MAKING A HOME FOR MUSIC AND LOVE by Tia Swanson
Photography by Julia Verderosa
A South Orange couple bring life and color back to a Village classic
With its stolid stucco and uncut stone façade, its dark beams and iron, the handsome residence nestled next to the small branch of the Rahway in South Orange looks like it was built by a respectable, established businessman. And it was. But it is also at least partially a monument to love.
Frederick Kelsey, a lawyer and member of the renowned Kelsey family of Orange, whose father was the main driver in founding the Essex County Park system, had the house put up in 1914. He was married with a young family, and the house is substantial, with seven bedrooms (though it seems likely that the third-floor bedrooms were given over to staff).
In 1915, Kelsey, a music lover, met Joan “Jennie” Skolnik, a Russian violinist who was not yet 20 and already a sensation. It is not clear if they remained in contact over the next decade, during which time Kelsey’s wife died. What is clear is that in 1926, Skolnik gave up both her career and Europe and moved to South Orange to marry Kelsey. Shortly thereafter, Kelsey ordered an addition to the house on Ridgewood Road: a grand, sunken, music room, complete with stained-glass musical instrument windows, yards of cupboards for holding music, a soaring ceiling, and an honest-to-goodness stage.
The couple had a son and Skolnik did not perform for several years, professing that being a mother and wife brought her more joy. In 1936, with her husband as a notable patron, she became the first female concert master for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
Fast forward a century to the spring of 2022, when the house, which had gone through several owners in the intervening years, including two or three in the last decade, again came up for sale. The market was hot, and things were selling in a matter of days, but the house on Ridgewood lingered. Maybe it was its size; maybe it was because it looked like it needed a bit of touching up. (In the style of the moment, its walls had been painted white and it had been staged with neutral, inoffensive furniture.) Maybe it was the music room: several steps below the house’s main living area, huge, and outfitted with that stage, prospective home buyers wondered what they ought to do with the space.
At least that is what happened until Joseph Hill came to tour the house with realtor Jill Sockwell.
The moment Hill, the newly hired director of music of St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, saw the sunken room his heart soared. He knew exactly what the room was and what he would do with it: he’d move in his grand piano, open the space to his students and throw some parties. Hill and his husband, Reid Powell, have lived in South Orange since 2017. They adored the town and their neighbors, but the pandemic made them realize they wanted more space. They had looked intermittently, but nothing was quite right – until Hill saw that music room.
The trouble, he thought, would be convincing Powell of the feasibility of his plan. Surprisingly, Powell, in-house counsel for Vonage and a fellow singer, was immediately on board.
And so in June, another musician and music-loving lawyer followed the original pair into the house.
They seem just as happily ensconced. “We love living here,” says Hill. “I really don’t want to go anywhere anymore because my house is the nicest place I go.”
That does not mean they did not see things they would change. Even before they closed, they had their decorator walk through the house with them, envisioning what to do with the space. They had originally thought they wanted to do something in the style of English country houses, but they also wanted to use a lot of things they already owned, which were contemporary.
They landed at Art Deco.
“Joseph was talking to me about animal prints and glamor and that’s where it led us,” remembers their decorator Amre Griffin of Rienu Interiors. Out went the white walls; in came a dark eggplant purple in the dining room, navy blue in the kitchen, and powder blue in the sweeping living room. Out went the neutral couches; in came animal print rugs, glossy sideboards, elaborate lights and
bouquets of soft feathers.
“I have to be honest with you,” says Griffin. “Most people can’t pull that look off.” Her clients, happily, are the exception. “It really vibes with their personality,” she says.
“She gets her way,” Hill jokes. “Sometimes we put up a fight, but she always gets her way.”
The decorator’s eye may have carried the day. But that does not mean that Hill – both men describe themselves as “house people” – has not had a lot of input.
Hill is the one that conceived of a mural for the front entrance. A child of rural Arkansas who spent his boyhood touring grand old Southern mansions with their hand-painted walls and wallpaper (both men hail from the South; Powell grew up in Asheville, North Carolina), Hill took one look at the blank walls in the sweeping entryway and thought he ought to do the same. In the hands of Diana Maye Whitener, a Philadelphia-based artist who has been a friend of the couple’s for many years, it became a painterly paean to the house and town.
The family of deer that took up residence in the wooded side yard last summer have pride of place at the front door; but walk in and up, and the scene runs through South Orange history, ending with a picture of the grand hotel that once stood very near where this house does now, beckoning visitors who came from Newark by carriage, and later by train via Mountain Station, to the grand Mountain House Spa for the healing waters offered by the stream. The hotel burned sometime before the turn of the 20th Century, when its popularity was already on the wane, but it lives again on the walls of the house that took its place.
Whitener gives much of the credit for the mural to Hill’s inspiration. He had come into possession of a pen and ink drawing of the old hotel. “He showed me that drawing and said, ‘What if we use this drawing and fill in the foyer with everything that possibly could be connected with this building?’” Hill knew exactly where the drawing of the hotel should go – on the largest wall, midway up, so it is visible through the leaded glass windows when the lights are on. “The rest of it I filled in with some of the ideas he had.”
While he focused on the hotel, Whitener loved the stream. “The brook was so important to the hotel historically,” she says. “I wanted to make sure to bring that creek to life.” Her palette was meant to echo the pen and ink drawing that was the inspiration. It didn’t hurt that dark blue and white are two of Hill’s favorite colors. “It’s a blue as dark as you can get before it turns to black,” says Whitener. It is lightened by the base color, a Benjamin Moore selection called, appropriately enough, paper white.
It took her six weeks to prep the walls and five months to complete the work. She would come for three days at a time. “I’ve tried out several guest rooms in the house,” she notes, adding that the new homeowners, “shared their space very well.”
They have had plenty of practice.
Powell jokes that the new house is so often filled with guests “we call it the Hotel Powell-Hall.”
And the music room?
The walls are still white, though two crystal chandeliers, that zebra-print rug and a pair of red velvet club chairs lighten the mood. The piano, however, always takes center stage. In preparation for its new home, and given the cost of moving it, the couple took advantage of their relocation to send it out to be electrified. It can now play by itself so that walking into the house is a bit like walking into a gargantuan piano bar. The soothing strains of the instrument surround you.
In November, the men took out the furniture, moved in a banquet table, and fed 14 of Powell’s relatives.
In December, they put up a 12-foot Christmas tree.
But most of the time, the music room is used for what it was built for. Hall has finally been able to store all his sheet music in the room’s many hidden cupboards. He practices here; and uses it for the voice and piano lessons he gives. In December he gathered his entire choir in the space to prep for the Christmas concert.
Powell may be partial to his light-drenched office at the end of the house with a view of the stream. It does have a desk from Crate and Barrel called the Reid desk.
But Hill, and the couple’s designer, are still in love with the music room.
“I brought out the drama that exists in them and in the house. That room is perfect,” says Griffin.
Tia Swanson has spent years walking by the handsome house on Ridgewood Road and is so happy to see it sparkling and loved again.