Finding Roger Wohrle’s home, deeply entrenched in the winding, narrow side streets of suburban Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, is not unlike finding buried treasure. The key to finding it is to look for the tall iron gates—landmarked, as they were antiques originally guarding the mansion of the Straus family. On this property, Wohrle has spent nearly sixty years cultivating, expanding, and caring for his immense collection of antiques, tropical plants, greenhouses, sculptures, and artwork. Now, he’s looking to simply give it all away.
Wohrle, age 81, has lived in this home since 1964. A trained interior garden designer, Wohrle has had an esteemed career outfitting some of New York’s poshest buildings with lush greenery and plant life—his most notable resume line being his work at the then-new Seagram Building, designed by Mies van der Rohe and unveiled in 1958. “That was the best building in New York,” says Wohrle. “I figured if I could get that, I could get anything after it—and I did.”
His property, spanning five acres total, includes multiple greenhouses and garages, a bamboo forest, a garden of trees and plants, a main house, and an outdoor pool. Stepping inside the main house, one can't help but notice a constant chirping of birds—coming at any given moment from either one of his two aviaries, or from any of the antique cuckoo clocks mounted on the walls.
Designed by Eleanor Pettersen, one of the first licensed female architects in New Jersey and an early student of Frank Lloyd Wright’s at Taliesin, the house is a beautiful modern space with an open second floor that overlooks the living room, all wrapped around a modern fireplace cast in stone. Art lines the walls and every table is topped with glass and crystal sculptures from Stuben, Baccarat, and Tiffany’s. Even certain windows carry a story, like the large half-dome one sourced from the legendary De Pinna store on Fifth Avenue, recovered after it went out of business. Today, it welcomes a beam of sunshine to illuminate a mural painted on the stone chimney. “That door over there came from a temple in India that they were getting rid of,” Wohrle points out.
Cutting from the main house through the breezeway—a covered, sloped path lined with more rugs that leads to the tropical greenhouse—Wohrle recounts the day’s tasks from the two hours it takes to water all the plants to the tidying up he does around the house, to the new paintings he’s recently picked up and needs to hang...if he can find some uncovered wall space. Perhaps there’s some in the back game room, where a billiards table is serenaded by a working player piano alongside the original bar from the St. Regis Hotel in New York. “My father was a caterer,” he explains. “I knew the house was ideal to throw parties in, and I would rent it out. It was illegal to host parties in a private area, but nobody knew. The last party I threw was for Yogi Berra back when.”
Inside the greenhouse, Barzillian vines hang down from the glass roof, which grow four inches a day and need to be cut before they dip into the crystal, blue swimming pool the greenhouse also covers. To get to the indoor pool, one must also cross a wooden bridge over the large, indoor koi pond.
All of this is in service to his agenda regarding his wishes for the home. At 81, Wohrle is a lifelong bachelor and lives alone, apart from his dog, Teaser, who follows him from room to room. He isn’t looking to take an offer and move someplace new. In speaking with him, Wohrle sounds some twenty years younger than his actual age, but he knows the importance of planning. Real Estate investment groups are keen on neighborhoods like his; they’ve already bought the property behind his own. He’s already been offered and turned down considerable sums from various parties who are looking to tear down the structures and build a long track of townhouses which they can sell 15 of on that lot.
It’s clear in talking to Wohrle, that while he knows the value of the estate, money isn’t as important to him as preserving what’s been his life’s work of cultivating this estate. The man has no kids or immediate next of kin to bequeath the estate to who could preserve it. Extended relatives aren’t interested in the upkeep of garden preservation. Instead, he’s looking to simply bequeath it to the right party. He’s enlisted an executor to what will eventually be his final will and testament someday, but needs to know the fit is right for who will take up the reins here. Right now, a college or school would be ideal, in his mind.
“The goal is for a school or college to teach horticulture here," he says. "It’s not like any normal house. Even in horticulture, you don’t see this often with tropical plants and a bamboo forest out back. There’s loads of deer and foxes and chipmunks and turkeys on the property. It’s a nature-lover’s place, which is what I enjoy." To his credit, there are precedents for what he’s looking to do: “I had the president of Ramapo College and his wife come by, and they liked the idea of using it to teach horticulture, but it was a bit too far from the campus. There are other estates in New York where they’ve preserved [homes], like Wave Hill in the Bronx, which used to be Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain’s summer rental.”
Other methods, such as landmark designations or historic preservations, may be valid, but are deeply bogged down in added red tape and bureaucracy since a section of the property crosses the border into New York State. If you think it's difficult to get a state government to agree to preserve a property, imagine having to go through all of that again a second time.
“I would like to live here and put it in [my will,]” he offers. “When Eleanor Pettersen left her property to the University of Virginia, within a year [the University] had sold it and the money went to the University of Virginia. She never had it in the will that they would have to keep it as is,” he stipulates, knowing the potential pitfalls of such a gift to those who may be willing to take it. “I’m more or less anxious to do something now because I don’t want to all of a sudden happen to die and they would have to sell the property because I haven’t yet left it to anyone. None of my friends want to have the house. I don’t want that to have to be done in a rush.”
In between tending to Teaser, the birds, his plants, and collecting new works and antiques, Wohrle is perfectly happy to field interesting prospects of who might be a good fit to take up the home, or what a group might be able to do in preserving it. Universities, preservationist societies, parks departments, take note of the gem being offered here. If and when you need to reach Roger, just holler; he’ll be out back, watering the plants and feeding the fish.
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