Designers deck out historic estate with modern twist for Mansion in May

Written for MyCentralJersey.com on 4/30/17

Just a few months ago, Alnwick Hall, known today as The Abbey, was an empty, yet notable, 20,000-square-foot home, a rare survivor from the early 20th century’s ‘Millionaire’s Row’ of estates, on a portion of Madison Avenue between Morristown and Madison.

Since its elegant heyday as a palatial home, The Abbey at 355 Madison Ave. has served as a bank, medical offices and church administration offices.

Now, thanks to 64 top designers from around the region, The Abbey has been restored to a grand estate setting for this year’s Mansion in May, a fundraiser for Morristown Medical Center. The designers have enhanced and beautified its 41 spaces and gardens with their personal twists and modern spins, while retaining the mansion’s original charm.

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“The Abbey is drawing a lot of attention for this year’s Mansion in May since many people have driven by it or had appointments in it,” said Kathy Hobbs, publicity and marketing chair of Mansion in May and volunteer for five years. “People are intrigued to see what it looks like inside.”

Now they can do just that. Starting May 1, community members can take an approximately 90-minute self-guided tour on any day throughout the month from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. for $50 per person. (Tickets bought until April 30 are $40 each.) This is the Women’s Association for Morristown Medical Center (WAMMC) 18th flagship fundraiser that normally takes place every other year.

With the support of some 1,300 volunteers, the last Mansion in May took place at Blairsden in Peapack-Gladstone in 2014. It drew some 33,000 visitors and continued the tradition of making Mansion in May among the most successful designer show houses in the country. This year, the WAMMC hopes to bring in even more visitors due to The Abbey’s prominence in the community and its easy-to-access location.

Photo by Jenna Intersimone

“This mansion was built in 1904 when the area was surrounded by great wealth,” Hobbs said of Alnwick Hall, which was designed by architect Percy Griffin. “It has great bones and is naturally elegant, which has been very useful for the restoration.”

The WAMMC chose The Abbey for several reasons. This is a special year for the Morristown Medical Center, which is marking its 125th anniversary, and the mansion is only about a mile away from the hospital. In addition, the mansion is currently up for sale and is vacant, making it an ideal canvas for creative designers.

“Overall, the condition of the mansion was very good because it had a lot of its original molding and fixtures intact,” Hobbs said. “Some of the rooms needed some TLC, so the designers did things such as refinished the floors or repaired the ceilings.”

Photo by Jenna Intersimone

Named for Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, England, the orange-colored brick and stone mansion with terra cotta ornamentation was loosely modeled after various fifteenth- and sixteenth-century English prototypes. It features stained glass windows, fine wood-trim carvings, elaborately sculpted plaster, numerous fireplaces and an intricately carved oak main staircase.

The Abbey was once the home of entrepreneurial businessman Edward Peter Meany, one of the five incorporators of the New Jersey Telephone Co., and his wife Rosalie Behr, who frequently hosted festive musicals in the mansion’s grand ballroom featuring members of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra.

Designers began their work on The Abbey in February, with a completion deadline of the end of April. About 270 designers visited The Abbey after it was selected for this year’s Mansion in May in 2016, with 64 designers ulitimately being allotted spaces after the proposal process. Each designer used $5,000 to $90,000 of their own funds to outfit their chosen space.

Photo by Jenna Intersimone

Visitors also can purchase any item they see in the rooms to be picked up in June, and the current owner of the mansion also has the option to purchase pieces or full rooms following Mansion in May.

Susan M. Niblo of Susan M. Niblo Interior Design in Tuxedo Park, New York, outfitted the Ante Room for this year’s Mansion in May; this is her first year with the fundraiser.

“I’ve only seen Mansion in May in the magazines, but I was thrilled to participate and to have been selected from such a large pool of applicants,” she said. “The WAMMC really makes a wonderful show house — there are so many of them, they are so accommodating, efficient and effective — and they are all volunteers.”

Niblo used the entire time allowed by Mansion in May — 10 weeks — to design her room with a budget of under $10,000 by making a variety of changes. This included painting black and white ceiling tiles, hanging cove lighting to indirectly reflect light off the black ceiling and painting herself in the style of Tamara de Lempicka, a famed Art Deco artist, with a few changes. She also did major floor repairs — when the carpeting was pulled up, she saw that the floor was only comprised of joists.

Photo by Jenna Intersimone

“Because of my extensive experience refurbishing houses and the fact that I enjoy it, I chose to do a lot of the work myself,” she said.

Since Mansion in May’s inception in 1974, more than $10 million, including $2.3 million in 2014, has been raised for the Morristown Medical Center. This year’s Mansion in May funds will support the establishment of The Center for Nursing Innovation and Research at Morristown Medical Center.

The center will aim to create a culture that encourages and rewards nurses to go beyond existing performance standards, build a foundation to sustain that culture and to support Atlantic Health’s mission to advance the art and science of healing. The WAMMC has pledged to donate at least $1 million from this year’s Mansion in May for the center.

Photo by Jenna Intersimone

“We chose to donate to the Center for Nursing Innovation since the Morristown Medical Center is currently reaching for the Magnet Award, an award given by the American Nurses’ Credentialing Center,” Hobbs said. “Plus, the first person you see at the hospital is a nurse and May 6-12 is National Nurses Week, so we thought this would be perfect. Many of the nurses are even volunteering at Mansion in May.”

As a designer, Niblo said understands why Mansion in May has become such an anticipated event on the home-decor calendar. Plus, she thinks the event receives more foot traffic than the famed Kips Bay Decorator Show House in New York City because visitors can get to Mansion in May more easily.

“This is a signature event and it is the largest and oldest fundraiser by the WAMMC,” Hobbs said. “Through its 43 years, it has become a very well-oiled machine and has been extremely successful at raising awareness and funds for the Morristown Medical Center.”

Mansion in May

Where: Alnwick Hall, known as The Abbey, at 355 Madison Ave., Morris Township

Parking: No parking is permitted at the mansion. Attendants must park at 170 Park Ave., Florham Park and will be shuttled to and from the mansion for free.

When: May 1 through May 31 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in a 90-minute self-guided tour

Cost: $50 per person which can be purchased by visiting mansioninmay.org/tickets. If tickets are bought by April 30, they are $40 each.

Children: Infants and children under age 12 are not permitted.

Contact:mansioninmay.org, 973-971-8800

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