At the intersection where a love of history and fierce determination meet, lawyer Alma Saravia made a commitment even close friends couldn't fathom.
Rather than seeking a home that would offer convenience, ease, and comfort to a single woman, she chose instead to tackle the restoration of a Federal-style Burlington City landmark that had been chopped into 10 tiny apartments and had become a blight on the historic neighborhood.
"Yes, people thought I was slightly crazy," Saravia admits of her decision to take on the top-to-bottom renovation of the 1852 house on a quiet street in this riverfront city.
Today, the home bears no resemblance to what it had become when it was taken over by the City of Burlington, then auctioned in October 1985 after years of neglect and decay.
Owned in its glory days by prominent physician Hunter Robb, the home was known for its grand rooms with elegant architectural details.
"I paid $25,000 for the house and kept thinking how wonderful it would be when it was cleaned up. The house definitely called out to me," Saravia says. "But I didn't have a clue at first about what it would take." The first step was replacing the roof, even as Saravia was studying for the New Jersey bar exam.
The rest of the work started in the summer of 1986 and, as a testament to her energy and action, Saravia received a certificate of occupancy in October that year. The house continued to be a work in progress as, project by project, Saravia completed a few hundred thousand dollars in improvements.
With the invaluable help of Moorestown contractors John and Rob Cope, and the moral support of friends and neighbors, Saravia got past numerous frustrating setbacks. When she learned, for example, that the joists in the home's kitchen were rotting and would add considerable expense, she literally took matters into her own hands, removing the linoleum from the vestibule floor with a hammer, chisel, and heat gun to get to the hardwood floors underneath — and to save money.
Saravia had the grit for the job. The only daughter of an Argentine father who served as his country's trade delegate to the United States, and a mother of Finnish origins, she was groomed to achieve. Her professional experience has included serving as director of the New Jersey Commission on Sex Discrimination in the Statutes, executive positions with the New Jersey Legislature, and currently as a shareholder in the Flaster Greenberg law firm, headquartered in Cherry Hill.
Last year, Saravia married Toms River lawyer Eli Eytan, whom she had met at a law conference in Dublin, Ireland. Eytan also fell in love with Burlington, where he now practices. "I'm definitely not handy," he says with a grin, "but luckily Alma is."
Their home is a felicitous blend of family treasures, period pieces, eclectic art — all leaning toward formality in everything from china to linens.
The ketubah, or Jewish marriage contract, created by Eytan's celebrated artist cousin, Archie Rand, of Brooklyn, hangs on a wall in the formal dining room, which also houses an elegant settee that once belonged to Saravia's maternal grandmother. Candlesticks from Eytan's Russian grandparents are on display nearby.
At one end of the sprawling three-story house is the kitchen, which Saravia styled after an English country home. Charming floral wallpaper envelops the large room overlooking some of the home's spectacular gardens, and a poster heralding "votes for women" offers a wry reminder of Saravia's activism.
On the original fireplace mantel in the living room is the newel post from an ancestor's home on which a splendidly crafted replica of a sailboat rests. Art and antiques seem perfectly at home here.
One item in the living room holds special meaning for Saravia and Eytan. An emotional high point of their wedding was when Saravia's beloved cousin Sonja James and her husband, John, acted as mother and father of the bride. Sonja helped the bride before the ceremony, and John escorted her down a stairway at the Arts Ballroom in Philadelphia to meet her waiting groom.
Suddenly and tragically, John James died shortly afterward. While on their honeymoon in Venice, Italy, Saravia and Eytan helped design an intricate glass chandelier in memory of James, which hangs prominently in their living room.
"It will forever remind us of the light that this wonderful man brought into our lives," Saravia says.
The couple recently celebrated their first anniversary in their storybook gardens, inspired by those in the Cotswolds area of England.
"This all feels like a dream for us," Eytan says. "We've certainly changed our own lives, and hope we've given new life back to a wonderful house."