A vigorously Victorian restoration …

In Ventnor, N.J., a couple restore a run-down century-old home and garden with oblivious and frenzied energy.

Posted: July 27, 2007

She wanted a porch. He wanted a garage. They both longed to live in the older neighborhood known as St. Leonard's Tract in Ventnor, N.J.

So in 2001, Clyde and Jude Plale Yost took the plunge. They bought a run-down house one block from the beach, on the corner of Atlantic and Oxford Avenues, in the heart of this otherwise elegant enclave. It had a wraparound porch, a detached garage, and something that emboldens do-it-yourselfers everywhere: good bones.

Now, to look at their showy century-old Victorian and its merry gardens, you'd never believe its condition when they moved in. They found shag carpeting on the wide wooden stairs and gunky paint on the woodwork, floors held together by duct tape, and a "Hail Mary" oven that you had to bang three times to get to work.

As for the outside, "We had no idea what we were getting into," Jude says with a frown.

Here's what they were getting into: tough dirt, exhausted trees, and rocks and weeds so angry that city bureaucrats cited the Yosts for neglecting the landscape - even as they were pouring cash and sweat into their bottomless pit of a house.

Before vaulting into that pit, neither Jude nor Clyde, who have three kids and own a transportation-distribution company, had experience in gardening or home renovation. You could tell because as they approached each task, they'd look at each other and cheerfully ask: "How hard can it be?"

How hard to lay tile? How hard to blow out a wall?

"How hard can it be?" they taunt in unison now, laughing their heads off, trying to get a rise out of their audience. It's as if the simple, constant repetition of this absurd notion will summon the knowledge, the skill, the energy and the money to accomplish all.

Neighbor Norm Klinger, a retired lawyer, says he saw "a lot of elbows and butts" when the Yosts were in their restoration frenzy. But it inspired him to attempt jobs he'd never have imagined before, like soldering copper pipes to his outside shower.

"What's the worst that can happen? I kill myself, lose an eye, whatever," jokes Klinger, who nicknamed Jude "the unsinkable Molly Brown."

But you can't argue with success, folks.

Wish we could report that the Yosts' new tile is crooked, that the rebuilt walls are lumpy, that the freshly installed windows fall on your head when you open them.

Guess it wasn't that hard.

Even in the garden.

Jude took charge of that. Who knows where it came from, but she had an idea for "an English-looking garden that would go with the house and look nice."

"I don't like anything orderly," she says. "I like things to look like they're in disarray."

This is something gardeners are skilled at communicating, as in: "Yes, I designed my garden to be carefree, natural, romantic." What they really mean is: "Help! I don't have time to weed, and my garden is out of control!"

Jude hired a demolition guy to scrape the yard and get rid of the rocks. She and Clyde spread a truckload of good soil and planted bulbs and seeds they bought at Sam's Club and Home Depot. Then, in shocking defiance of the sacred gardening proverb "Right plant, right place," they tossed those seeds and bulbs into the ground.

Wherever.

"I had no idea what would come up or what would work," says Jude, who adds, with some reluctance, that she occasionally uses chemical weed-and-feeds.

But nature is at work here, too. Wind blowing off the ocean carries pink cosmos, Shasta daisies, orange poppies, and purple liatris around the garden. Birds do their digestive best to spread sunflowers in similar fashion, and now, after four years, Jude has her "English-looking garden."

Her favorites are many: dahlias, especially the pink, dinner plate-sized 'Jean Marie'; hydrangeas, especially Hydrangea paniculata 'Tardiva'; Oriental lilies, especially 'Stargazer'; double-flowered rose of Sharon, her mother's favorite; pink peonies, coneflowers, "black-eyed Susies," and Gaillardia or blanket flower.

"Whatever's on sale at Home Depot," Jude says.

No surprises while digging in the garden, but while knocking down walls to make a larger master bedroom, they found a treasure tucked inside some molding: a faded photograph of a young lady, coming hither.

She's wearing a see-through dressing gown, and what you see through it - well, let's just say the Yosts named this naughty nymph "Jezebel."

The bedroom, facing the ocean, is filled with some of the many antiques this resourceful couple has acquired from home demolitions, eBay, and shows for antiques dealers and wholesalers. The star is a stunning walnut armoire, circa 1880, part of a French set that includes two beds, two dressers and two nightstands.

Jude has the artistic eye. She restores antique quilts and collects bright chenille bedspreads and old lace. She loves to display long-ago party dresses and negligee sets, and her lacy curtains have a peacock motif that was popular during her favorite era - the Victorian.

You'd never guess it from looking at this house, these sprightly gardens, but Jude and Clyde Yost are thrifty as all get out. "Design on a dime" is their motto.

OK, this time we're buying it.

After all, how hard can it be?


Watch a video of Clyde and Jude Plale Yost in their garden at http://go.philly.com/ventnor.


Contact gardening writer Virginia Smith at 215-854-5720 or vsmith@phillynews.com.

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