Haven: Couple saw the potential in orphaned Vineland farmhouse
When Grace Ward happened upon a ramshackle old house one day in 1977, she felt an instant connection.
"I just loved it, with its detailing, like the built-in cupboards. I really cherish old things," says Grace, 67, a vibrant West Virginian.
Over six months, the dwelling - an 1890 farmhouse in Vineland - beckoned her four more times. For one visit, Grace persuaded her then-boyfriend, Rob, to go with her.
"We always say my heart is on my sleeve, and Rob's is in his throat," she says.
Rob Ward, 62, who appears more reserved than his wife, also liked the one-acre property with its compelling fruit trees, but he foresaw many large projects.
"It was a mess," he says. "There was even food left in the kitchen."
The Wards say the house was one of three erected on Main Street during a time when Vineland's early settlers grew grapes for the nearby Welch's Foods operation - hence the town's name.
The original structure consisted of two rooms and an attic. It had changed hands a couple of times, with each homeowner expanding it more - thus its present incarnation of 10 rooms spread among three levels.
By the time Grace found it, the building had stood empty for three years, except for some unwelcome rats. Even a Realtor friend familiar with the house tried to discourage the Wards from buying it.
Nevertheless, in May 1978 and for $13,500, they happily acquired HodgePodgeLodge, as the house was fondly christened, its name borrowed from a 1970s PBS children's show.
And so began their labor of love in a setting that offered no reliable wiring, insufficient insulation, and less-than-ideal room arrangements. To the young couple, however, it offered promise.
The first step was to make it more habitable. Through the years, Rob - who has worked in the plumbing and heating business for three decades - has done 90 percent of the renovations along with friends. Grace wears the foreman's hat.
"Rob likes to say I'm as handy as a pocket on a shirt," Grace, a retired seamstress, says with a laugh. "But I'm good with the ideas, and then he figures out how to do them."
That first summer, the Wards replaced the roof during a "roofing party." Then they gutted and remodeled the bathroom.
Whenever possible, they salvaged antique finds and reused materials from the premises. The molding and framework in the bathroom are floorboards from the attic, for example. And after installing radiant heating throughout the house, Rob reused the pine floorboards.
"I just flipped them over," he says.
In the kitchen, he installed a salvaged sink, laid laminate on the countertops, and built base cabinets. After taking a class, Grace made the cabinet doors and shelves.
The worn exterior received cedar shake siding. All 22 windows were replaced, and the wiring was updated.
Without altering the space's cozy feeling, walls came down in the living/dining area, adding more room for extra tables and chairs when the couple host gatherings such as their famous Halloween parties, where 100 people feast on dishes of clam chowder, beans and rice, and gumbo.
The couple have lovingly surrounded themselves with keepsakes, big and small. A treasured 1915 Hoosier cabinet with a built-in flour sifter and slide-out shelves belonged to Grace's grandmother. It stands in the kitchen shed.
Sunlight glistens on Grace's collection of cobalt glass, a nod to her mother, who apparently received cobalt therapy for cancer but died when Grace was 4.
Other pieces include an amazing lineup of Americana stone jars and all sizes of baskets, many woven by the Seneca Nation, that are scattered on shelves and on the floor.
An antique desk that belonged to one of Rob's ancestors instills character.
Hanging on the wall in Grace's sewing room, "The Shop," are eye-popping spools of thread, vintage sewing tools, antique keys, and a tender note from Grace, handwritten in the curlicue penmanship of a 7-year-old, to her coal miner father, who had been injured in a mine collapse.
Upstairs are Rob's office, two guest rooms, the master bedroom, and the family room.
Rob, a Pennsauken native and musician who has played in local bands - these days with the Snakes Brothers - met Grace in August 1976 during a gig in Cape May. They married in 1979 in HodgePodgeLodge's backyard. The couple have two adult sons, Gregory, who lives in New Orleans, and Jeffrey, who's in San Francisco.
The Wards' passion for and dedication to HodgePodgeLodge reflect its authentic feel, which they proudly enjoy sharing.
"I think this house is very special," Grace says. "I love having people experience it. I've started writing a book about it, so the history will continue."