Richard Nixon slept here; now it will be history

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Associated Press
Richard Nixon lived in the house from 1981 until 1990, when he sold it for $2.4 million. It was recently purchased for $3 million and will be torn down.
By Evonne Coutros, The Record (Hackensack N.J.)

SADDLE RIVER, N.J. -- Robert S. Hekemian Jr. has fond memories of his first visit to 15 Charlden Drive, the wood-frame contemporary in Saddle River that for nine years was the residence of former President Richard Nixon and his wife.

Hekemian, a developer from Saddle River, knew the owners of the 4-acre property before the Nixons moved in, and was overwhelmed by the beauty of its secluded and sprawling yard.

"It's comical that some 30 years later, the back yard I admired so much would be mine," Hekemian said.

Hekemian bought the 1960s-era home from the Ushijima family of Japan for a little more than $3 million about a year ago, paying about $2 million more than the Nixons had in 1981. The Nixons sold the home to the Ushijima family in 1990 for $2.4 million.

Hekemian will likely be the home's final owner. The house, designed by the late architect Eleanore Petterson, who lived in Saddle River and studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, is now dilapidated. It is slated for demolition later this year, making way for a new home for Hekemian and his family.

A path that winds around the home will be preserved, however, Hekemian said. Richard and Pat Nixon often walked it with dignitaries, heads of state, family and friends in the years after the Watergate scandal forced the Republican president's resignation in 1974.

When the Saddle River Museum opens in June, a few items from the home will be in the new collection. They include parts of the 1980s-era security and surveillance system that protected Nixon. A Secret Service guardhouse that sat adjacent to the home's winding driveway was moved to the entrance of the museum this week.

"This is part of Saddle River history," said Maurice Burke, a councilman in the solidly Republican borough. "So much of our history in Saddle River is getting lost. We're quite proud that former President Nixon lived here and to have some memorabilia to honor him."

Mike Dutra, who owns the excavating and sewer firm that moved the 4-by-4-foot wood guardhouse a quarter mile to the museum, said the job stirred up a sense of history for him.

"You feel more in tune with who he was and what he was when you're up on the property," Dutra said. He remembers the Nixon presidency from the 1969 inaugural to the August 1974 resignation. "You think about it when you go there. It brings back Watergate."

Hekemian said it took a lot of persistence to acquire the property. "The Ushijimas had no intention of selling the house," he said.

For three years, he traveled to and from Japan to persuade the Ushijima family to sell. With each passing year, the home -- with eight bedrooms, formal dining room, den with one-way-mirror glass doors, in-ground pool and tennis courts -- was falling deeper into disrepair. The winding gravel path became overgrown. With sump pumps not working, the basement is a 3 1/2-foot sea of stagnant water. The ceilings in many of the 15 rooms are waterlogged and riddled with mold.

"I wanted to preserve the house, but it's so full of mold and I have two small children," Hekemian said.

Hekemian met former President Nixon several times, once holding a 25-minute conversation in the borough's downtown when Nixon would go there in his limousine with his driver. Thereafter, they'd exchange hellos on chance meetings.

Robert Re, a former Ho-Ho-Kus police chief and Saddle River police director, was Nixon's director of security for nine years, and he was at the family's side when Nixon died of a stroke in April 1994 at age 81, almost 10 months after the death of his wife, Pat.

By that time the Nixons had moved to the Bear's Nest condominium complex in Park Ridge.

"The Saddle River Valley Club caroled for shut-ins and we went up to the Nixon house in the late 1980s just to sing outside," Re said of the Saddle River years. "Mrs. Nixon came out and stood there as we sang -- about 25 of us. They both invited us in and brought us ... to where he had his piano. He played while we sang. That's the kind of man he was."

Re is thrilled anything can be salvaged of the home through Hekemian.

"That guardhouse was used by the Secret Service to get out of the cold," Re said. "It'll be nice to have a piece of history from the 37th president of the United States."

Most of the home's furnishings have already found another home.

"When I bought the house, all the furniture was inside," Hekemian said. "All of it has been donated back to Japan -- Okinawa -- where there are two museums going up in President Nixon's memory. So the interior of the house has been moved there."

Hekemian said the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., did not need any of the items, so some furniture, such as Nixon's famous upright piano, will be shipped back to Hekemian after the museum show.

Hekemian plans to decorate his new home with some of the items, such as African rosewood paneling that's in storage.

"It won't be a mega-mansion," Hekemian said of his new home. "The property will not be subdivided. We're going to preserve the look of the lot."


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