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Haven: Restoring a family legacy in Burlington City

Refurbishing a late 1920s house in Burlington City isn't just another project for master craftsman/historic-reconstruction specialist Joe Pennise Jr.

Refurbishing a late 1920s house in Burlington City isn't just another project for master craftsman/historic-reconstruction specialist Joe Pennise Jr.

The undertaking he began in fall 2008 is all about preserving a link to generations past and keeping fond family memories alive for future generations to share and enjoy.

"My maternal grandfather, Frank Panico, came to the United States from Italy at age 20 with only $25 in his pocket shortly before World War I," Joe says, then he joined the U.S. Army and returned to Europe to fight for the Allies.

Afterward, he says, his grandfather worked as a field hand in South Jersey orchards and as a mason, eventually saving enough money to buy the land in Burlington City on which he eventually built a one-room frame house.

Today, the original 500-square-foot structure has grown to 3,000 square feet featuring hand-scraped teak and Brazilian cherry flooring, heart-pine doors, and handcrafted interior and exterior moldings.

It's been a journey of discovery for the Pennise family, all of whom have had a hand in the remarkable makeover.

To fully appreciate the transformation, some history is in order.

A few years after building the original house, Panico built a 400-square-foot addition: two bedrooms, a bathroom, plus front and back porches. That was the family residence until the mid-1940s, when, rather than continuing the expansion, Panico decided to build yet another structure adjacent to his first one.

"I remember my father would get up at the crack of dawn to work on the foundation, go to work later in the morning at his regular job as a mason, and come back to continue building the house one step at a time, all by himself," recalls Joe's mother, Anna, the youngest of five siblings.

The story goes that as each got older and eventually married, he or she moved into the smaller, original house until they got established.

When Anna married Joe Pennise Sr., the couple also rented the house from her father. But when children came along, they felt a bit squeezed. So in the mid-1970s, Joe Sr. built another 500-square-foot addition: two more bedrooms and a bathroom. And still others followed into the 1990s: a family room; a pantry and laundry room; a sunroom.

"Everyone grew up in the house that granddad built," says Joe Jr., one of four kids and a 1994 graduate of Burlington City High School who in less than two decades after graduation has become proficient in electrical work, carpentry, and general woodworking, among other disciplines.

More than qualified, in other words, to take on the stem-to-stern renovation of his grandfather's original home that began in 2007 with a skylight leak in the kitchen.

"We figured if we were going to replace the roof, why not add a second floor in the process," he says. "But because of all the additions through the years, there was no continuity, and the roof lines went in every direction, not to mention a host of other structural inconsistencies."

Exterior plans, hand-drawn by a local architect, called for smoothing out the rooflines, as well as the construction of a turret.

Inside, walls were torn down and rebuilt. Replacing the floors revealed severe foundation damage, which meant a new one had to be built. If not for a "let's get it done" attitude, cold and rain might have stalled the project, now almost four years old, altogether.

"There were times when it was all we could do to keep all the materials from getting waterlogged," Joe recalls.

But the efforts clearly have been worth it.

A spacious living and dining room area is enhanced by a 14-foot cathedral ceiling and a two-landing staircase with intricately designed wrought-iron railings that sweep up to the second floor.

At the top of that staircase, tall Civil War-era heart-pine doors, purchased on eBay, lead to the master suite. A heated whirlpool tub is situated on a mahogany deck.

Downstairs, two bedrooms were extensively renovated. One has a bay window that was part of the original house. A completely redone bathroom is handicapped-accessible; its tumbled-edge ceramic tile mimics stone.

The kitchen features elegant Brookhaven cherry cabinetry, quartz countertops, and state-of-the-art appliances. A coffered ceiling recalls ancient Greek and Roman architecture.

The rear family room has oak flooring, a gas fireplace, and crown molding.

Paul Witkowski, of Edgewater Building Supply, provided much of the raw material for the project and is one of Joe Pennise Jr.'s most ardent supporters.

"Joe is one of those rare perfectionists who takes great pride in his work, does it the old-fashioned way, and never takes shortcuts," says Witkowski.

Come spring, Joe says, he will be putting the finishing touches on the house his grandfather built.

But the real accomplishment, he says, is in paying tribute to the man who set such high standards for him and others to follow.

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