This winter wonderland, graced by heavy woods and a bubbling, trout-filled stream, is the site of festive celebrations for young and old. Come the holidays, something fragrant is always baking in the oven as the homeowners busily prepare for guests’ arrival. Family feasts, gift exchanges, and carriage rides are familiar sights at Mendham’s Union School.
A noble buck, resplendent in a magnolia and berry wreath, white twinkle lights, and a red lightbulb nose, greets winter visitors each holiday season. A simple but charming wooden bridge, built for a family wedding, is festooned with dried lichen-moss pomanders and cheery red ribbons. The Luciano family’s property is fronted by a historical marker that notes the home's early roots as an 1851 school house. An ornate antique birdbath, refurbished by the homeowner, is embellished by fresh-fallen snow and a holly-berry crown.
A Christmas Eve Family Feast is managed by seating 30 guests at various spots around the home. The formal dining space is furnished with heavily carved wooden table and chairs, found at a country auction and lovingly refinished and reupholstered. The huge Black Forest clock, part of the Luciano family's Swiss bass wood collection, has presided over many a happy holiday celebration.
Holiday dinner is cozy and colorful with a cheerful melange of serving pieces, chartreuse ornaments, pinecones, nuts, and mismatched candles. No two place settings are identical. Each guest is welcomed to his or her seat by a tiny wrapped gift. Simple bouquets of black magic roses, amber cymbidium orchids, chocolate fiddlehead ferns, gloriosa lilies, and parrot tulips are by Laura Clare Floral Design in Bernardsville (908-221-0007; lauraclaredesign.com).
Kunkel also carved the fireplace mantel detail. Atop the mantel, dressed with a handmade dried-fruit swag by Laura Clare Floral Design, are rare Black Forest animal sculptures. The oil painting, “Conamara Landscape, Ireland,” by John C. Traynor, was acquired from Studio 7 Art Gallery in Bernardsville (908-630-9770; studio7artgallery.com).
This jolly honey bear and intricate staircase banister were created from a single piece of wood by master carver Bruce Kunkel (615-429-1486; kunkelguitars.com).
To the backroad winter traveler, it might appear to be a small museum, but the historic Union School is actually a private residence that was lovingly renovated by Tom and Cetta Luciano of Mendham Township. Tucked away at the intersection of three charming country roads, the 1851 structure was built and operated as a one-room school until 1928, when its students transferred to Mendham Borough School. It was acquired by the Schiff Scout Reservation in 1941, and was purchased by the Lucianos in 1988.
After taking ownership of what was basically a shell, the couple spent years putting in ceilings, walls, floors, a kitchen, living room, three bedrooms, and two-and-a-half bathrooms. Although the family occasionally hosted holiday gatherings at their unique country retreat, they didn’t occupy it as their full-time residence until 2007.
All that remains of the original structure is two wall beams and the original schoolhouse bell (see sidebar, page 49). When the couple purchased the home from the Schiff Natural Lands Trust, the deed stipulated that any renovations would have to maintain the integrity of the antique structure, and the new footprint couldn’t exceed the original dimensions.
“Tom is the one with the vision,” Cetta says. “He chose the best contractors and artisans, and even found master wood carver Bruce Kunkel who created a one-of-a-kind fireplace mantel and banister.” The banister is a real conversation piece because each trip to the second floor puts guests face to face with the likeness of a jolly honey bear.
“It’s been a labor of love, but I enjoy working with craftspeople. And I spend a lot of time at auctions and antique shows. I buy whatever catches my eye, and I rarely come home empty-handed,” says Tom, who leaves the house as early as 4 am to get a jump on the crowd.
The fruits of his shopping excursions are evident all around the home and its property. The dining room table and chairs were purchased, separately, at auction and refurbished to appear as a set. The couple also collects glassware, picture frames, old lamps, and rare Black Forest bass wood sculptures, made in Switzerland between 1870 and 1920.
Outdoors, an antique birdbath, found by the side of the road in pieces, was carried home by Tom, fully restored, and proudly displayed in the front yard. One of the Tom’s greatest finds was a whitetail deer sculpture discovered years ago at a local nursery. Each holiday, the lifelike deer is decorated with twinkle lights and a single red light-bulb nose in traditional Rudolph fashion. Cars pull to the side of the road as local children wave holiday greetings to the noble creature.
The family’s five female beagles—Wendy, Mindy, Penny, Brandy, and Brady—were the only animals on the property until a flock of ducks set up housekeeping last spring. The ducks are joined by two blue herons that regularly pluck fat trout from the stream that runs directly behind the home. “The trout are pretty big because I feed them every day,” says Tom. “They’re starting to look like piranha.”
Crossing over the stream to a small grassy island is a handmade wooden bridge that was built for the Lucianos’ daughter’s 2009 wedding, a tented affair for 275. The wedding was one of many celebrations hosted on the property. It seems as though there’s a steady stream of holiday parties and family events happening at Union School.
Old-Fashioned Christmas Eve
Each year on December 22, Cetta Luciano swings into high gear. She begins several days of cooking in preparation for the couple’s annual holiday feast and Christmas gift exchange. Husband and wife, both of Italian descent, turn out a traditional fish dinner for 30 family members and friends, and Tom oversees horse-drawn carriage rides for young and old.
As guests are greeted by wafting fragrances from the kitchen and traditional holiday tunes by Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole, and Alvin and the Chipmunks (the children’s favorite), the champagne begins to flow and the hostess serves shrimp cocktail, clams oreganato, crab claws, and scungilli and bacala salads.
Dinner follows with more treats from the sea—calamari, stuffed lobster tails, grey sole, mussels in marinara sauce, and penne a la vodka served buffet style from silver chafing dishes. Tom’s sisters bring desserts such as raspberry trifle, Russian teacakes, gingerbread, and candy cane cookies, while Cetta passes her crowd-pleasing Italian cookies (see recipe here).
“Our annual event began as a small sit-down dinner,” Cetta says, “but, since the guest list has grown to more than 30 people, we now use every table and chair in the house.” The couple serves dinner with an unpretentious, mis-matched melange of china, silverware, and crystal. (Although Tom threatens to set the holiday table with paper plates, it hasn’t happened yet, says Cetta.)
On New Year’s Eve, the menu shifts to hearty American fare—tossed green salad, gingersnap pot roast (see recipe here), and gravy with carrots and potatoes. “There’s nothing like gingersnap pot roast,” Tom says. “It was my mother’s signature dish for 50 years, and Cetta has always made it for our two children.The holidays just wouldn’t be the same without it.”
School Bell Still Rings in New Year
When the Lucianos purchased their unique residence, the Schiff Trust deed stipulated that the original bell tower was to be rebuilt. But once the couple moved in, they quickly discovered that the historic bell had been stolen. Immediately, they placed an ad in the local paper asking for its return and, to their surprise, the bell was returned, anonymously, the next day.
Reinstated to its position of honor high above the roof, the school bell is still rung on special occasions—such as New Year’s Eve. And, occasionally, neighborhood children stop by just to hear the happy clanging for themselves.
“Sometimes, people knock at our front door, thinking this is a museum. They’re surprised to find that we actually live here,” Cetta Luciano says. “A couple of years ago, 92-year-old Phil Hobbie of Brick stopped by. He had been a student here, long ago, and explained that the kids purposely used to jump in the stream out back because they wanted to be sent home from school for the day.”
Of course, the Lucianos invited Hobbie inside of their renovated home and, yes, the former student of the Union School got to hear the clanging of the original bell once again.