LOVE THY NEIGHBOR by Nancy Cohen Photos by Aimee Ryan
Shining a light on the talents of architect Christina Ioana Graff and the true meaning of fellowship.
On the morning of December 23, 2021, with the spirit and magic of Christmas alive in every corner of their home on Western Drive North, Katharine Perry, Mark Eshelman and their two daughters, 8-year-old Georgia and 5-year-old Franny, woke to the unthinkable.
At 7 that morning, Perry heard unusual noises and thought someone was breaking in. She quietly went downstairs to face a kitchen filled with smoke. Later they learned the auto-timer on their coffee pot had short circuited, causing an electrical fire.
She alerted her husband and the South Orange Fire Department came and worked hard and fast to extinguish the fire and get the family out safely. But the damage was done. When the remediation team came to assess the property, they found smoke behind almost every wall on the first floor along with excessive water and residual damage on the second floor. The majority of the walls had to be torn out and the house was deemed uninhabitable.
Faced with two young children and nowhere to live, the immediate and heartfelt response from neighbors helped Perry and Eshelman through the ordeal. “Of course, we felt beyond lucky that our family was safe,” says Perry. “But it was the outpouring of love, support and assistance from our neighbors and this incredible community who rallied together to help us through the horrific event to whom we are eternally grateful. And through some divine intervention, the answer to what seemed like an insurmountable challenge for us was only steps away.” Cristina Ioana Graff, a neighbor and architect, came by to offer assistance and then and there sprang into action.
After studying architecture at UCLA, life brought Graff back to the East Coast; more than a decade ago she settled in a 1920s Tudor on Western Drive North. Graff, her husband, Chris, together with their daughter, Beatrice, son, Julian, and two French Water dogs, Webster and Oxford, have found the meaning of home in this South Orange community.
For much of her career, Graff worked on high-end design projects in New York City. After the birth of her second child, however, Graff carved a niche for herself closer to home, working with clients who cherish the rich and varied architecture of older homes that make SOMA special. The footprint of many of these quintessential homes does not always align with today’s contemporary lifestyles. Graff’s innate sense of balancing beauty with practicality is a reflection of her sensitivity to the history of the home and the needs of its inhabitants. While paying homage to a home’s original and distinctive elements, she has a knack for injecting an authentic newness and fluidity.
Graff credits her ability to find beauty in just about anything from her extensive travels as a child. Like the handmade white Moroccan tiles featured in the Perry-Eshelman kitchen, she loves to add a touch of richness and flair from faraway places. Her own home is a masterclass in timeless design, drawing inspiration from the past by maintaining many of the Tudor’s original details in combination with a clean, minimalist aesthetic. Along with a sprinkling of antiques and her love of greenery for added warmth and charm, Graff perfectly balances the old with the new.
Before putting pen to paper, preparing blueprints or starting demolition, Graff spends time getting to know her clients by asking a host of questions about how they live and use their space. She then translates these conversations to achieve the best possible aesthetic. So at the onset of her work with Perry and Eshelman, Graff got the sense that the current blueprint wasn’t ideal for the family. Graff immediately recognized that this tragedy was an opportunity to put the house back together, but better.
There was an immediate connection; Perry and Eshelman felt safe in Graff’s capable hands, giving her carte blanche to put her design talents and keen eye to work. And so for nearly a year, while the Perry-Eshelmans found a temporary living space in Summit, Graff worked her magic. Opening the floor plan of the very traditional colonial home by bringing together the kitchen and dining room, Graff created a space that was conducive to both day-to-day family life as well as entertaining.
Graff saw this project as a chance to really do something differently. Usually her kitchen renovations call for custom cabinets designed and built from scratch to meet the exact specifications of the space. This time, Graff took a trip to Renovation Angel in Paramus and found pre-used kitchen cabinets that felt authentic to the Western Drive North home. “It was kind of a one-off and something I’ve never done before,” notes Graff. “But I had a lot of fun configuring the pieces. Once the cabinets were in place, we chose a patina to give a beautiful aged look to highlight the period of the home.” Graff then repurposed the extra components to craft cabinet space for the playroom renovation in the lower level.
“I couldn’t have imagined a more perfect kitchen,” says Perry, who loves to bake with her girls. “But for me, the crowning point was the second floor bathroom refurbishment with a soaking tub of my dreams.” Graff’s design aesthetic spilled out through the entire home through the selection of a beautiful color palette, lighting, and just the right finishing touches.
Most recently, Graff has been on a restoration project of her own. This past summer, she signed a lease on newly-minted office space. It’s no surprise that the iconic South Orange spot at 54 Church Street, part of the fabric of downtown and steps away from SOPAC, drew Graff’s attention. Once a vegetable and fruit store, Graff incorporated her tried and true style. Design elements such as the original tin ceiling are set against stark white modern desks, contrasting hardwood flooring and contemporary lighting to create a visually intriguing space. In the center, an antique farm table serves as a conference area where once again visitors are charmed by the contrast. It’s also the place where clients get the chance to start a design journey with Graff.
Thrilled to share her new space with the community, Graff explains, “I wanted an office space that balances a fresh newness with my love of the old. It showcases that perfect juxtaposition that delivers the unexpected. The space is pretty cool and I’m excited to launch my own architectural firm right here to help other families love where they live.”
The Perry-Eshelman family moved back to their home just in time for the 2022 Thanksgiving holiday. It was beyond their wildest dreams and well worth the wait. They had a lot to be thankful for – and Graff was at the center of their blessings.
Nancy is a longtime resident of South Orange, mom to a college freshman and wife. As a freelancer, she feels privileged to write stories about kindhearted and talented people like Cristina.