As an artist, Roberta Russell had a vision for the house that she and her husband built in 1971. It had to be sleek, one story, with modern touches like an intercom and mirrored walls.
Oh yes, the kitchen had to be round — with a circular island and a curving wall of windows that allowed a panoramic view of the yard.
Now, more than 40 years later, the Wyckoff, N.J., house has passed to new owners who want to respect its late-midcentury pedigree while updating it to a brighter, more open style.
The new owners, Les and Sue Fox, have their own colorful history. They're art dealers, as well as home builders and renovators, who wrote and self-published a best-selling guide to Beanie Babies at the crest of the craze in the late 1990s. They had long admired the house Roberta Russell built, which is just up the street from their home, and after Russell's death last year at 75, they bought it.
"We thought this house deserved to be saved," Les Fox said. "There were four or five builders that were competing with us to buy it. They would have knocked it down and built one of these McMansions there."
Roberta and Martin Russell were living in River Edge, N.J., with their two sons when they bought the Wyckoff property, which had been carved out of an old apple orchard. Martin Russell worked in the garment industry, and Roberta Russell was an artist who stayed at home to raise her children. Roberta Russell was deeply involved in the home's design and construction, her son Andy recalled in a recent walk through the house.
"For the time, it was a pretty modern house," said Andy Russell, a marketing consultant who lives in Connecticut. "It looks like an anachronism now."
Roberta Russell stuccoed the living room walls and ceiling herself and covered the walls in other rooms with fabric from her husband's textile business. Dissatisfied with the marble on the fireplace, Roberta "went to the quarry and handpicked each stone," her son said.
The house's geometry is tricky, with the bedroom wing set at an angle to the rest of the house. The most unusual feature is the round kitchen — which her sons' friends always found funny and eccentric. But it made sense to Roberta Russell, who worked as a theatrical set designer.
"She liked the idea that you could circulate around the kitchen and have a wider panorama to the outside," Andy Russell said.
He's glad that he and his brother ended up selling to the Foxes rather than to builders who would have knocked it down.
"Knowing what my mother went through to build the house, it would make her happy to hear that the bones of the house are being maintained and just being modernized for today," Andy Russell said.
At the same time, he understands that the Foxes need to make it their own.
"It was beautiful — in 1971," he said. "I'm not offended."
It's pretty common for buyers of ranch-style houses to remodel, especially the kitchens and bathrooms, according to Michelle Gringeri-Brown, editor of Atomic Ranch magazine and author of several books on ranches.
"Even if people love the style of the home, they often walk in and say, 'This will not work for me,'" she said. She encourages homeowners to renovate in a way that stays true to the home's original style — for example, avoiding current trends like vessel bathroom sinks, farmhouse kitchen sinks and glass mosaic tile. She also encourages homeowners to live in the house for a while before making major changes because they might find they actually like the original floor plan and design.
"But at the end of the day, it is their home, and they get to do what they want," she said.
For the Foxes, the biggest challenge of the new house is to open it up and let in more light. They also want to extend the rooflines, to emphasize the horizontal nature of the design and link it to the Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie houses that were an inspiration for the ranch style.
The round kitchen is staying, though the dated counters and cabinets will be replaced. But walls will come down to create an open flow from the living room, family room and eat-in area of the kitchen. They expect the renovation to take nine months and cost $350,000 to $400,000. (They paid in the mid-$700,000s for the house.)
"We need to get light in," said their architect, Michael Scro of Z+ Architects in Allendale, N.J. "The strength of the house is it's got a solid brick facade, but it's got relatively limited windows." Breaking into the brick would be difficult and would also change the home's exterior too much.
"You have to be respectful of its era," Scro said. "We're going to tear the roof off and get light from above."
Scro plans to add a vaulted space, sort of like a mini-dormer, with high transom windows that will allow light to pour in from above.
The Foxes plan to keep many original touches — for example, by framing and displaying pieces of the dated wall coverings.
"This is a part of history here," said Sue Fox, pointing to the black, blue and silver geometric wallpaper in the hall bathroom.
Though most home buyers shrink from the idea of renovation, the Foxes, now in their mid-60s, crave the creative challenge. They've built or renovated 20 houses since 1975 — half of them to sell, half to live in.
They walked past the Russell house often as they walked their dog. The size, 2,775 square feet, seemed a better fit for a couple whose only daughter is starting graduate school.
"We don't need 7,000 square feet," Sue Fox said.
Most of their previous houses have been traditional, but they've recently been drawn to modern design, both in their art business and in architecture. And since visiting Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, Fallingwater, in western Pennsylvania a few years ago, they're intrigued by the idea of using Prairie influences in their renovation.
"There's an excitement to doing something new and different," Les Fox said.