Seeing past the ramshackle

A Burlington County estate gets an owner who glimpsed potential and set about coaxing it out.

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James Kozachek stands outside his 1700s Burlington County house with sons Andrew Cosolaro, 8,and Peter, 11/2. He was a bachelor when he bought the house in 2001 and began restoration work. (Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer)

From every indication, James Kozachek is a perfectly rational, sensible guy. A lawyer with the firm Flaster Greenberg in its Trenton office, he specializes in construction, real estate, and environmental law, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa when he attended Rutgers University.

So it seems out of character that Kozachek would buy a crumbling old 7,000-square-foot country estate with 11 bedrooms in Mansfield Township, Burlington County, while he was a bachelor, or that he would devote most of his spare time over the next several years restoring it.

It was, and still is, a Herculean project, which included ridding the place of the uninvited guests he found there: an assortment of winged things and other animals.

But then the amiable Kozachek explains what motivated him to sign on to this all-consuming job.

"I think it may be in my genes," says this son of a contractor and brother of a master carpenter. "I've always liked the notion of bringing something back to the way it was, and the minute I saw this place, I could picture what it must have been. I decided I'd take that journey."

Others might not have been quite so enraptured. But Kozachek is not only a dyed-in-the-wool do-it-yourselfer, he's also a passionate history buff who has researched the home's long heritage.

From the records available, it appears that most of the rambling house was built in 1764, though there are indications there was a structure on the site way back in 1688.

Owned by the Newbolds for about 150 years, the property then was passed down through several families. In the 1980s, its farm was sold to a local developer, and a subdivision was built around the old house.

By the time Kozachek saw the house, the porch was sinking, the "driveway" was mud, and fallen trees littered the lawns. The grand front door was missing its hardware.

Inside, decaying purple shag carpet gave mute testimony to a hapless "renovation" in the 1970s. The place had been empty for years since then.

It seemed somehow fitting that Kozachek signed the final papers on the house, then in foreclosure, on April 1, 2001 - April Fool's Day. He moved in that very day.

"It was literally open to the outdoors, with rain coming directly through the large holes in the roof," recalls the attorney-turned-contractor. "But I wasn't lonely because there were at least a dozen animals living inside."

Kozachek managed to maintain his sense of humor through what might have put less-patient renovators over the edge, restoring the house "piece by piece."

What had to be done? Only everything. Kozachek moved into a bathroom space on the second floor, and that became home as he began tackling the monumental rehab.

"Every system in the place needed work," he says. "From the electricity to the plumbing to the old coal boiler in the basement, where even the walls were disintegrating, to the asbestos covering the pipes, it was in ruins. Even my dad thought I was crazy."

Yet one person had some faith in his venture. Six years into the project, Kozachek met the woman who would become his wife.

"I told Rebecca on our first date that I had this house and was kind of involved in restoring it," he recalls. "I asked her whether, in the event that we got married, she would be willing to live in the house."

She gave the answer he yearned for: "She said she really wasn't that attached to her own place."

Knowing now what she didn't then, Rebecca - who is expecting the couple's second child in January (there are two older children from her earlier marriage) - was decidedly overwhelmed when she moved in as a bride.

"It was quite a leap from an ordinary, vintage-2000, new colonial in Jackson, N.J., to this," she acknowledges. "But I do love old houses, and this place is pretty special."

Indeed it is. The woodwork, the pocket doors, the vistas from nearly every room of open fields, and the grandeur that is now returning to the property is testimony to her husband's deep commitment.

A completely finished office/library on the third floor is the "after," with gleaming wood floors, new windows, and handsome furniture in keeping with the space. Nearby is a room that's still a "before."

The grand staircase, the parlor, the restored Victorian marble fireplace in a downstairs room, the original beams in various areas of the house - all are glorious reminders of what life must have been like for centuries behind the massive front door of the white brick house, with its imposing columns and huge black shutters.

"With such a long history, it deserved better than to be abandoned. And I have no regrets," Kozachek says. "Our kids have a wonderful place to grow up in, and this historic property has gotten a new life.

"That feels like a pretty fine payoff for indulging this passion of mine."

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