MILANVILLE, PA — Milanville, on the Delaware Riverbank in Pennsylvania, has many examples of Victorian and Edwardian architecture. One of them, the J. Howard Beach House, was built in the 1880s and is being lovingly restored by a couple who love and respect the house’s deep roots.
Randy Harris was a photographer in New York City, shooting, among other projects, the Home & Garden section of the New York Times. In the early 2010s, he’d been fishing in the Neversink River—a tributary of the Delaware River—while visiting a friend up here, when a mist came undulating up the river. Intrigued, Harris stepped into it; as he tells it, a voice began whispering in his ear, telling the story of an Indian raid along the Delaware.
Upon returning home to Manhattan, he researched at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York and discovered the history of the 1779 Battle of Minisink, about which the “voice” told. “This area was known, in Native American terms, as ‘The Place of the Wolf,’” Harris said.
In the mid-2010s, he moved to Pond Eddy, lured by the countryside and the river. “The first thing I did when I moved here was rent a canoe and paddle up and down the river,” he said.
By 2016, Harris had met Lori Zambarano—a single mom and longtime teacher at the Homestead School, a Montessori school with campuses in Glen Spey and Hurleyville. They dated for a year before marrying. One day while they were dating, Harris invited Zambarano to go look at houses that were for sale. “It started like a whimsical thing: ‘Wanna go look at old houses?’” Zambarano said. “We both loved old houses. Then we found this one.”
Unlike traditional Queen Anne Victorians, this home was an Eastlake Victorian, featuring geometric designs incorporating natural images of insects, spiderwebs, and animals. And it was huge. “It was farther than we wanted. It was bigger than we wanted,” Zambarano said.
“I thought it was haunted,” Harris said, to which his wife concedes, “It needed a lot of love.”
They closed on the house April 17, 2017, having already made friends at the Milanville General Store next door. The day of the closing, the couple had a dumpster delivered—and filled it within one day. The house’s bones were solid, but there were “improvements” that had to be, well, unimproved. Harris found he had a knack for house renovation, following a path that was subconsciously carved out for him when he was a young man working for his father as a tool and die maker. “I was schooled in building things and fixing things,” he said. So they set to work.
As work began, the house offered gifts in return. Harris and Zambarano discovered—tucked away in the attic—remnants of wallpaper that date back to the home’s construction. Created by the American Wallpaper Company, the first manufacturer of woodblock-printed wallpaper, the cream-background paper is softly ornate, with the hallmarks of Eastlake designs; spiderwebs and butterflies appear entwined with vining flowers and curlicues. Identical wallpaper is in the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, but doesn’t have the selvage edges printed with the manufacturer information, which are intact on the paper found in the house. Harris and Zambarano carefully unrolled the remnant on a bed in one of their spare bedrooms for a visitor. Less than a foot wide, the paper was still beautifully intact: Run a finger along its length, and the raised printing from the woodblock can still be felt. Zambarano carefully unfolded part of another wallpaper remnant they’d found. This piece was crumbling, and one almost pitied its age and decrepit condition. Still, fine swirls of cobalt crept along the background of robin’s-egg blue, and the attention to detail was evident even though time had taken its toll.
The house retains some of those signs of age, along with touches of the couple’s loving care. Upon entering the house, on the right you’ll find Harris’s woodworking studio “showroom.” Beautifully carved furniture and utensils are displayed in a huge room that’s whitewashed from its rafter-and-joist ceiling, down its plaster walls, to the white pine floor. A slim brick chimney and fireplace climbs up one wall—its story is the first hint at the couple’s dedication to renovation. The original fireplace’s mortar was crumbling, so Harris and Zambarano took it apart, piece by piece, and rebuilt it.
When Harris and Zambarano moved in, this was two rooms: a parlor and behind it, a bathroom. When dismantling the wall between, they found Sheetrock—unlike the plaster that’s throughout the rest of the house. A little tip-tap and a rip… and a pocket-door doorway was revealed. Alas, the doors themselves were lost to history. But other decorative hints are sprinkled throughout this room: Wavy glass glimmers in some of the huge sashed windows, and the brass window latches themselves have intricate designs carved into them. These latches, like the rest of the Eastlake hardware in the house, were hidden under layers of paint before Harris and Zambarano painstakingly soaked and scraped it off.
Luckily, the Eastlake stairwell that splits the center of the foyer still remains. The newel post and banister are solid under your hand; the wood just gleams. “These were shaky when we moved in, and the varnish was all ‘alligatored,’” Harris said.
“One day, we were in the basement and I looked up and saw what looked like a bolt sticking out of the ceiling,” said Zambarano. “It was just under the newel post.” Indeed, it was a half-inch-wide threaded rod: The newel post itself was assembled from 10 different parts, with the rod running through it and topped with a wooden “button.” Harris grabbed a ladder and a wrench, turned the rod—and the post tightened up. The banister was also a series of lengths of wood, connected and tightened with a mechanism similar to the adjusters “on an old brake drum,” Harris explained.
Once everything was secure, the stairs themselves needed to be sanded down and repainted. That wasn’t a one-step process. “I grew up thinking that if something needed painting, you paint it and you’re done,” Zambarano said. “That’s not the way Randy works, though!” Even the vintage radiators throughout the home were taken apart, refinished, and reassembled. All the sanding, priming, and painting have been worth the effort. “We’re trying to keep things as original as possible,” Zambarano said.
Opposite the studio, a large living room features another decorative brick fireplace. All three fireplaces in the house were coal-burners, and thus slimmer than traditional wood-burning fireplaces. Unable to convert them to wood-burners, the couple ended up threading the furnace flue through the living-room chimney—but otherwise, none of the fireplaces are functioning.
Pine floors run through the house; some of them retain their original honey tones, but eventually all of them wll have a coat of white paint.
Behind the living room is the dining room, brightened by a spectacular wall of windows. Carefully pieced together, the three-sided, floor-to-ceiling bump-out is topped by an arch with open carvings on each end and a hand-carved corbel at the top. “There was a drop ceiling in here, and we didn’t see the carvings at the top until we’d taken down the ceiling,” Harris said, pointing out a 10-inch-deep unpainted area on the built-in hutch opposite the window, marking the level of that drop ceiling. “Why anyone would want to cover up those carvings is beyond me.”
The large kitchen is at the back of the house. When the couple moved in, it was lined with modern dark cabinets. Now, besides the sink and appliances, there are only shelves and a few countertops lining the walls. The modern furnishings didn’t match the deep-toned original doors that line one wall of the room and the character of the rest of the house, so Harris and Zambarano are planning a new design. One of those doors leads to the side yard, where Harris does his woodworking. Another leads to a curving staircase that climbs steeply to two stark rooms: the former servant quarters. That wing is currently blocked off from the rest of the upper level, but plans are in place to open it up.
The rest of the upper level, reached by the center-hall stairs, are rich with wood and plaster. A window identical to the one in the dining room fills a wall in the primary bedroom. And like the rest of the house, this room has a story as well. It was two rooms when Harris and Zambarano moved in: a large office for the previous owner of the house, and a smaller primary bedroom with that magnificent window. At that point of their renovation, Harris and Zambarano had agreed to end any full-on demolition—no more knocking down walls—and that their efforts would be better served by just renovation. Well, Harris was in the office, tearing down wallpaper and fixing the plaster walls, when he felt an existential “nudge” to move closer to the wall separating the two rooms. When he tapped on the wall, he discovered Sheetrock in the center. Hoping for Zambarano’s later forgiveness, he ripped down the wall—and discovered a large archway that was original to the house. While he’d been working, he’d had the windows open in both rooms, enjoying the calm day. But when that wall came down, “there was a ‘whoosh’ of air and all the heaviness in that room just disappeared,” Harris said. Even better: The mystery of a curved interior wall in the office was solved. The shaved-down corner allows for a clear hall-window view of the Delaware River from the primary bedroom and through that once-covered archway. Now, the primary suite is bright and roomy, with the bank of windows plus the original Eastlake dark marble fireplace with haunting hand-painted touches.
Harris and Zambarano’s mission is to honor the house as they renovate. “We’ve always felt very loved and protected here, like the house is happy we are here,” Zambarano said.
Two other bedrooms are upstairs, and like the primary bedroom, they have big closets, which is not common in traditional builds of that period. A hall bath is the only bathroom in the house, and is “very Home Depot,” Harris said, with a modern shower, toilet and pedestal sink. The couple plan to build a second bathroom in the future.
Just like the house, the two acres on which it sits has its own magic. That story Harris heard in the mist? One hundred years before the house was built, families escaping that Revolutionary-era raid dashed down the Calkins Creek that adjoins the property, and hid in the gorge behind it, Harris learned.
It’s that history that the couple yearns to respect. “It’s a very Native American thing: You’ve got to respect everything,” Harris said. “Things are not dead. Everything has a life to it, and you need to run parallel to that. It’s when you cross it that things go sideways.”
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