By Jan Anderson
Milanville, Pennsylvania – Milanville, located on the bank of the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, has many examples of Victorian and Edwardian architecture. One of them, J. Howard Beach House, was built in the 1880s and lovingly restored by a couple who love and respect the house’s deep roots.
Randy Harris was a New York City photographer who was photographing, among other projects, for the Home & Garden section of The New York Times. In early 2010, he was fishing in the Neversink River – a tributary of the Delaware River – while visiting a friend here, when an undulating mist came over the river. Intrigued, Harris climbed up to him; As he was telling it, a voice began to whisper in his ear, telling the story of an Indian raid along the Delaware River.
Returning to his home in Manhattan, he conducted research at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York and discovered the history of the 1779 Battle of Minisink, about which he recounted “The Voice”. “This area was known, from a Native American viewpoint, as ‘the place of the wolf,'” said Harris.
In the middle of 2010, he moved to Pond Eddy, where he was tempted 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 met Crystal Zambarano – a single mother and longtime teacher at Homestead School, a Montessori school with campuses in Glen Spey and Hurleyville. They dated for a year before getting married. One day while they were dating, Harris invited Zambarano to go and look at the homes for sale. “It started out as a very eccentric thing: Do you want to go look at the old houses?” Zambarano said. “We both love the old houses. Then we found this. “
I needed a lot of love
Unlike the traditional Queen Anne Victorian, this home was in an East Lake Victorian style, featuring geometric designs that included naturalistic depictions of insects, spider webs, and animals. And it was huge. “It was further than we wanted,” Zambarano said.
“I thought it was haunted,” Harris said, and his wife admitted, “It needed a lot of love.”
They closed the house on April 17, 2017, having already made friends at the Millenville General Store next door. On closing day, a garbage container was delivered to the couple – and it filled it up within a day. The bones of the house were solid, but there were “improvements” that had to be, well, unimproved. Harris found he had a talent for home renovation, following a path subconsciously carved for him as a young man working for his father as a tool and mold maker. “I learned to build things and fix things,” he said. So they set to work.
As the business began, the house gave gifts in return. Hidden in the attic, Harris and Zambarano discovered remnants of wallpaper dating back to the house’s construction. Created by American Wallpaper Company, the first manufacturer of wood-printed wallpaper, the cream wallpaper is softly textured, with the hallmarks of Eastlake designs; Spider webs and butterflies appear intertwined with vines and coralix flowers. There is an identical wallpaper at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, but no edges printed with manufacturer information, which is intact on the paper at home. Harris and Zambarano carefully unpacked the rest on a bed in one of the visitor’s spare bedrooms. Less than a foot short, the paper was still beautifully intact: a finger ran its length, and the raised print could still be felt from the woodblock. Zambarano carefully unearthed a portion of other wallpaper remnants they found. This piece was crumbling, and one almost took pity on her age and deteriorating condition. However, minute swirls of cobalt crept against the background of the color of a blue robin’s egg, and the attention to detail was palpable even though time took its toll.
Hard work – and it’s all by hand
The house retains some of these signs of age, along with touches of the couple’s loving care. Upon entering the house, on the right you will find Harris’ woodworking studio “showroom”. Beautifully carved furniture and utensils are displayed in a huge room painted white from the wooden ceiling and transom, below its plaster walls, to the white pine wood floor. A small brick chimney and fireplace climb up one of the walls – her story is the first hint of the couple’s dedication to renovation. The original mortars were crumbling, so Harris and Zambarano dismantled it piece by piece and rebuilt it.
When Harris and Zambarano moved in, these were two rooms: a parlor and behind a bathroom. When dismantling the wall between them, they found a sheetrock – unlike the plaster found in the rest of the house. A small click is ripped…and the entrance to the pocket door is revealed. Unfortunately, the doors themselves were lost to history. But there are other decorative hints scattered throughout this room: wavy glass glimpses in some of the huge windows, and the brass window latches themselves have intricate designs carved into them. These latches, like the rest of Eastlake’s hardware in the house, were hidden under layers of paint before Harris and Zambarano painstakingly soaked and scraped them.
Fortunately, the Eastlake staircase that divides the center of the lobby is still standing. The new post and handrail are crosses under your hand; Wood just shines. These things were shaky when we moved in, and the varnish was all ‘crocodile,’ said Harris.
“One day, we were in the basement and I saw what looked like a lightning bolt coming out of the ceiling,” Zambarano said. “This was less than the new post.” In fact, it was a threaded rod half an inch wide: the new shaft itself was assembled from 10 different parts, with the rod passing through it and covered with a wooden “button”. Harris grabbed a ladder and a wrench, flipped the stick—and tightened the shaft. Harris explained that the handrail was also a series of lengths of wood, connected and tightened with a mechanism resembling adjusters “on an old brake drum.”
Once everything is safe, the stairs themselves should be sanded and repainted. This was not a one-step process. “I grew up thinking that if something needs to be painted, you paint it and you’re done,” Zambarano said. “That’s not how Randy works!” Even the old radiators throughout the house were taken apart, refinished, and reassembled. All the sanding, priming and painting was worth the effort. “We try to make things as original as possible,” Zambarano said.
Opposite the studio, a large living room features another decorative brick fireplace. All three stoves in the house were coal-fired, and therefore slimmer than traditional wood-burning stoves. Unable to turn them into wood stoves, the couple ended up passing furnace flues through the living room chimney—but other than that, none of the stoves worked.
pine floors run through the house; Some of them retain their original honey tones, but in the end they will all get a coat of white paint.
Behind the living room is the dining room, illuminated by a stunning wall of windows. The floor-to-ceiling three-sided protrusion is carefully pieced together, topped with an arch with open carvings on each end and a hand-engraved corbel on top. said Harris, pointing to an unpainted area 10 inches deep on the compact shack opposite the window, which marks the level of that overhanging roof. “Why anyone would want to cover up those sculptures is far from me.”
The large kitchen is at the back of the house. When the couple moved in, they were lined with modern dark wardrobes. Now, besides the sink and appliances, there are only shelves and a few work surfaces lining the walls. Modern furnishings didn’t match the original, deep-color doors that line one of the room’s walls and the personality of the rest of the house, so Harris and Zambarano are planning a new design. One of these doors leads to the side yard, where Harris does his woodwork. The other leads to a curved staircase that ascends steeply into two stern rooms: the former servants’ room. This suite is currently closed from the rest of the upper level, but plans are in place to open it.
The remainder of the upper floor, which can be reached by stairs in the central hall, is rich in wood and stucco. A window similar to the one in the dining room fills the wall of the primary bedroom. And like the rest of the house, this room has a story, too. It was two rooms when Harris and Zambarano moved in: a large office for the previous owner of the house, and a smaller master bedroom with that gorgeous window. At that point in the renovation, Harris and Zambarano agreed to end any complete demolition—no more demolishing of walls—and that their efforts would be better served by renovation only. Well, Harris was in the office, cracking wallpaper and fixing plaster walls, when he felt an existential “push” to move closer to the wall separating the two rooms. When we click on the wall, he discovers a Sheetrock in the middle. Hoping that Zambarano would later be forgiven, he tore down the wall and discovered a large corridor that was original to the house. While he worked, he would open the windows in both rooms, enjoying his peaceful day. But when that wall fell, said Harris, “there was a ‘sizzle’ of air and all the heft in that room was gone.” Even better: the mystery of the curved interior wall in the office has been solved. A rounded corner allows a clear auditorium window view of the Delaware River from the primary bedroom and through that once covered corridor. Now, the base suite is bright and spacious, with bank of windows as well as an original Eastlake dark marble fireplace with hand-painted accents.
Harris and Zambarano’s job is to honor the house while it’s being renovated. “We have always felt so loved and protected here, like home so glad we are here,” Zambarano said.
Two other bedrooms upstairs and, like the main bedroom, have large wardrobes, which is not uncommon in traditional buildings of that period. The hall bathroom, Harris said, is the only bathroom in the house, a “Home Depot,” with a modern shower, toilet, and pedestal sink. The couple plans to build a second bathroom in the future.
Just like the house, the two acres they sit on have their own charm. That story that Harris heard in the fog? Harris learned that a hundred years before the house was built, families had escaped the Revolutionary-era raid in the Calkins River adjacent to the property, and hid in the gorge behind.
This is the date the couple longs to honor. “It’s a very Native American thing: you have to respect everything,” Harris said. “Things are not dead. Everything has life, and you have to go parallel to that. When you cross it things go sideways.”