Kevin Riordan: New life for a gem of Collingswood park

Poet Willow Zef peers down into the attic from the widow's walk of the clubhouse, which he's restoring for the Knight Park Trust. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Poet Willow Zef peers down into the attic from the widow's walk of the clubhouse, which he's restoring for the Knight Park Trust. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 09, 2013

A young poet who calls himself Willow Zef lives and works in a house that lacks an address, but offers an abundance of arboreal splendor.

He's resident caretaker and artist-in-residence at Collingswood's Knight Park clubhouse, a long-overlooked and underappreciated abode that opened in the borough's signature park in 1888. It had been vacant for two years until he moved in nine months ago.

"This is a work in progress," says Zef, 26, who's maintaining and restoring the interior of the house for the Knight Park Trust. A civic organization called Proud Neighbors of Collingswood has raised $25,000 to restore the exterior, including the windows.

"He's doing a good job," says trust board president Mike Brennan, who hopes the house will be "presentable for the occasional community function by this time next year" - at perhaps half the $200,000 restoration cost estimated in 2011.

"Necessity is the mother of invention," Brennan says, describing the creative, low-cost, volunteer-driven effort, as well as Zef's part in it.

"This arrangement, as unorthodox as it may seem, is working for us," he adds. "And it's working for him."

Zef is Jozef Maguire, a 2005 Collingswood High graduate who earned a philosophy degree from Northeastern University. He shows me around his place as the wan light of an autumnal afternoon filters through cloudy windows.

The 21/2-story frame house, surrounded by trees, was designed by the Atlantic City architect Andrew Doughty to serve primarily as a clubhouse for park patrons around the turn of the last century.

A rooftop belvedere, sometimes called a widow's walk ("I like to call it the 'captain's perch,' " Zef says), adds a touch of grandeur, even in its rickety state.

Inside, expanses of fresh Sheetrock contrast with sections of original plaster, and weathered floors and paint-covered woodwork await stripping, scraping, and staining.

Zef is working with his father, Kevin Maguire, as well as volunteers, local businesses, and contractors. He doesn't get paid, but he pays no rent, either.

"It feels very much like living in a dream, that this big house that needed someone to take care of it has dropped into my lap," says Zef, who has sandy-hued dreadlocks and a laid-back, cerebral persona.

"We needed someone who was a little artsy, a little bit of a hippie, the kind of a person who has some [carpentry] skills and would love living in a house like that," says Borough Councilwoman Joan Leonard, a volunteer with the trust's restoration committee.

Leonard's husband, Tom, suggested that Zef would be perfect for the post, and it does seem like a great fit.

When Zef tells me that he writes, designs, and then hand-binds books of poetry and short prose, and curates art exhibits at yoga studios, I am no more surprised than when he recalls spending six months "being a traveler, a lover, and a poet" in South America.

In 2012, he read tarot cards at Harry's Occult Shop on South Street. And in early September he took a 500-mile hike in California.

"We're very fortunate" to have Zef living in the house, says Marlene Granitz, president of Proud Neighbors. She notes that the structure is recognized as historic by federal, state, and borough agencies, and will host public workshops about window restoration later in October.

Zef, who remembers when the house was surrounded by "no trespassing" signs, says most park visitors are respectful of his privacy. He's happy to be able to write, meditate, and practice yoga in a place so rich in atmosphere.

"I feel a little bit on display," he says. "But every day is like an art show."

Kevin Riordan: >

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