A Brilliant Renovation Totally Transformed This 97-Year-Old New Jersey Victorian

published Jun 7, 2024

A Brilliant Renovation Totally Transformed This 97-Year-Old New Jersey Victorian

published Jun 7, 2024
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Writer, sex educator, activist, and podcaster Ericka Hart and partner, Ebony Donnley, bought this house — a large, 97-year-old Victorian in New Jersey — in October 2022, but the journey to homeownership started much, much earlier. Kicked off in 2021, their search for a home included a lot of research and 12 rejected offers.

Credit: Erin Derby
What helped the couple on their homebuying journey was talking to friends and doing their own research, but also working with their real estate agent to look at homes and then run the numbers. "If you put this much down, and your interest rate is X, your mortgage will be Y, your property taxes also factor into that, and that's your mortgage," Ericka explains. "Every house we were like 'what's the mortgage' and 'how does that compare to our rent.' 'Is this is even feasible?'"

“We didn’t know anything coming into this. We didn’t know what interest rates were, what property taxes were, how mortgage works, even down payments. We were so unfamiliar. So it was a steep learning curve of everything that there was to understand of this very inaccessible racist practice we call homeownership,” Ericka begins. Though the couple would have liked to stay in Brooklyn, where they had been renting, financially that just wasn’t feasible. So their home search focused on New Jersey.

“But then what was also incredibly challenging is that because of redlining, all of these areas are segregated,” Ericka continues. “So we would go into neighborhoods in New Jersey that were predominantly white, and then the neighborhood right next door was predominantly black. And then we understand that in the predominantly white neighborhoods are much nicer landscaping, schools, all the resources, the coffee shops, the grocery stores, and then the black neighborhood has nothing. So we started looking in some of these white areas.”

Credit: Erin Derby
Their office.

But the couple kept getting their offers declined, over and over again. “At this time during 2021, I think it’s important to note that a lot of companies were buying real estate. So even if there were 10 offers [on a house], it was gone to a company because they outbid everyone. People were doing 100, 200, 300, over asking for a home that costs really $400,000. And we were completely priced out at that point.”

Credit: Erin Derby
The walls in this room are covered in limewash from Bauwerk in the "Saint Germain" color.

One declined offer in particular was a heartbreaking letdown — a mid-century modern home practically untouched since the 1950s and with a parklike backyard. The couple’s offer was actually initially accepted, but then “they started to backtrack and make all of these stipulations about our acceptance. It was so weird. And I feel like I blocked out all the specific details because it was so traumatic,” Ericka admits.

“Because what happens is, and I don’t think anybody really talks about this, is you put in an offer and you start imagining yourself [living in the home]. You start decorating, you start with, ‘What’s the window treatment?’ ‘What is the furniture?’ ‘How can I fit my kid in here?’ So you’re already kind of living there. And then, you know, the offer is declined and that just sucks.”

Credit: Erin Derby
East is the couple's first child (if you don't count their dog, Baguette).

So when their 13th offer on this Victorian in East Orange, New Jersey, was accepted, it actually wasn’t love at first sight. “I didn’t love it,” Ericka admits of her first impressions of this house. The previous owners (and all of their things) were still in the space when the couple viewed it, and as visual, the couple found it difficult to imagine the possibilities of the space. But the couple could see there were high ceilings, pocket doors, and that this was an old home with character, so they trusted that with work, this house could be their home.

Credit: Erin Derby
They were able to expand the size of the house's primary bathroom when they removed a butler's staircase.

The couple started renovations immediately so they could move in quickly. They replaced all the windows in the house because the original ones were old and contained lead. They removed a wall between the living room and the sunroom area. They covered up an oddly placed window in the living room to create the ultimate entertainment area. An entire back staircase was removed both for the bad history of having a servants-only staircase, but also to be able to expand the primary bathroom.

Instead of window air conditioning units throughout the house, Ericka explains that air conditioners were in the walls themselves, so the couple removed and filled all of those holes. And they retiled the kitchen floor (but there were about seven layers of linoleum to take out first).

Credit: Erin Derby
The main stairs and railings had to be redone to accommodate the couple's vision, and Pinto Carpentry did the woodwork.

The biggest project and the biggest headache was the main staircase. Ericka explains that before when you walked into the house, the second floor extended out too far into the stairwell, hiding windows and making the first floor feel closed in. Ericka and Ebony wanted to open that whole area up, and unfortunately that meant structural engineers, redoing the entire steps, and rearranging windows. But the result is a much more open, light-filled space.

When it came to decorating, they did what they’ve always done in their homes. “I think we always design in a way that feels relaxing, and a safe haven for us, as Black, queer, and trans people. And we want it to feel safe and comfortable for our community as well.”

Thank you, Ericka and Ebony!! And check out their podcast, Hoodrat to Headwrap: A Decolonized Podcast.

This tour’s responses and photos were edited for length/size and clarity.