Improving on perfection

The vintage 1860s home was in good shape when the Kongs moved in, so they focused on decorating the interior and enhancing the grounds.
The vintage 1860s home was in good shape when the Kongs moved in, so they focused on decorating the interior and enhancing the grounds. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 17, 2013

This sturdy brick house is straight out of central casting for Americana. Vintage 1860s, surrounded by gardens, it is sweetly simple yet with a certain grace. It even has what real estate agents call "curb appeal."

On a quiet street in historic Burlington City, which has bragging rights as one of the oldest settled towns along the Delaware (1677), this house seems a perfect reflection of the town itself.

"We fell in love with it as soon as we saw it advertised on the Internet," says Christine Kong, not realizing the irony of such a juxtaposition. When Benjamin Franklin - as the story goes - strolled through Burlington City enjoying gingerbread on his way to Philadelphia, his notion of a web would be much different.

But that is how Christine and John Kong "met" the home that's now theirs. After seeking an affordable but older home in nearby New Jersey towns, they walked into one that was in almost pristine condition and had the quality they sought more than any other: character.

It abounds in this late Federal-style home with its brick facade, classic moss-green shutters, distinctive peaked roof, and ornamental iron porch columns.

The Kongs are empty nesters with demanding careers. John, 50, is a project manager for New Jersey Natural Gas Co. in Brick Township, and Christine, 45, is a fitness instructor for the YMCA in Mount Laurel and owner of Peak Fitness, a personal training company for private clients.

They had no notions that redoing an old house would be romantic.

"This one had been cared for, updated, and basically just needed little improvements," said Christine, who recognized the chance to focus on decorating inside and enhancing the grounds. "Gardening is my thing."

That's immediately obvious. It was as well to the planners of an annual house and garden tour scheduled for Saturday in the Yorkshire section of Burlington, where the Kong home, along with a dozen others, will be open to visitors to raise money for the Yorkshire Alliance, a neighborhood organization dedicated to civic improvement.

The prospect of swarms of visitors doesn't faze this couple, who also were asked to participate in the town's annual Holiday Home tour just a few months after they had moved into their home in June 2010. They also opened their doors to the annual Yorkshire Home and Garden Tour in 2011.

"It seems like a nice way to get involved," said Christine, noting that the couple had moved from another small town - Kunkletown in the Pocono mountain area. "I guess we're just not big-city people."

They like knowing their neighbors and having just a short walk to Burlington's main drag, High Street, five minutes away. And John, whose round-trip commute to his job from the Poconos was about four hours, delights in having that trek cut in half.

Determined to stay faithful to the basic age of the house, the couple avoided sharply modern or contemporary decor. Traditional furniture and accessories set the tone.

Typical of its era, the house has two "front rooms," used originally as a formal parlor and a less formal living room. The Kongs use both, and the tapestry fabrics on deliciously plump sofas and chairs make them inviting. The parlor has the added attraction of a handsome fireplace - a perfect spot, they say, for reading and just hanging out.

A sweep of honey pine floors unites most first-level spaces, and Oriental-style carpeting climbs the stairs.

Christine's secret weapon for saving money on fine traditional reproduction furnishings: the "scratch and dent" bargains she has collected over the years.

"I used to arrive at 7:30 on Saturday mornings at one place up in the Poconos and I would watch them unload the trucks," Christine said. "The drivers got to know me. I'm proudly thrifty."

The couple also has snagged floor samples, including the handsome furniture that transforms the dining room into an elegant 19th century space. A charming side porch runs outside the room and along the living room.

The kitchen, also in fine shape when the couple purchased the home, houses a collection of bottles they found as they dug out invasive bamboo on the property, one of the major projects that took plenty of time and sweat.

The bottles still show remnants of earth - and time. One bottle is clearly marked "Dr. Jones Liniment."

While state-of-the-art stainless steel kitchen appliances offer convenience, the light wood kitchen cabinets were handmade by a local craftsman for the former owners. It all yields a felicitous mix of practicality, convenience, and beauty.

Upstairs, three bedrooms are sometimes occupied by returning adult sons, Michael and Matthew, and guests. A third-floor attic space is partially finished into a home office.

For a couple who loves the outdoors, finding a home in which every first-floor room has windowpaned doors to the outside was like winning the lottery.

They have taken what nature - and the former owners - delivered and elevated it to the next level. Three separate garden areas - including a patio with fire pit and seating built by John - combine in creating this enchanted outdoor space.

The division of labor is well-defined: Christine tends to flowers and plants, and John does the mowing.

As for the 300-plus visitors expected to stroll through on Saturday's tour, the Kongs will tend to them, too.

"It's something we welcome," John said. "It's really wonderful to share what we have."


The Yorkshire Alliance Home and Garden Tour takes place from 1. to 5 p.m. Rain date is May 19. Tickets can be purchased at the Antiques Emporium, 424 High Street, 609-747-8333, and at Phillip's Furniture, 307 High Street, 609-386-7125. Price: $20 per person.


 

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