By Jason Fragomeni
It seems odd to say it, but I first became involved with this project largely because I happen to live on the same street as my clients.
We all live in a beautiful, historic neighborhood in Mountain Lake, N.J., a small town that lays claim to having the largest collection of authentic Craftsman-style homes of any municipality in the United States. It’s the kind of place where residents take immense pride in the architectural splendors you see almost everywhere you turn.
Most of these homes were designed and built by the legendary architect and builder Herbert Hapgood, a leading practitioner in the Arts & Crafts Movement that spread across the country early in the 20th Century. For the past three-plus decades, it’s become the local passion to restore these homes and their surrounding grounds to approximations of their original glory, and today this area is shot through with stunning properties that celebrate a wonderful design tradition.
My clients’ particular property is, at an acre and a half, unusually large for the area. When I first arrived on the scene, I was impressed by the variety of its mature trees –white and red oaks, spruces, elms, maples and magnolias – some of which rose to more than 75 feet in height. I also found an abandoned, debris-laden swimming pool, originally spring-fed, that had been installed nearly 80 years earlier along with a series of stone retaining walls and an unusual subterranean grotto.
Before I received the call, the homeowners had visited with a number of other contractors and had been dissatisfied with what they were hearing – specifically, voluminous suggestions of alterations that violated the integrity of the historic setting and the community’s pervasive spirit of careful restoration and preservation.
They called me at the prompting of a mutual friend, and from the start it was clear that the fact I lived nearby was a point in my favor: By simple virtue of local residency, it was clear to them that I understood and shared their appreciation for the home’s historic status. It was also clear to them after we spoke and they had a chance to review my company’s work that we had a strong track record in just this sort of complex, site-sensitive project.
At first, our entire focus was renovating the pool and sprucing up its immediate surroundings. Had that been all the project would entail, it would have been challenging enough – but as it turned out, this was just the starting point: Indeed, as we moved forward, it was uncanny how one major task after another seemed to flow naturally and necessarily into yet another major task.
Early on, however, everything seemed reasonably straightforward, and we were excited to be involved. I was fascinated to learn, for example, that in its heyday during the 1920s the house had been owned by an Italian diplomat who hosted highly publicized soirées alongside the pool, which was something quite exotic and novel at the time. The clients even have a book that was written about the place, and it features photographs of the original pool and the consul’s well-heeled guests.
|The pool was in a derelict state when we arrived on site, having been filled through the years with rubble, branches and debris that the high groundwater level turned into a most unappealing stew. Clearing all that muck away was our first order of business.|
But I ran into something of a dilemma in figuring out an approach to the pool and its surroundings: Because the Craftsman movement predated the advent of swimming pools, there has never been what one could describe as a recognized “Arts & Crafts swimming pool style.” What I saw on site was an utter ruin, but it was good to see some signs (supported by the old photographs) of its having been integrated into the distinctive surrounding architecture.
It helped us, of course, that the Arts & Crafts design tradition is defined by clean lines and a spare structural geometry that seeks to reveal function while paying tribute to nature and natural surroundings. It’s also true that while these forms seem simple, they’re also marked by rich materials and intricate detailing.
This was, we concluded, no place for a free-form pool with artificial rockwork – as had been suggested by several of the rejected contractors the clients had met with previously. Instead, we decided to integrate the pool and its surroundings into this pervasive design sensibility by working with a rectangle – the perfect design form for the Craftsman style – along with beautiful stone, tile and an interior finish that would all serve as fully functional ornamentation.
In every way possible, the history of the property played a role in what we were doing. As we learned, the pool had originally been part of a neighboring property to the rear of our clients’ home. About 80 years ago, that part of the two properties changed hands. By law, it was now associated with my clients’ home, but by dint of orientation and layout, it was still tied more directly to the house across the revised property line.
In fact, when we arrived, the way the fences and hedges were configured gave the distinct impression that the pool was still part of the neighbors’ yard, so some of our discussions early on had to do with ways of reconstituting the visual boundaries between the two homes.
One point working in our favor was the pure coincidence that, although the pool had been built with another home in mind, it happened to be perfectly oriented on the axial line of sight from the main windows of our clients’ home. Leaving it right where it was therefore made perfect sense – but truth be told, most of the revelations to follow were not so fortuitous.
|As we became more deeply involved, we soon discovered that the abandoned pool was not much more than the tip of a distressed iceberg: large sections of the wall appeared unstable (top row, left), and a little investigation revealed not only that they’d been built directly on the ground with no footings, but also in miserable soil (middle left). The groundwater was also an issue and made dewatering the site a particular and constant challenge (middle right) – and we found the same conditions in the covered grotto when we dug into the rocky base to install the spa (right). Capping this registry of dismay was the discovery that the ceiling of the grotto was unsound and would need demolition and reconstruction as well (bottom row, left).|
In our original scope of work, we were to renovate the pool doing what we could to preserve its original “style” while upgrading it with modern technology; we were also to add a spa to an existing subgrade grotto. It wasn’t long, however, before the mission was altered in a whole string of convoluted, difficult ways.
The first big change in direction had to do with the wonderful old retaining walls that surrounded the pool site. In clearing away the structure to replace the pool, we discovered that the retention system was nothing more than a pile of rocks without any system of footings. We also discovered that the soil throughout the space was not only subject to high groundwater levels, but also mainly consisted of worthless, inadequately compacted fill.
Not only did these revelations have profound implications for what we were trying to accomplish, but they also presented us with real concern about the safety of working on site in the shadow of tons of precariously situated boulders. For their part, the owners had to face hard decisions about moving forward.
Ultimately, they decided to have us implement of number of dewatering and water-control strategies and, much more significant, pull down and reinstall the wall atop a properly engineered footing and drainage/water-control system. Almost by default, these additional project “details” fell into my lap – and not for the last time I wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into.
The walls constituted a major project all their own not only around the pool but also at other spots around the large property.
It was clear that they’d probably always been something of a concern, given how many times the walls had apparently been patched and repaired through the years. Indeed, we found layer upon layer of mortar in some places, and as we tried to focus our work on one area, we’d often find we had to jump ahead to the next area to prevent failures.
To get things done efficiently, however, we did all we could to move systematically from wall section to wall section. We started by taking numerous photographs to assist us in reassembly, then carefully chiseled away the mortar and removed thousands upon thousands of large granite field boulders one by one, marking, acid-washing and carefully storing all of them.
It was an awesome, arduous task – and once we installed the properly engineered footings, we had to reverse the process and reassemble the same walls, stone by lovely stone. In all, this task required a dedicated crew to work for more than a year in every conceivable sort of foul weather, from withering cold to blistering heat.
|Once we’d finished the shell, the fact that the walls were in a less-than-desirable condition and would only get worse led the homeowners to decide they needed to be disassembled and rebuilt to resemble the originals as closely as possible. After photographing them every which way, we pulled them apart stone by stone, inserted suitable footings and rebuilt them with painstaking care and attention to detail. Adjunct to this process, we also replaced one wall section at the foot of the property with an ironwork fence and gate.|
As mentioned above, these issues with the wall emerged during demolition of the original pool shell. It had become filled to the brim with rocks, debris, muck and garbage through the years, all of it nicely soaked by the natural spring that had served as the pool’s water source. It was a nauseating, ice-cold mess – and space was tight because of the retaining walls, so we had to build a “road” down into the pool on one end so demolition could proceed.
Once the shell and old decking had been cleared away, we had to deal with the constant flooding of the hole provided by the high water table. We set up a dewatering system, but that didn’t entirely solve our problems because of the poor quality of the fill in which the pool had been built. Almost as soon as we’d excavate an area, the walls would cave in. And all the while, we kept looking up at granite retaining walls rising five to 11 feet above grade.
Those were not days for easy breathing, and it was no small relief when the decision was made to deal with the walls once and for all. Thousand of man-hours and thousands of tons of boulders later, all is well, but we opened a real Pandora’s box the day we started our work.
ON THE MOVE
Given the soil conditions and the high water table, the new pool structure needed to be completely free-standing. We’d dig an area and frame it up as fast as possible, trying to stay a step or two ahead of the constantly collapsing sides. Ultimately, however, we ended up significantly over-excavating the pool’s footprint.
To keep our forms straight and true, we stabilized them by driving two-by-four stakes 14 feet into the ground. Because we’d over-dug the entire site, when it came time to install the steel and the plumbing, we also had to construct a catwalk system throughout the pool to give ourselves places to stand.
If I’ve made this seem as though it was a constant struggle, then I’ve succeeded in conveying some sense of what was happening on site: It truly was an ongoing battle filled with more than its share of tense, dramatic moments. Fortunately, the homeowners understood the nature of what we were experiencing and had both the patience and the wherewithal to see things though. And cost was no small consideration, as it roughly quadrupled as the scope of our work expanded.
|With the walls artfully rebuilt and the pool restored to reflect as truly as possible the look it might originally have had, the setting is both inviting and intimate in a way that delights the homeowners and harmonizes efficiently with the Craftsman architecture that dominates the neighborhood.|
Before long, the job site came to resemble a beehive. We did what it took to get the walls down before winter set in, then set up crews in heated work huts placed at strategic spots around the property to chip away old mortar and acid wash the stones. Elsewhere, crews swarmed over places where the walls had stood, busily digging, forming and installing steel-reinforced structural footings. In many places, we had to break up subsurface boulders so we could get the footings down to the requisite 42 inches.
As that work moved along, a third crew took care of wall reassembly, following the original look as closely as they possibly could. In some areas, they ended up needing to backfill the restored walls with concrete to forestall the root intrusion that had damaged the old walls. And in many places, all of the backfilling had to be done by hand because of inadequate equipment access.
In all, we figure we took down, cleaned and reassembled well in excess of 2,000 tons of boulders – hard, back-breaking work that also had to be extremely precise despite frequently miserable conditions.
Our work on the pool was no picnic, either. The original structure was completely compromised and had to be removed, and its footprint, although still rectangular, was to be somewhat enlarged to 40 by 21 feet in the new design. The surrounding decks were also to be expanded by some 400 square feet.
At first, before the decision was made to deal with the walls, we spent a lot of time worrying about their looming presence and whether our activities might be weakening them in any way. Nobody wanted to witness that avalanche, believe me.
When the shell was finally in place, we installed Bluestone coping around the edge, set up the waterline and the steps with a beautiful glass tile from Oceanside Glasstile (Carlsbad, Calif.), installed a pebble finish, positioned deck jets at the pool’s four corners, wired low-voltage lights (from Jandy Pool Products, Petaluma, Calif.) in the pool and organized an equipment pad with basic components and controls from Jandy along with a salt-chlorination system and a distributed outdoor sound system.
The grotto mentioned in the accompanying text proved to be one of the most significant hurdles in what was generally an extremely challenging project.
Featuring roughly 30 by 24 feet of floor space with a nine-foot ceiling, the grotto sits below the pool level, mostly beneath a stone deck installed to one side of the watershape. The grotto’s walls are stone, and there are three five-by-six foot arches that were eventually to be hung with large iron gates.
Nobody’s quite sure of the space’s original intended use – and we let our imaginations run a bit wild on that score – but all we knew for certain was that the homeowners wanted a very private retreat that would have a spa for relaxing and entertaining.
With no access available for equipment, we had to hand-dig the 14-foot-square spa to accommodate its interior depth of four-and-a-half feet. We basically treated it like a small indoor pool, with a 27-inch-high seating bench and 14 therapy jets. We then finished the floor in the same granite material we used for the pool deck and installed nine wall lights – the niches for which had to be core drilled into the granite walls and then shaped using grinders.
As was true for just about every other aspect of the project, our work on the grotto also grew in difficulty as we moved along. As mentioned briefly in the text, the ceiling leaked so badly and had to be re-engineered and rebuilt with poured-in-place concrete and structural steel. Also, in digging the spa, not only did we run into the same groundwater issues we’d experienced in pool construction, but we also found numerous large boulders that had to be jack-hammered into pieces so they could be hauled away.
It was a huge physical challenge, but in the end it’s one of the project’s many unique, defining features. Best of all, the clients love it!
Our work in the grotto would have been tough enough without complications, but it wasn’t long before they started cropping up. First, we discovered that the ceiling inside the grotto was no longer structurally sound, so we had to remove it, have it completely reengineered and then reinstall it before work could be completed on part of the pool deck directly above the space.
On that same level, we set up a broad granite veranda as well as a new spiral staircase to convey the homeowners and their guests from the level to the other. We also installed a number of sculptures our clients had collected as well as a custom-designed ironwork fence and gate system – all very beautiful but occasionally hard to manage with everything else that was going on.
We also reworked a large number of landscape features, installing a screen of 35 16-foot pines along the property line. (Naturally, we had to hand-carry most of them into position because of the access issues.) We also demolished an old stone wall at the property line and replaced it with another section of the iron fencing. Finally, we engineered and installed a massive drainage grid to eliminate problems the property had always had with surface water; organized an extensive landscape lighting system; and tended to hundreds of detailed planting and hardscape details throughout the property.
As well as the project turned out, I can’t help thinking about it as a tale of constant battles with the unforeseen. From the beginning almost to the end, one aspect of this project forced us to deal with another in a long cascade that had lots of my friends, family members and staff questioning my sanity.
|Now fully renovated and brought completely up to modern standards, the old grotto (with its new spa) and wall-encompassed swimming pool are once again a delight to the eyes. It was an arduous process filled with more than its share of surprising turns, but our clients had a vision and were determined to see things through to a happy and complete resolution.|
Ultimately, it worked because our crews proved their fortitude and skill in every phase of the operation and especially because our clients maintained a singular, unbending focus on creating an outdoor environment that was appropriate and true to the spectacular setting.
We’d tackled big, upscale jobs before and I suppose we’ll keep on doing them, but this one set a standard that will be hard to meet, either operationally or aesthetically. All jobs come with challenges, but overcoming those involved with this particular project will always be special to me: When I drive by it on my way to and from home, I’ll always be filled with a sense of pride and the certain knowledge that our work has contributed to the historic beauty that surrounds us.
Jason Fragomeni is founder of the Boonton, N.J.-based firm J. Fragomeni Design, which specializes in the design and installation of elaborate exterior environments for upscale clients. He has run his own businesses since he was 15 years old, starting with a landscape maintenance firm. In the years since, he has studied landscape design and horticulture at the County College of Morris in Morris, N.J. He has also traveled extensively throughout Europe, a set of experiences that inspired him to establish his current firm in 1998 with an aim of bringing European elegance to his local marketplace.