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More Curator Than House Seller

By Tina Traster

February 10, 2007 -- Grisha Davida tumbles out of his jam-packed station wagon sporting an 1812 flintlock musket. He invites a visitor to enter his restored 1749 Dutch Colonial in Piermont. The muzzle-loading long gun, he explains, will hang over the fireplace. "This is how the colonials kept the gun powder dry," he says.

Davida seems more curator than house seller. The history buff and avid preservationist not only restored the Dutch sandstone fašade using old mortaring techniques - mixing sand, lime and horsehair - he re-painted the house inside and out with historic colors. He has filled the dwelling with period pieces, furnishings and artifacts dug up during the four-year renovation. The $775,000 price includes the house and its contents.

Tune out the hum of traffic on South Piermont Avenue and it's easy to imagine a time when horse-drawn carriages ferried farmers along the road and oysters were raked from Sparkill Creek. The pre-Revolutionary War era house, wedged into the Palisades, is a tome of American history. It's been said freed slaves from the nearby Comfort Coal Co. plant built the house. Local historians believe Aaron Burr hid out there after the 1804 duel that killed Alexander Hamilton in Weehawken, N.J.

In the 1960s, the house belonged to artist Carlotta Petrina, whose illustrations in John Milton's "Paradise Lost" won her two Guggenheim fellowships. John Crawford, one of the late Jim Henson's former puppet makers, sold the house to Davida for $365,000 in 2004. The new owner planned to sell his Dutch colonial sandstone in Closter, N.J., but the Piermont house was in much sadder shape than he realized. For the restoration of his late 18-century New Jersey house, he received commendations from Bergen County and his town. Davida single-handedly undertook a colossal restoration on the Piermont house using 18th- and 19th-century hand tools to rebuild stone walls and 250-year-old fireplaces, pulling up termite-rotted floors and crafting a nearly nail-less wide-planked floating pine floor. He exposed ceiling beams and installed antique radiators. He used New York State's preservation guidelines for historic restorations.

Davida hired professionals to refit the electric and plumbing.

For two years, Davida juggled restoration and his full-time publisher's job at Yacht Vacations & Charters magazine. By January 2006, he was carrying two mortgages, a $400,000 home equity loan and supporting two daughters in college. Davida took a one-year sabbatical to complete the house.

"There were nights I was here alone until midnight, mixing mortar and freezing because the house had no heat," says Davida. "But I would think about the freed slaves building this house and how delighted they must have been to have something of their own. I'd pull out nails from old floor planks and imagine the bartering that would have taken place with the blacksmith because nails were hard to come by. There was so much history around me and I felt compelled to do what I could to preserve my chapter of this American story."

Davida says neighbors on South Piermont Avenue, who are descendents of workers at Comfort Coal, have passed on those stories that Burr used the house as a hideout after Burr killed Hamilton. Nobody has hard facts, but this bit of local lore has stuck for generations.

What is documented is that on July 11, 1804, Burr and Hamilton departed by separate boats from Manhattan and rowed across the Hudson River to a spot known as the Heights of Weehawken in New Jersey, a popular dueling ground below the towering cliffs of the Palisades.

America's most famous duel arose from a long-standing political and personal rivalry, which came to a head after Burr led a failed campaign in the 1804 gubernatorial race. Later that year, Hamilton spoke forcefully against Burr at a party. An attendee quoted Hamilton's vitriolic words about Burr in a letter published by the New York newspaper, The Albany Register. Hoping a victory on the dueling ground would revive his career, Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel, just as the practice was being outlawed in the northern United States.

The political enemies each fired a shot from a .56-caliber dueling pistol. Burr was unscathed; Hamilton fell to the ground mortally wounded and died the next day. Burr was indicted on two counts of murder. The charges were later dismissed, though the controversy ended his political career.

The ground floor of the two-bedroom, 1 1/2 -bath, 2,000-square-foot, two-story house has a large main room with fireplace. Atop the mantel is an old painting depicting a 1700s post-supper scene. Davida has replicated this by furnishing the room with table and chairs, and a tablecloth pulled halfway back. "In those days, the men would pull back the tablecloth when they sat around smoking because they didn't want to start a fire."

A nearby sideboard displays old bottles, shards of clay pottery and oyster shells dug up from the property. Davida has furnished the room with 1700s Bergen County chairs, an old copper tea kettle, historic blacksmithing and farmers' tools. He also built a "root cellar" near the north wall, which has a sump pump.

Davida restored the northern wall and fireplace chimney, which were in a state of near collapse. The rumbling of the former Erie Railroad that ran behind the house compromised the stonework.

There are two rooms off the dining area - an open space on the western side of the house that could be a bedroom or home office. The small kitchen on the southern end has new Kenmore stainless steel appliances and there is a tiny powder room. But history lurks. Large nails poking out of the hand-hued ceiling beams were once used to hang game. White powdery flakes on the beams are remnants of milk paint, a milk, lemon and water mixture colonials used to clean fly droppings.

The stairway leads to two small bedrooms, a bathroom with a small cast-iron tub and the house's highlight, an airy room with vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, a 1700s fireplace and views of the First Reformed Church overlooking Sparkill Creek.

"In the old days, the living room was upstairs," says Davida, who has put a movie screen and sound system in the room. A staircase ascends to an artist's loft.

There is a rock garden that twists toward the Palisades on the southern end and a fenced-in backyard on the northern side.

Davida pledges to apply for federal, state and local historic designation for the house - unless a buyer objects.

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