The startle factor for visitors to Janet Knowles' home in Moorestown is routine. When guests step inside the warm, hospitable and welcoming space, they soon notice that just across from the entrance is, well, a stable. Yes, the kind for horses.
Knowles has grown accustomed to double takes as newcomers take in the original stalls, unexpected amenities in the vast space, and the commitment it took to transform a historic carriage house with stable into a home.
"I'm sure there are people who thought I was slightly crazy to buy his place," she says, "but I fell in love with it, and there are no regrets."
Janet Knowles' life has been laced with challenges and unusual choices. A single mother with two daughters after an early marriage and divorce, she sometimes juggled four jobs to make ends meet. She and her second husband bought a farm in Moorestown, where Janet sheltered abused horses. The couple, now divorced, began what is now the nonprofit Janet H. and C. Harry Knowles Foundation, dedicated to increasing New Jersey's pool of good science and math teachers. And she's tireless in her efforts to promote care of women with breast and ovarian cancer. MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper University Health Care in Camden has designated an area as the Janet Knowles Breast Cancer Center.
Knowles' motivation to completely renovate the carriage house started with an effort to find a home for her sister, who was dealing with cancer.
"I wanted to help her find a 'fixer-upper' in Moorestown, and I got quite involved in that rehabilitation," Knowles explains. "I loved doing it, and I really found that it was exciting to transform space."
So when a property on a quiet Moorestown street near the center of town came on the market in 2013, Knowles scooped up the late 1800s summer and carriage house that once belonged to the Strawbridge family of Philadelphia department store fame.
Originally, the Strawbridge parcel included a large farm, which was subdivided in 1960 into several residences. The original farmhouse was transformed into a home on Main Street.
The carriage house needed a lot of structural work, including raising the house off the ground in three-foot sections to deal with extensive damage around the perimeter. Indoor and outdoor walls needed repair, as well as insulation. Additions included a laundry room, foyers, an elevator, and garage.
Assisting Knowles were architect David Donachy and contractor Bill Kutteroff, both of Moorestown, who modernized the house while also making the most of its original "bones" and respecting Knowles' love of horses and passion for the old stable.
Four of the original six mahogany stalls were restored. The surrounding area has been transformed into an inviting space where Knowles and guests can lounge on comfy chairs and sofas surrounded by bookcases. The room features a distinctive tin ceiling.
Two foyers, one behind the other, welcome guests to the upper floors, and like most walls in the home, the stairway hosts a gallery of Knowles' antique art, needlepoint, and samplers, including scenes of historic Moorestown that she has found at local thrift shops. (Until recently, Knowles stocked and ran a popular Haddonfield thrift shop, and she was admittedly one of her own best customers.)
The home's second-floor bedrooms impart the feeling of a beautifully furnished inn, with loads of Tiffany-type lamps, quilts, and antique beds. Knowles' own bedroom suite has the same kind of charm and simplicity but is outfitted with practical amenities such as ample closets.
With the help of her architect and contractor, she also has created a sleek, efficient working kitchen.
Banished from the third floor and elsewhere is the pink decor that former owners had chosen. Her keen eye for design and color led Knowles to restore the original look of that floor's beams and a mellow palette.
The pièce de résistance is the vast living area on the second floor, which was originally the hayloft. In the spirit of honoring what was, Knowles left burn marks on some walls as a reminder of previous fires, which were common.
"This is where I like to hang out and where life feels so calm and joyful," Knowles says.
Home is where Knowles unwinds, sometimes with her two daughters and her grandchildren, but often in splendid solitude, surrounded by the art and crafts she loves.
"I just look around sometimes and know that no matter how complicated the process was, this is truly where I belong."