Photos by Gridley + Graves
The New Jersey couple met when they were young—just 21 and 17. “I was still in high school, so I could only see Larry on weekends,” JoAnn Schopperth explains. A date for most people their age meant going to the shore or to a movie, but “we went antiquing and stopped at historic house museums.”
The couple wed after four years and extended their weekend sojourns to New England, where they stayed in 18th-century inns, toured colonial homes—and dreamed of someday buying one of their own. When the time came, though, buying a truly old house didn’t seem possible where they were looking. “There were no houses in our area old enough,” JoAnn says. And they felt that it would take an unreasonable amount of renovation to create a period look in a newer house. So they decided to build an old house.
They bought property in Morris County, and found a house plan they liked in a magazine—a simple New England Cape. Larry redrew the plans, changing the structure, moving bathrooms, and designing a raised hearth between living and dining rooms. An electrician by trade, Larry planned to act as general contractor.
First the land had to be cleared, and they did it themselves. As the couple recounts this part of their story, they use phrases surely uttered centuries ago. They “broke ground” in 1975, “felled and cleared 200 trees,” even “dug rocks”—carved off by glaciers eons ago from the Ramapo Mountains. The rocks were set aside for the hearth. They had the house framed before winter, but hadn’t finished siding it because fastening the hand-split cedar shingles was labor intensive. They burned shingle fragments in tar buckets to warm their hands.
JoAnn and Larry moved in during the Bicentennial, in July of 1976, reinforcing the impression that the couple’s lives are a throwback to the colonial period. For luck and posterity, they placed commemorative coins on top of the house sill, below the front threshold.
And that is only the beginning of the story. Still making their excursions, the Schopperths steeped themselves in early America. As Larry puts it, “Nearly every weekend, we would go to the 17th or 18th century.” They were not yet satisfied, feeling that the house hadn’t quite achieved the look of an antique.
“We’d constantly find something more true to period,” Larry explains. For example: “We were visiting the Publick House in Sturbridge. Downstairs they have a beautiful tavern, a historic taproom. Sitting in front of fire looking at the paneling, we asked each other, ‘Wouldn’t that look nice in our living room?’” They took some pictures, then researched early raised-panel walls. Larry built them with pegged mortise-and-tenon joints, using no glue or nails.
The scenario replayed again and again, resulting in more authenticity inside and out. The house remains a work in progress, looking ever more like a well-restored, 300-year-old Cape. Speaking of moldings (the house is on its third or fourth iteration—they’ve lost track), JoAnn laughs, “What is it you say, Larry? That we’ve burned some of the world’s most expensive kindling.”
Their quest extended to the furnishings. An education by immersion led the couple to seek out skilled artisans who could replicate the work of the past. They call their home a showcase for American’s finest traditional craftspeople. Almost every piece was commissioned, even the upholstered furniture (from Angel House in Massachusetts).
The couple built lasting relationships with many of the artisans, and often gave them artistic license. They tell of the tombstone-door chest in the Pumpkin Bedchamber, built by Charlie Coombs of Connecticut. When Charlie presented it, he said the piece held surprises. The first was a delightful Pennsylvania “Dutch” motif painted inside the doors. The second was hidden compartments, for which they had to search. The hidden drawers were finely finished, dovetailed, and sponge decorated.
Another story involves the eight banister-back chairs they commissioned from Adam Mathews for their dining room: They told him he could make eight different ones, his choice. Mathews was taken aback that he’d been given creative control, then threw himself into the project, taking a month to craft each exquisite chair. On the day of delivery, he lined them up in the sunshine in his clients’ driveway before ringing the doorbell. “He said it was the best job he had ever been given, and he doesn’t believe he’ll ever get that offer again,” Larry says.
Susan Dwyer painted the wonderful, Rufus Porter-style mural, and again the artist was given license. She traveled here from her home in Rhode Island, just like the itinerant limners of old. Dwyer also aged the plaster walls, creating the perfect backdrop for stenciling—done by Larry. JoAnn and Larry selected all the stencil patterns for walls and floors, based on those found in historic houses. Larry took a course with Ann Eckert Brown, author of the authoritative American Wall Stenciling 1790–1840, and got compliments from stencil artist Polly Forcier of MB Historic Décor. “When I stencil,” Larry explains, “I do it with a very dry brush so that it looks like it’s a couple of hundred years old…I find the work therapeutic.”
Stenciling is particularly important in the bedchambers, each of which has a theme. “When we’d stay at an inn,” says JoAnn, “each room would have a different palette and a name. We decided to do the same.”
Accordingly, they have the Thistle Bedchamber, the Liberty Bedchamber (not pictured), and the master Pumpkin Bedchamber. Every item has a story, because each piece acquired was thoughtfully considered, not a spur-of-the-moment purchase. (Well, except for the chinoiserie quilt that captivated them at the Kutztown Folk Festival—“We were mesmerized by it,” Larry says. The quilt had been made by 92-year-old Eleanor Latorraca of Easton, Pennsylvania, who’d just passed away at 93; her family was honoring her by bringing it to the festival. Larry had recently lost his own mother at age 93, and found himself drawn to the quilt, which is displayed in the Thistle Bedchamber at Christmastime.)
This house is the result of unflagging passion. In every finish, every piece of furniture and every work of art they commission, JoAnn and Larry stay close to the original, historic model they fell in love with, down to its color. They make only slight alterations in size to accommodate a particular room.
What a labor of love! The Schopperths say their honoring of traditional craft is heartfelt. It seems they deserve some honor of their own.