When Bob Carr was growing up in rural Homer, Ill., he didn't have a bedroom - or even a real bed. One of six children sharing a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house with parents and a grandmother, Carr and a brother slept in the middle of the living room on an old sofa bed.
He remembers his high school wardrobe comprising three hand-me-down shirts, one pair of pants and shoes.
And although his mother tried to keep things together by working as a night-shift waitress, life was a daily challenge with Carr's abusive, alcoholic father, largely unemployed and especially hostile to this son who tried endlessly to please him.
Knowing that Dickensian tale makes it all the more meaningful that today, at 69, Carr is a successful businessman who lives in a sprawling Princeton Tudor - built in 1896 for Woodrow Wilson - that he restored to its original state.
That Carr has been a lifelong history buff and a devoted Wilson fan only sweetens his satisfaction.
Still, the elaborate, five-year project helps illustrate Carr's grit:
As a young man, Carr put himself through the University of Illinois and earned both a bachelor's (in math) and master's (in computer science) in just four years.
As outlined in his 2014 autobiography, Through the Fires, when he later launched Heartland Payment Systems (now the fifth-largest credit card payment processor in the country), his much-praised handling of a 2009 security breach demanded continued fortitude.
And so did his approach to the seven-bedroom, five-bath house he purchased in 2003 for $2.1 million. Parts had fallen into disrepair, and at some time during the 19 owners since Wilson left in 1902, the three-story structure had been divided into apartments.
"But I wasn't discouraged. I really wanted to correct all that, honor the house, and become a custodian of its history. I never set a budget on time or funds for the rehabilitation," Carr says. "My only goal was to have it done right."
To accomplish that cost more than $5 million.
Along with his wife, from whom he is now divorced, his partner in the project was Princeton architect Ron Berlin, who shared the same passion for its preservation.
Helping to guide them were letters Wilson wrote to his architect concerning the home's design. (The house was built for $7,000, but because Wilson had sketched so much of the design himself, he was credited with $15 for his efforts.)
Although the inside is not a replica, the team preserved everything it was able to, with an emphasis on the home's foyer. It was there, Carr relates, where Wilson, at that time an admired Princeton professor of jurisprudence and political economy, often delivered lectures to his students. In winter, the foyer fireplace was often ablaze.
So as not to disturb the foyer's vertical grain fir, the contractors disassembled it before the necessary reinforcement of the foyer ceiling - then reassembled each piece of wood exactly as it had been.
Now the foyer is dedicated to Wilson memorabilia collected by Carr and sometimes supplemented with finds by friends and colleagues. It's an extensive trove; before Wilson became U.S. president, he served as president of Princeton and governor of New Jersey.
"There was a lot to collect," notes Carr, "but I'm always looking for more."
A new ceiling, finished in ribbed plaster moldings, went up in the formal living room - with Wilson's portrait on one wall and a painting of a Cincinnati presidential campaign stop above the fireplace.
The original library, where Carr imagined Wilson "doing his reading and writing and thinking," was beyond repair. So, using Wilson's original sketches, it was recreated, finished in rich wood paneling, topped by a coffered ceiling, and lined with bookshelves, resulting in the look and feel of a British men's club.
Modifications were meant to enhance the home's access and flow. In order to create a back porch entry to the garden, a one-story extension along the home's back wall was added. A second-story terrace was built, and an elevator shaft - a remnant from post-Wilson days - was removed from the dining room, where its walls got a mural of Princeton's campus. There's now a skylighted solarium, abundant with orchids and bathed in light, that is one of Carr's favorite spaces.
But the old, original elements still comingle with the new: In the kitchen remains the original copper butler's sink, and Wilson's glass-fronted pine cabinets.
Most of the home's original doors were refinished and retained, with special attention to the pocket doors with leaded glass inserts between the foyer and the dining room. The original cast-iron radiators are still functional, and so is the rope-operated dumbwaiter that has "stops" in the basement, kitchen and second-floor hall.
"It's wonderful to look around and see these things that may seem quirky, but that also are reminders of how the original owners lived," says Carr, who so admired the work - and the workers on the restoration - that a photograph of the entire team, feted at a celebratory party when all was completed, hangs in the kitchen.
Still, he would not relish repeating the process.