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Vaux Hall House
Passing by the past to the future
by Eileen Gefell Photos by William Tomlin

Smith has recreated the original holiday door decorations of the Pierson family
David Gwesyn Smith first drove into Maplewood to attend a friend’s party, He loved the town from that moment. So when he pointed to a stately home on Valley Road and exclaimed, "That’s the one I want!" he was thrilled to see a For Sale sign had been plunked on the front lawn by the time they were departing the party and going back home to New York. "It was meant to be," he claims.

Locals may refer to the home as the Pierson House, but its true name is Vaux Hall. A Greek Revival Millhouse, it was built in 1843 by Lewis Pierson, just ten years after the Pierson Mill. It was christened "Vaux Hall," after the famous London pleasure gardens, which Mr. Pierson had recently visited. The house completed his two-and-a-half acre Pierson Mill complex, and it remained in the Pierson family for more than 160 years. Just two years ago, patriarch Hubert Pierson sold the complex. Since February Smith, and his partner Carl Geffken have lived at Vaux Hall.

An avid collector of fine antiques, Smith happily shares his interest in history, and his remarkable collections that date from about the 1650s to the 1850s. A world-renowned baritone and voice coach, Smith trains international opera singers. His students come from around the world to study at Vaux Hall, sometimes staying for weeks at a time.

"It’s a funny thing with voice lessons. When you find a teacher you like, it doesn’t matter where they live. It’s sort of mad," he laughs.

At only 18 Smith won the most prestigious Welsh singing competition – the Royal National Eisteddfod – and became the youngest winner ever. He went on to win the Young Welsh Singer competition three times and was awarded the Silver Medal of Worshipful Company of Musicians. Winning a scholarship to the prestigious Guildhall School of Music in London, he then studied voice with Rudolf Piernay, one of the world’s foremost voice teachers.

Vaux Hall begins with magnificent front rooms that span the entire length of the house and form a double parlor. Each room has a fireplace with Carrara marble mantles that, according to Smith, were added sometime around the 1870s. Adjacent to one fireplace is a 1780 English barrel organ. Smith claims he spied this piece while cycling through his college town of Cardiff, Wales. "I nearly fell off my bike and ran into a passing van," he said, "and I spent an entire semester’s grant to purchase it."

Just off the left parlor is a small hallway with a nifty folding door. It opens on to a platform that served as a stepping stone for the carriages once flanking the circular driveway. Considered the original front door, Smith and Geffken now use this as their main entrance. This hallway leads to the dining room, initially the kitchen. An original five-foot-deep fireplace has been replaced by built-in cabinets, which display Smith’s 18th and 19th century china.

Off the dining room is the morning room, a cozy addition added in 1939, replete with deep comfy couches, an entertainment center, and wonderful views of the Maplewood Country Club golf course. "This is everyone’s favorite room," admits Smith, "for obvious comfort reasons."

The previous owner renovated the kitchen, which now takes on an authentic 1840s look. Smith’s collection of old kitchen gadgets now has the perfect home. "The only thing missing," he adds, "is my great, great, grandmother’s eight-gallon Christmas pudding boiler." It is currently aboard a container ship on the high seas, en route to America, along with the last of Smith’s personal items. Spotting the ceramic fox on the kitchen wall, I realize you’d need much more than an afternoon to appreciate the breadth of his collecting. A delicate pair of scissors sticks out of its snout and a fine line of string protrudes from its mouth. It’s a twine dispenser in disguise!

The second floor of the house has four bedrooms. A small room on the back right of the house is known as the widow’s bedroom, so named because it was traditionally where a widow moved when her husband died. The summer bedroom is the largest and adjoins the Egyptian bedroom via a Jack and Jill bathroom. This bathroom, still in shades of 1939 pink tile, is in remarkable condition.

A winter bedroom has a working fireplace and a newly renovated full bath. Smith points out that the woodwork in the front bedrooms reflects an Egyptian revival style, typical of the time in which the Piersons finished the upstairs rooms, probably between 1850 and 1860.

On the grounds of the property Smith plans to restore the famous 15-foot "Pierson fountain" which was originally located between the Mill and the house. It will be repositioned at the side of the house along with a formal garden. Smith has only one precious picture of the original fountain from which to work.

This Christmas, Smith will revive a Pierson family tradition. The door that faces Valley Street, or what was once called Heathen Street, will be decorated with a wooden frame in the shape of a Christmas tree, adorned with seasonal greens and a giant star. Smith has a photo from a 1952 issue of Suburban Life magazine in which Mrs. H. Pierson proudly stands on the porch under a similar Christmas decoration. The Pierson family displayed this decoration for many years. The original wooden structure does not exist, but Smith plans to replicate it.

"I love Christmas," Smith says. "The traditions, the food, friends, and the shopping. However, I believe we should begin to decorate on Christmas Eve. The thought of having to dust Christmas decorations seems rather perverse!"

Vaux Hall has a wonderful history. And now with their newest owners, Vaux Hall is assured wonderful future.

Eileen Gefell lives in Maplewood, and can’t decorate or sing to save her life. But she truly adores Christmas.

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