Even after three months, the house still smells like smoke. It was smoke, in fact, that caused major damage from a fire that flared up late on the night of Sunday, March 23, at 56 Bayard Lane, a stately Princeton house that is divided into two three-story condominiums.
The blaze is blamed on embers from one of the fireplaces that had dropped into an ash clean-out bin in the basement. Though the flames didn’t make it past the lower level, the smoke, coupled with water damage from the efforts of the firefighters, ruined just about every piece of furniture, upholstery, and wall covering in its path.
Both residences were evacuated. The occupants of the unit facing Hodge Road were quickly able to return to their home. But the Clary family, on the Bayard Lane side, were not so lucky. After bunking at the Peacock Inn for a few nights, they moved to a temporary apartment in northern New Jersey where they have been ever since. Owner Cathryn Clary is hoping her family will be back in their fully restored home in time for Thanksgiving.
“It was so beautiful,” she said of the work that builder Lewis Barber and the interior design firm Dennison Dampier had completed after the family bought the unit in February 2012. “We had done quite a bit of work on it, and they did such a wonderful job. We had a great party there last summer.”
Barber and Dennison Dampier are back on the job, charged with the task of recreating what was there while taking the opportunity to make a few changes. “We’re going to redo and expand the kitchen, and open up the entry way to the living room and dining room to give the space a larger feel while we have the chance,” said designer Tara Dennison. “The bathrooms will be pretty much the same because the stone on the walls was intact. But all of the curtains and the upholstery have to be redone.”
Other than the boarded up windows, the exterior of the house doesn’t bear much evidence of the fire. Architect A. Page Brown designed the Shingle Style residence in 1888. Mr. Brown worked in the office of celebrated New York architects McKim, Mead, and White before starting his own practice. He is also credited with Princeton University’s Whig and Clio halls.
The first owner of the house was M. E. Scott. After the death of his wife in 1896, the property passed to William B. Smith. It was divided sometime in the 1940s, said Mrs. Clary, who has run into people who once lived in the house. Princeton native Mary Wisnovsky, then Mary Strunsky, remembers going to a dentist named Dr. Kaiser in the building when she was a child.
Mrs. Clary and her husband lived on the East Coast most of their lives, but moved to California’s Bay Area before opting to move back. “We decided that if we were going to live anywhere on the East Coast it would be Princeton,” she said. “We lived in the house about six months before deciding to do the renovations.”
Few expenses were spared in the decoration. “Everything was top of the line,” Ms. Dennison said, sighing as she walked through the down-to-the-studs interior. “She used lovely fabrics from Scalamandre, Brunschwig & Fils, and Lee Jofa. It was all so beautiful. We’re just going to do them again, depending on the insurance.”
The three-bedroom, two-bath condominium is about 3,500 square feet. The Clarys were home, along with two of their three grown children, when the fire broke out on March 23. “The Princeton fire department and police were wonderful,” Mrs. Clary recalled. “They stayed with us and helped us. You’re pretty traumatized when these things happen. It was cold, and they let us sit in their cars. There was a lot of smoke. The fire department started crashing the windows. They finally got the fire out and then we were told we would have to board up the windows. The police stayed all night because the house wasn’t secured yet.”
Mrs. Clary called her insurance company at 2:30 a.m., and was given the name of a company that came to secure the house. The town’s building department arrived quickly to apply a sticker saying that the house was condemned. “And a lot of public adjusters came around,” Mrs. Clary said.
The smoke damage was overwhelming. “It is amazing how much damage it can cause,” she said. “They had to tear up all the walls in the house, because it accumulates in the insulation. Anything that’s stuffed — mattresses, couches, things like that — gets destroyed.”
Water from the fire hoses soaked everything. “The smell was pungent and cloying and just stuck to everything you were wearing,” said Ms. Dennison, who will never forget the shock of entering the house once she and Ms. Dampier were allowed in. “All the curtains were singed. Her beautiful artwork had been destroyed in the living room from the heat of the fire. Everything was covered in this oily soot, which was toxic. The Servpro company that came in and went through everything was amazing.”
Once insulation is put back in, and plastering and the floors are replaced, the designers will start on interior furnishings. The goal is to have the family back in by November 1, so that they can spend the holidays, as they did last year, at home.