Just two months after their first son was born, Jason and Reena Schaeffer realized that living in bustling Old City with an infant wouldn't work: "We'd have 2 a.m. wake-up calls every weekend from the people out on the streets."
So Reena, then a medical resident at Temple, and Jason Schaeffer, a new-home builder, looked to move to South Jersey, near family and work.
Jason Schaeffer approached their quest to buy land or a tear-down in Haddonfield with great efficiency. He investigated the quaint community equipped with spreadsheets and zoning maps.
"We never intended to buy a house. We always wanted to build one," said Reena Schaeffer, a pathologist. "We've lived in at least five houses. Building them is like a hobby." But a year after living in each house, they'd get the itch to go back to the drawing board on a new one.
Buying a previously owned home this time would mean living with other people's choices, but they agreed it was the only way to go.
One day, Jason Schaeffer pulled up to a place on Kings Highway. His wife thought it was a joke: "It looked like a haunted house. 'I'm not going in there,' I told him."
The property had been a rental for years, with a dentist's office downstairs and apartments upstairs. A week later, Reena Schaeffer agreed to go back, but "it was the ugliest house I had ever seen."
Yet Jason Schaeffer was oddly drawn to the place. He thought it would be easier to tear it down, but he changed his mind after meeting with the librarian for the local historical society, who had sketches and photos of the house, built by Clement Remington in 1894.
"I became enamored with the place," Reena Schaeffer said. "I actually felt sorry for it that it had gotten that run-down."
Jason Schaeffer's thinking was more analytical: "I knew the reality would be that the house would need perpetual work, and we had to be OK with that."
His parents took a tour and proclaimed them crazy, but the house's story had them hooked. So did the challenge of resurrecting it.
In November 2007, the couple closed on the property. Jason Schaeffer and his crew worked on it for 18 months before it was habitable.
Even before they made settlement, it was apparent that the house was in worse shape than the Schaeffers thought. When they tested the pipes by turning on the water, for example, it came shooting out of every cast-iron radiator they were hoping to salvage.
The learning curve on the project was huge. "Ninety-nine percent of what I do is new building," said Jason Schaeffer, president of Tim Schaeffer Communities. "I had not done renovating."
Luckily, one of his employees had, and guided him throughout. Besides Jason Schaeffer and a crew of four who were at the house full time, other craftspeople came in when needed.
In two weeks, what could not be saved was demolished. Trim and plaster were removed. The structure, which had sunk four inches at the rear, had to be shored up. It is almost level now.
"The kids still get a kick out of rolling balls in the house. They go right to the back," Reena Schaeffer said.
As they thought about putting the house back together, they considered something even more daunting: making the old place green.
"The hard part of an old house is energy efficiency," Jason Schaeffer said. "For instance, I wanted to keep the original cherry windows, so we needed to get a certain kind of storm window." The couple also installed efficient plumbing and features such as recycled-glass countertops in their boys' bathroom.
Reena Schaeffer checked into products, like dual-flush toilets, that had new technology but would not look ridiculous in an old house and could be approved by the historical commission. No solar panels, in other words.
Every detail was a research project - from duplicating trim profiles, to finding crystal doorknobs like the ones on some of the saved doors, to having pocket doors custom-made when the originals could not be salvaged.
The Schaeffers and Haddonfield architect Jack Williamson used the original framing as their guide, which means that, unlike in modern houses, the family room and kitchen are the farthest apart on the first floor. They got rid of a powder room to gain a coat closet, and the kitchen is small by today's standards.
"We wanted to preserve what was there," Reena Schaeffer said.
In the five-bedroom, 3,800-square-foot house, one of their favorite spaces is the family room, which has been decorated in an Asian theme.
"I'm Indian, and we still have family there. We like to travel to Asia," Reena Schaeffer said. Added Jason Schaeffer, "We were successful in keeping the architecture in this room intact, but we took liberties in decorating it."
The couple finally moved in in May, and the only plan they have for the future is adding a garage.
Though there were times they thought about bailing on the project, the Schaeffers remembered how the house was, and what it could be.
"We really see this house as almost a person," Reena Schaeffer said, "one we'll be caring for for years."
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