A homeowner and her design team prove that history and a contemporary aesthetic need not clash.
Text by Leslie Garisto Pfaff
Design by Karen B. Wolf
Photography by Raquel Langworthy
When Wendy and Brett Prager mentioned that they’d bought the historic house a few blocks away from their old home in Short Hills, most of their friends had the same response: Why? Built in the 1880s, the Colonial Revival-style home was desperately in need of another revival. But Wendy, a lawyer who’d majored in history as an undergrad, relished the challenge of restoring the house’s historic luster as she embarked on a renovation that would respect the home’s architectural roots while ushering it gently into the 21st century.
“I wanted to keep the integrity of the period in the moldings and the floors, and yet, in the color and the décor, have it be transitional, easing toward modern,” says Wendy, who envisioned an eclectic design in which her grandmother’s sewing machine looked happily at home next to a Lucite table. With the help of designer Karen B. Wolf, along with architect John James and builder Michael Mroz, Wendy achieved a perfect melding of past and present.
But that wasn’t the only thing the renovation needed to accomplish. The Pragers wanted a house that felt soft, fresh and refined, though “soft” hardly describes their day-to-day lifestyle. There were their three teenage daughters and an army of their friends, the guests who came into the house dripping pool water, and two rambunctious rescue Labs whose energy rivaled that of the teens. Wolf admits that uniting the family’s style and lifestyle was a daunting task. But a walk through the home proves that it was achieved successfully.
The palette throughout blends pale grays and blues with white, lending the house an airiness that’s enhanced by large windows and windowed doors with minimal or no window treatments—a choice in keeping with an overall design that Wolf describes as “pretty and formal without looking traditional.” As soon as you enter the house, you see what she means. The elegant Colonial Revival millwork in the foyer is tempered by that Lucite hall table and, against the stair wall, a dramatically mirrored chest. “Because Lucite is kind of nondescript,” says Wolf, “it’s a great way to integrate different styles.” She chose the chest, on the other hand, because it was as far from nondescript as possible. The area under the stairs, she explains, is “a dead space, so we wanted something there that would jump out at you.” The stairs themselves are lined with a flat-weave runner in a blue-gray animal print, eye-catching and more than capable of withstanding foot (and paw) traffic.
That hardworking aesthetic was also behind the choices for many of the surfaces in the great room. The large expanse of floor, for instance, is softened with a pale gray rug whose texture belies its rugged indoor-outdoor construction. And the two medium-gray sofas are covered in Crypton fabric, which, like its near-namesake, is super-durable, though it’s also super-soft (an effect enhanced by banks of fluffy pillows). A round-on-round metaland- glass coffee table adds a modern touch, one of several in the house, including sleek kitchen pendants and a large satellite chandelier in the foyer.
The main-floor powder room, on the other hand, has a very traditional feel, but the tradition is more North Africa than North Jersey. Moroccan-style concrete tiles line the walls, and the pendant lamp and sinuous mirror might both have been acquired in a Tangier souk. Even the vanity, with its mirrored drawer fronts and decorative flourishes, evokes the exotic.
The room feels most in keeping with history, but white and pale gray fabrics, a glass étagère and glass-topped tables maintain the airiness of the rest of the house. Wendy wanted an intimate space where she could entertain friends, so Wolf created a conversation nook, in which large upholstered chairs around an upholstered coffee table and a gray flokati rug (perfect for kick-your-shoes-off gatherings) invite guests to linger in comfort.
It’s the dining room, though, that seems particularly emblematic of the Pragers’ lifestyle and design preferences. The house’s historic millwork inspired the embellishment on the large custom dining table, essential for a couple passionate about entertaining. There’s no floor covering, so the original floors, stained a modern graphite, really shine here. Modern accents—a contemporary crystal chandelier, a series of candles set in large metal circles, abstract artwork in shades of gray—add a strong counterpoint yet manage to blend seamlessly with the room’s more historic elements. In short, this is the perfect place to fête all those skeptical friends who once asked “Why?”