Oddball spaces

HACKENSACK, N.J. — There are certain spaces that home buyers crave, like giant kitchens and expansive walk-in closets.

And then there are the spaces that turn up unexpectedly, especially in some older homes — spots like bomb shelters, smokehouses and outhouses.

These can open a window into history, giving a fresh sense of how people once lived. The bomb shelter recalls a time when Americans feared nuclear attacks from the Soviet Union, and imagined how to survive in a scorched landscape. The smokehouse tells of a time when Americans didn't buy their meat at the supermarket, but butchered it and smoked it to preserve it.

And the outhouse tells about life before indoor plumbing, when "… well, you know.

Quite often, homeowners find new uses for oddball spaces.

Tom Johnson of Liberty 100 Realty in Waldwick, N.J., recalls selling a house where a secret staircase connected a closet on the first floor with a closet on the second. The owner lined up her shoes on the steps.

A Ridgewood, N.J., Tudor listed by Beth Freed of Prominent Properties Sotheby's International Realty includes an elevator, which the owners use as a linen closet.

Old bomb shelters are sometimes converted to wine cellars. Ruby and Bobby Kaplan of Teaneck, N.J., store old clothes, toys and household items in theirs. In Bobby Kaplan's words, it's "a nice, cool place for junk."

The shelter is a surprise in the Kaplans' large stucco house, which has been so extensively renovated it looks nearly new. (The seven-bedroom home is on the market for just under $1.5 million because the Kaplans' three children have grown. Ruby Kaplan, a real estate agent with Vera&Nechama Realty in Teaneck, is listing the home.)

The Cold War hideout has thick concrete walls and a 21/2;-foot-diameter corrugated-metal tunnel, which leads beneath the lawn to the outside. Bobby Kaplan recalls that when the couple first moved into the house, he was in the yard with the dog when the dog suddenly vanished. He had fallen into the bomb shelter tunnel, which the family later closed up.

Bomb shelters were built in the 1950s and 1960s as places to escape nuclear fallout. A photo from the National Archives shows a cozy model, with a table covered by a checked cloth, two neatly made bunk beds, and shelves stacked with canned food. Magazines are piled on the table, to help pass the time underground.

And in 1960, Popular Mechanics magazine offered readers advice on how to build a shelter, saying: "An underground shelter having at least three feet of earth or sand over it, plus adequate door and air filter, will give you almost complete protection."

Nickie Lisella's Allendale, N.J., house came with a bomb shelter.

"I thought it was cool when we first saw it," says Lisella, a manager with Terrie O'Connor Realtors in Allendale. "I figured if anyone dropped a bomb, we could save our family."

Buyers often are drawn to extra spaces, especially if they're big enough for a variety of uses. Ann Matri, a Coldwell Banker agent in Saddle River, N.J., recently listed an 1890 two-bedroom house in Midland Park that sold almost immediately, and over asking price, largely because it included a small backyard stone building with a potbellied stove. It was originally used as a summer kitchen, when it was too hot to cook indoors. The buyer plans to use the space, roughly 12 feet by 14 feet, as an art studio.

"I advertised it for hobbyists, artists, musicians," Matri says. "I can't tell you how many people came. A lot of people like to have some sort of studio or a little privacy."

Wanda and Larry Finch's 200-year-old, six-bedroom Dutch colonial in Maywood, N.J., has several unusual spaces, including a walk-in hearth in the kitchen.

The hearth was once a traditional fireplace, but when people began cooking with wood-burning stoves instead of open fires, the homeowners removed the top of the fireplace to fit in a stove, says Larry Finch, an engineer who has studied the home's construction.

The house, known as the Romaine-Oldis-Brinkerhoff house for three early families who lived there, also is decorated with tiles left by a 20th-century owner, Ernest Bilhuber, who founded the Maywood Tile Works.

One series of tiles, on a mantelpiece, shows scenes from Shakespeare plays.

Outside, there's a stone smokehouse, now used as a garden shed. Smokehouses were used to preserve pork after pigs were slaughtered, typically in December, according to an article by Michael Olmert in the Colonial Williamsburg Journal. First, the fresh meat was packed in salt to remove most of the moisture; then the meat was hung above a fire that smoldered in the smokehouse for a week or two.

"The result is dried, long-lasting, smoke-flavored meat that will age in the same smokehouse for two years before it's eaten," wrote Olmert, an expert on colonial outbuildings, and author of a book called "Kitchens, Smokehouses and Privies."

The Finches' house is now on the market for $439,000. Like the Kaplans, they are empty nesters who don't need all the space.

The old A.A. Terhune house, a 1815 Federal-style building in Mahwah, N.J., includes a two-seater outhouse. The tiny building is now painted white, with cheery yellow trim and is hung with birdhouses and used to store garbage cans.

The outhouse is just one of many historic details at the home, including wide plank floors and original ceiling beams.

"I don't like new homes — they're just four walls," says the home's owner, Lucille Conte. "I think you find the places where you're supposed to be."

An 1880s farmhouse in Old Tappan, N.J., also has an outhouse, half-hidden behind shrubs, with a door and walls that lean at angles.

That house, on the market for five months, has an asking price of $694,900. It also offers pocket doors, a wrap-around porch and the original pine floors.

Properties with this kind of history don't appeal to the average buyer, says the listing agent, Antoinette Gangi of Re/Max in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. They attract a smaller, but passionate, pool of people who love living with a piece of the past.

"It's a whole separate market," she says.

Vikki Healey of Vikki Healey Properties, the listing agent on the Finches' Dutch stone house in Maywood, made a similar point.

That house, she says, will probably be bought by "someone who can appreciate the incredible craftsmanship that's gone into a building like this "… someone who can appreciate the property and the architectural detail."

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