Tornado damaged home repairs in Wenonah,Jan.12, 2022663sharesByMatt Gray | For NJ.com
Along the wide main drag in Wenonah, a peaceful little community of tree-lined streets and historic homes nestled in South Jersey, sits a purple Victorian with a three-story turret and a slate roof.
Built in 1874 as a vacation home, it’s nearly as old as the town, which was founded in 1871 by Philadelphia businessmen as a resort community for weary city dwellers.
With its curved glass windows, scalloped shingles and large porch with intricate woodwork, the house looks like something you’d see in an idyllic painting of 19th-century life.
At least, it did before Sept. 1, 2021.
Like many homes in this community of 2,200, it sat in the path of an EF-3 tornado that carved a trail of devastation through more than 12 miles of neighborhoods, farms and woodlands in Gloucester County.
Downed trees and splintered houses littered the landscape and work to fully recover will take years. Countywide damage estimates topped $64 million.
The owners of that Victorian, Joanne and Dean Christodoulou, consider themselves fortunate. Unlike many, their nearly 150-year-old home survived, though it took a beating.
They had just bought the house in June and hadn’t finished emptying moving boxes when the twister bore down on Wenonah.
Now, instead of relaxing in their new surroundings, they’re working with a team of contractors and restorers to put the house back together while maintaining its historic integrity.
It’s been several frustrating months, but Joanne Christodoulou called it an energizing experience that has given her an even greater appreciation for the community she now calls home.
‘Everything was shattering’
After 32 years in Brick Township, the Christodoulous were looking for a beautiful old house in a small, close-knit community. They had been looking for such a place most of their married life, Joanne said. One of their daughters, who works as a mortgage broker, told them about the home in Wenonah and they were hooked.
For Dean, a restauranteur, and Joanne, a speech-language pathologist and professor, this home and this community were exactly what they needed.
“We were looking for something with more of a community center and people who knew each other,” Joanne said. “Sure enough, we move in that first week … the neighbors start coming over. We got a blueberry pie. We got a bottle of wine. People came by and told us they were glad we were here.”
The couple was in the home with their dogs and cats on Sept. 1 when the emergency alert warned them to seek shelter around 6:30 p.m., but they didn’t make it to the basement.
A dozen windows blew in, sending glass shards shooting across rooms. Doors slammed shut, likely protecting the occupants from flying glass and other debris. A brick chimney crashed down onto the porch roof below, causing substantial structural damage before embedding itself in the front lawn.
“Everything happened almost simultaneously,” Joanne said. “Everything was shattering. You began to hear the shattering of glass in the turret and you heard the chimney come down. Shards of glass were flying through the house.”
They took shelter in the kitchen, which was one of the few spaces spared serious damage. The couple and their pets escaped uninjured.
Then it was time to assess what had just happened.
“I remember just standing there,” she said. “The smoke alarms are going off and now it’s raining in the house. Where do you start? It was paralyzing.”
Because of the window and roof damage, rain poured into the house, causing deeper internal problems, resulting in peeling wallpaper, bubbling paint, damaged plaster and buckled floors.
Outside, a gazebo and trellis were lifted by the winds and crushed, and a fence was smashed.
“It’s not only what you saw, though, because the winds were so high that even if the windows weren’t blown out, they were all damaged, so now they rattle,” Joanne said. “Physically, you see them moving in their frames.”
The couple is still living in the house while repairs continue.
Repair estimates ‘staggering’
Like many affected by the tornado, they are still working with their insurance company to determine what will be covered.
“There’s so much paperwork and gathering estimates from multiple sources for all the different trades,” Joanne said.
She called the estimates she has received to complete all of the repairs “staggering” and said they total more than the couple paid for the house in June.
They are determined, though, to see the project completed and their dream home restored.
While the home has never been on the state or national registries of historic places, they enlisted the help of preservation architect Barton Ross to guide the restoration effort.
Joanne hopes to have everything done by November, but progress depends on the availability of materials and craftspeople skilled in this kind of work.
On a recent January day, the crew from Ray Macaluso Roofing was hard at work replacing lost slate roof tiles with a new composite material that’s a perfect match for the original, though much more durable and easy to shape.
Three stories up, workers darted effortlessly across the steep roof making repairs, while others on a motorized lift focused their attention on the turret. All of them appeared unfazed by the icy wind cutting through the late-morning air.
“The slates on the top were all blown off around the steeple, so we had to pull everything off,” explained Mike Macaluso, as he described the buzz of activity around the site. “The chimney on the back side ended up crashing down onto this front porch.”
The porch is wrapped in plastic sheeting to protect it from the elements. Once repairs are complete — Feldman Construction in West Deptford is handling that job — the Macaluso team will return to install a new roof on the porch.
‘The Tornado Team’
Many contractors turned them down when they realized the scope of the work involved, Joanne said, so she was relieved when Macaluso accepted the job.
Ray Macaluso started his Deptford-based roofing business 35 years ago and his son Mike has been working with him since he was young. They’ve been busy lately with various projects. “We’ve been in here since the storm,” Ray said.
He’s delighted to work on restoring the classic home, but acknowledged the added work that comes with houses of this vintage.
“It’s a challenge because everything is older and everything takes more time to do,” he explained. In order to replace damaged copper elements on the roof, for example, the scalloped cedar shingles have to come off first. Plus, the copper has to be carefully shaped and soldered together.
“I have a very good crew,” Ray said. “They’ve done this stuff before and it really makes a difference.”
The various contractors involved — Joanne calls them “the Tornado Team” — are coordinating their efforts to see the house restored. Four or five teams may be out on any given day handling their respective tasks, she said.
Everyone working on the job feels a special connection to this project, Joanne added.
“Once they got started working on the house, they began to feel a part of the process. They’re all focused on keeping the house as historically accurate as they can.”
When a beam under the porch floor was found to be cracked, rather than tossing it, the contractor salvaged what they could and reused it in the roof repairs.
“So that original beam from 147 years ago is still being used, just in a different way,” Joanne said. “I think it takes a special person to have signed on for something this big as well as to be taking that extra step.”
Some elements of the job will take months to complete.
Because of the curved glass in the turret windows, the Christodoulous needed to find a restorer who could take on the task. After months of searching, they finally found someone in upstate New York who can start work in May. The specialized glass has to be poured into molds to achieve the curved shape, so you won’t find these at your neighborhood home improvement store.
There’s also a delay of four months getting standard windows for the rest of the house, Joanne noted.
Another artisan will work on the home’s large front door, which was cracked when the twister came knocking.
“That door is 147 years old, which means I have to send it to a restorer so he can fix it,” she said. “You can’t buy a new door that would fit in that space.”
While the entire project, with its delays and continued uncertainty, has produced plenty of tears, Joanne said, the collaboration with contractors and support from her neighbors has kept her outlook positive.
As a house across the street, another historic structure that was damaged beyond repair, was demolished last week, she received texts from neighbors encouraging her to continue work on her house and thanking her for helping to keep the town historic and beautiful.
“It’s an amazing place. We got really lucky,” Joanne said. “Even though this catastrophe has befallen us, in the end, this is a really great place to be.”
Once the restoration work is complete, she wants to bring everyone involved together to mark the occasion.
“I think it would be a lot of fun at the very end to have a celebration with all of the trades that worked on the house, because they’re all contributing so much to bringing it back to even better than it was before the tornado,” she said.
Her philosophy about the home, the storm and everything to come is summed up in her choice of a new copper weathervane that now sits atop the freshly-roofed turret.
After an angel weathervane — not an original part of the home — was destroyed by the tornado, she found one featuring a mother bird and her babies.
It has the vibe she wants for this house, she said.
“I want this house to be seen as a happy house. We lived through this and we’re celebrating. It’s going to be here for another 150 years. You and I will be gone. This house will still be here.”
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