RUMSON–The house that was to be the centerpiece of the VNA’s Stately Homes by-the-Sea Designer Showhouse caught on fire around 12:30 p.m. today, just days before Saturday night’s gala and open house next week. No injuries are reported.
The house, known as Blithewald, is a 19th century home set on an estate at 76 Buena Vista Avenue. According to county property records, the owner is Thomas Widener and it was assessed in 2015 at $2.4 million.
On Monday morning, several designers were working in the house, preparing their spaces for opening day. The bi-annual showhouse features more than 40 top interior designers, decorators and landscape artists from the tri-state area. It is the biggest fundraiser supporting the Visiting Nurse Association of Monmouth County, based in Red Bank. The homeowner was not living in Blithewald at the time of fire, in preparation for the event, which draws more than 10,000 people.
The VNA issued a statement on their Facebook page, “The cause is unknown and no injuries were reported at this time. We will provide updates about the Preview Gala and Show House tours as information becomes available. Thank you for thoughts, prayers and your continued support.”
Eileen Buriani, owner of Kidegories of Shrewsbury, was designing one of the boys’ bedrooms when she was summoned out of the building, down the stairs. “We came down and we saw the flames shooting out. There was no smoke upstairs at all. I didn’t think it was a quick-moving fire.”
“It’s such a beautiful home. What a shame,” she said,
James Yarosh, an art dealer from Holmdel, had lent artwork to designers exhibiting at the show, including some of his favorite pieces from his own home. “I’ve been talking to designers today, and it’s just so upsetting,” he said. “People do this from their heart, to create beauty, for charity. I’m so upset for all the artists and designers,” he said.
Pat Mills, owner and head designer of Byford & Mills in Little Silver said her team had just completed its work in the sitting room, off the master bedroom, on Friday. They had hung grasscloth wall coverings, commissioned a special handbraided rug and furnished the room with sofas, an L-shaped couch, and a desk. When she heard about the fire, she ran to the site and saw the house in flames. A firefighter was standing in the balcony, off the room, breaking through the ceiling, and water hoses were soaking that portion of the house. “It was horrifying,” she said.
She lamented the sight of Blithewald, “a piece of Rumson history” going up in flames, with all the hard work from a huge community of designers. “Piece by piece you knew your room was being destroyed,” she said. The artwork exhibited in her room alone was valued at $150,000, she said.
Next door neighbor Monique Bolsius was among several people who watched the scene unfold. She said she felt so sorry for the army of volunteers who had been working on site for two months to ready the house for its moment in the spotlight. “Its devastating. It’s just so unfortunate,” she said.
Denise DeMarco arrived at the house this afternoon to complete a project, to hand paint one of the historic fireplaces. Volunteer firefighters representing Rumson, Fair Haven, Little Silver, Middletown, Atlantic Highlands, Highlands, Sea Bright and Eatontown were on the scene, Rumson Road was closed between Bellevue and Kemp Avenue, and the air was filled with the smell of smoke. “It breaks your heart. So much of it was volunteer work. It’s not just money, it’s their time.”
— By Christina Johnson, with reporting by John Burton
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