Fire Razes House With Priceless Furniture

NY Times
24 May, 1989

Fire Razes House With Priceless Furniture

By Dennis Hevesi

Fire destroyed a house in Princeton, N.J., yesterday that was home not only to the family that owned it, but also to a large collection of works by George Nakashima — considered by many the elder statesman of American crafts.

A plumber’s blowtorch sparked a blaze in the basement that burned the house and its contents to the ground, the police said.

There were 112 pieces of woodwork and furniture by Mr. Nakashima in the collection, owned by Dr. Arthur and Evelyn Eros-nick. Only two pieces — a picture frame and a boardroom table — survived. They had been removed from the house for display during the current retrospective of Mr. Nakashima’s work at the American Craft Manhattan.

“It is a great loss — for them and for us,” the 83-year-old Mr. Nakashima said when reached by phone at his studio in New Hope, Pa “Some of the pieces can be replaced, but many cannot. They are precise pieces — one of a kind, many of them.”

Dr. Krosnick, who is medical director of the Princeton Diabetes Education and Treatment Center, and Mrs. Krosnick, who is director of the Greater Princeton Youth Orchestra, could not be reached for comment.

Their hexagonal, one-story home, set in a hillside along Stuart Road in Princeton Township, was designed by John Randal McDonald, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. It was completed in 1980.

‘Wonderful Contrast’ in Hams

Arranged around its large central music room were two bedrooms for the Krosnicks’ grown children, a lounge area, a kitchen, a dining area, a study and a master bedroom. Exposed ceiling supports and walls lined with unpainted Western red cedar complemented the unusual joints and plain finishes of Mr. Nakashima’s furniture.

“There’s a wonderful contrast between the strictly geometric rooms and the undulating edges of the furniture,” the curator of the museum retrospective, Derek Ostergard, said recently.

The fire started at about 11:20 A.M. when an acetylene torch being used by a plumber : in the basement suddenly flared, said Lieut. Mario Musso of the Princetown Town Police Department. The plumber, Over, 32, of Bristol. Pa., raced to his truck to get a fire extinguisher, Lieutenant Musso said, but by the time he returned, the fire had already infiltrated the walls of the home.

Mr. Cliver suffered burns to a hand and his hair and was treated at the Princeton Medical Center. Mrs. Krosnick and a housekeeper, Audrey Perna, escaped without injury. Approximately 60 firefighters fought the blaze, bringing it under control at about 3 P.M.

Mr. Nakashima said he and his family “tried to drive up there, but the road was all blocked and we couldn’t get near the place.”

“They are good friends of ours,” he said. “We’ve been guests there many times, and we wanted to see what the situation was and offer them anything we could.”

Asked to place a monetary value on the works in the Krosnick collection, Mr. Nakashima said, “I don’t believe I could even guess.” Some of his pieces sell for more than $10,000.

Chairs ‘Impossible to Replace’

“1 guess the one piece that would be ‘hardest to replace would be their dining table,” he said.

“It’s what we call a two-board, book-match walnut table, and the chairs were all rosewood, which now would be impossible to replace,” he continued.

“The wood was from southern India, and the government has an embargo on that wood.”

The Krosnicks began buying furniture from Mr. Nakashima three decades ago, when they were newlyweds in an apartment in Philadelphia. “I had been dreaming about owning something unusual, but at the time I didn’t know what,” Mrs. Krosnick said during a recent interview. “When I saw George’s pieces, it was immediate love.’

“There’s nothing he does that doesn’t breathe quality,” she added. “There’s not a fraction of an inch that isn’t perfect.”

In 1955, after visiting Mr. Nakashima’s home and workshop in New Hope, the Krosnicks ordered several pieces, including a small desk, a captain’s chair and a sofa. The back of the sofa had what woodworkers call a “freed edge” — retaining the rough contours of the tree trunk from which is it was cut.. Following those purchases, Mrs. Krosnick said, the collection “grew like Topsy.”

The only individual who has purchased more Nakashima furniture than the Krosnicks is Happy Rockefeller, the wife of the late Nelson A. Rockefeller. In the early 70’s, she and her husband commissioned about 200 pieces for their Japanese-style home in Tarrytown, N.Y.

Massive Table Survives

The Krosnick latest acquisition is the massive table that, fortunately, is included in the museum exhibition. “I doubt there’s ever been a boardroom table like this one before,” Mr. Ostergard said. The nine-foot-wide, circular redwood top is set on two intersecting black walnut slabs. Its top features 10 holes, three butterfly joints, and many finger-like projections along its free edge.

“It’s the most powerful piece he’s ever done,” Mr. Ostergard said. “As George gets older, he gets more dramatic. But, really, it’s not George Nakashima being dramatic; it’s the language of the wood coming through.”

Mr. Nakashima often turns holes and cracks in the wood to artistic advantage. “The ‘uniqueness’ imparted by the imperfections,” the artist wrote in an essay for the museum exhibition catalogue, “makes these pieces appeal-ing.” Part of his mission, he wrote, is to “give some trees a fitting and noble purpose, helping them live again.”

A Princeton firefighter hoses down the rubble left by the late morning blaze


A table and chairs by George Nakashima in a house in Princeton that was destroyed by fire yesterday. One hundred and ten pieces by Mr. Nakashima were destroyed in the blaze, which was started by a plumber’s blowtorch, the police said.

The furniture maker George Nakashima. A house fire yesterday in Princeton, N.J, destroyed 110 of his pieces.

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