring it as a gracious home. Â¡Â°There is communication with the past,Â¡Â± Staiger says. Â¡Â°When I am sanding the floors, I wonder, Â¡Â®Who walked on these?Â¡Â¯ Sometimes I get goosebumps.Â¡Â± Â¡Ã¶