BOTH SIDES NOW By Tia Swanson Photography by Julia Maloof Verderosa
A restoration lends a carriage house purpose 125 years later
When New York native Christine Llewellyn Ohemeng and her husband, Kwame Ohemeng, decided to decamp from Fort Greene, Brooklyn for a house in New Jersey in 2017, she was torn. It wasn’t about trading the city for the suburbs – she had more than made her peace with that – but about what kind of house she wanted to buy. As a mother of young children, she needed a place that was move-in ready. But as an artist and a designer, she longed to be able to put her stamp on her home: to find a project that beckoned.
The family fell in love with an old shingle house about halfway up Melrose Place, the winding street at the western edge of South Orange. The house, which is of historic interest and somewhat uncertain provenance, was about 125 years old when they bought it that summer; previous owners had added both architectural distinction and welcome updates. All they really needed to do was unpack their bags, decide which of the children should get the coveted turret bedroom (it went to their daughter Tina, the oldest), and begin enjoying the space the house and the suburbs provided.
At the back of the property, however, was a carriage house that had escaped both the scourges and improvements of time. It had never been used as a garage or a playhouse, never been messed with or updated. It was empty, awaiting a purpose and a vision.
“It was awesome and interesting,” Llewellyn Ohemeng remembers. “It had so much potential.” By the summer of 2019, with the help of noted local architect brothers Josh and Christian Uhl, Llewellyn Ohemeng was well on her way to turning the neglected carriage house into a studio, a workspace for her burgeoning pattern design business.
The Uhls have a modernist sensibility – they are the designers of the new apartment building on Baker Street in downtown Maplewood – and their website is full of sleek, open designs. That style complements Llewellyn Ohemeng’s, who finds inspiration not only in the bright colors of the Caribbean Islands from which her parents emigrated, but also, thanks to a stint designing in Copenhagen, in the simple, spare lines of Scandinavian Design.
You can feel that love of spareness in the studio the three created; it is uncluttered and unfussy, a workhorse of a room with a cement floor, a long table and a line of cabinets that provide storage and cleanup space. The room also is perfectly in keeping with the building in which it finds itself. The highlights of the room are the carriage doors, which still open wide, erasing the distance between inside and outside, turning the room into a sort of open-air studio, and the beamed ceiling, both part of the carriage house’s original design. And the only extraneous furniture is an old wooden pew that might have been pulled from the carriage house. The white walls are enlivened by the bright watercolors and prints – all works by Llewellyn Ohemeng.
At the last moment, all decided they should take the trouble of putting in a half bath. It was a fortuitous decision.
Work on the carriage house – which also includes a beautiful, light-filled room upstairs that Llewellyn Ohemeng hopes one day to turn into an exhibit space – ended in November, 2019. Four months later, the pandemic hit and Llewellyn Ohemeng’s world, and everybody else’s, turned upside down.
Known in the industry as a surface pattern designer, Llewellyn Ohemeng creates designs for all kinds of surfaces, from textiles, rugs and wallpaper to stationery and shoes. Her clients have included Crate & Barrel, West Elm (which licensed some of her watercolors), BØrn shoes, Gap and Minted.
In her line of work, trade shows are a necessity – “I launched at a trade show in Manhattan in 2014,” she says – and those dried up overnight. Her children also were home all the time and the older two were doing online school. When summer came, neither she nor her husband were comfortable sending them to their usual summer camp.
Necessity may be the mother of invention, but so is motherhood itself. Anxious to have her kids do something and realizing that other mothers must be feeling the same, Llewellyn Ohemeng reconsidered how to use her studio. “It was never my intention to have that as an art classroom,” she says.
But the space was big and airy. Social distancing was easy. And once the doors were open, it felt more like a pavilion than a carriage house. Llewellyn Ohemeng had taught art and enjoyed it. Thus, the art barn – and an art summer camp for kids – was born.
The camp was so successful that Llewellyn Ohemeng has expanded her offerings to include spring classes for children as well as several one-day workshops for adults, focusing on different methods of textile design.
This latest transformation of the house at 356 Melrose seems appropriate, given that one of its longest and most notable owners was Harold Thompson, the son of the man who developed this area of South Orange, both of whom were in the textile business.
As late as 1890, the land north of South Orange Avenue and west of Ridgewood Road was still undeveloped, consisting of large tracts of farmland with only a smattering of farmhouses and a few large estates. O.S. Thompson, a local man who also owned a silk trading company, is believed to have bought the last two farms there in 1892. By 1895 he was advertising lots for sale in a “select part of Orange” he called “Orange Valley.” The 15,000 square foot lots were $2,500, with Thompson providing the loans to build. On a map of the area from 1904, Melrose Place has been laid out and three houses have gone up, including the one at number 356. It is said to have been the first, built at the direction of Thompson himself.
In 1904, though, it was occupied by a British national by the name R.J. Sherlock. Like Llewellyn Ohemeng’s parents, Sherlock had roots from the South Atlantic. He had been born in British Guyana.
Although the house is most notable for its turret, which echoes and balances a beautiful circular porch on the south side of the house, the turret appears to have been added later; those changes may have been ordered by Harold Thompson, a man of artistic bent who was the house’s owner for many years. Both he and his wife were accomplished pianists, she classically trained, he not. He played entirely by ear and is said to have been a great lover of ragtime, which he picked up and played with great flair. Interested in textiles and eventually a flag manufacturer, he studied in both France and Japan, where he also is said to have lived for several years learning about silk production. (In another echo of the past, Llewellyn Ohemeng also has studied abroad, learning the techniques and trades of skilled artisans in India).
Now it is children and interested adults who will be learning the textile techniques practiced in Japan and India right here in South Orange, in an old barn that has seen so much history, and still has so much life left in it.
Susan Newberry contributed historical research. Information on Llewellyn Ohemeng’s art classes
can be found on her website,
christinejoydesign.com; Tia Swanson, who is obsessed with textiles, can’t wait to sign up for one.