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Home Dream Home

by Janet DeLoach; Photo by Paul Loftland

A look inside South Jersey cribs reveals airplane hangars, underground tunnels, home theaters and many more luxuries, both simple and outrageous.

Picture the home of your dreams. It might include a gourmet kitchen, sprawling English-style gardens or a multi-vehicle garage.

Better yet, how about a place to park that helicopter?

Five years ago, Dr. Justin Catando scoured the southern New Jersey landscape to find a home that would accommodate his flying machines, and found just the right place in the Medford area. As an optometrist and former real estate developer, Catando had not only the land expertise but also (no pun intended) the vision to spot an ideal location for his dream home.

In 2006, the licensed helicopter pilot, his wife and their three children, moved into their new home, on nine sprawling acres, with a helipad and a hangar for his small plane situated near the runway of Red Lion Airport in Southampton Township. The result: a private, rural feel that incorporates Catando’s love of flying.

Often, he takes a chopper out just for the fun of it. “I take my kids for rides out of the backyard,” he says. Though he initially planned to use his rented helicopters for a private transportation business, that venture is currently on the backburner, Catando says. For now, he enjoys flying friends and family for trips to the Shore, to the ballpark—“wherever I’m going, whenever I can,” he says.

Being able to combine business and pleasure right at your doorstep can be a challenge, especially in today’s busy world. But homeowners across South Jersey are turning what were once mere mansions into exclusive personal retreats, complete with over-the-top amenities customized to their passions.

After much success during the mid-’90s dot-com boom, Moorestown couple and Internet business owners Richard and Susan Lutz were ready to enjoy the fruits of their labor. In 2000, they settled into a surrealistic homestead, the storied Rancocas Springs Boarding House, which dates back to 1682. They’ve dubbed their grand, eight-acre property Maganda, which means “beautiful” in Tagalog, the language of the Philippines.

But “beautiful” understates the majestic setting. Through a yearlong renovation, the Lutz family created a magnificent waterfront mansion that resembles something out of a fairy tale.

After living in Europe and the Philippines over the past decade, the family drew inspiration from their travels, maintaining the Moorestown home’s rich heritage while adding updated European luxury to what is now a 12,000-square-foot home with a soaring rotunda at its front. And a swimming pool. And four fireplaces, a wine cellar and a massive crystal chandelier above a sweeping grand staircase. Fairy tale indeed.

Inside the seven-bedroom home, which was featured on an episode of MTV’s Extreme Cribs in August, dramatic details mirror the Lutzes’ love of antiques and religious artifacts, which include rare liturgical stained glass pieces from around the world and kitchen counters made from church altars.

Richard Lutz built yet another addition onto the nine-acre estate as a 40th birthday present to his wife: a chapel. “I had some unbelievable stained glass that had been in an old church some 95 years ago,” he says. “It was in the most mint condition I had ever seen in my life. I was finished with the house, but had to do something with this unbelievable find.” Too small to hold more than a dozen people, the chapel has provided a serene backdrop to a wedding or two on the Lutz estate grounds, which sit on the shores of the Rancocas River.

While he and his family are spiritual, Lutz says his interest in sacred collectibles comes mostly from his appreciation for art. “Some people come visit and wander around our house looking for some religious retreat experience,” he says, “but they soon realize, it’s just our home.”

For Gerard Ferro, where he hangs his hat is “a slice of heaven every day.”

Ferro’s Alton Manor sits on a quiet, tree-lined residential street in Voorhees. But this elegant mansion’s somewhat demure facade belies the bold, fun-loving atmosphere inside. “I wanted to create an environment that included all the things that I could never have growing up,” says the 52-year-old businessman.

Visitors can traverse a system of bridges, spiral staircases—even an underground tunnel—to explore the 21,000-square-foot home. Outside, the property boasts three small ponds, waterfalls and botanical gardens, ultimately leading to a pool house and luxurious pool (outfitted with two hot tubs).

Preferring not to make the daily commute to his main office in Marlton, Ferro often conducts business poolside from home along with a small satellite administrative staff. “I work best when I’m not being constantly interrupted,” he says.

The house tour starts in the basement, where a small but fully-equipped barber shop models as a memorial, Ferro says, to his grandfather, who owned a shop in South Philadelphia in the 1950s. The room includes one of Ferro’s grandfather’s original barber chairs, his scissors and a price list of services, circa 1959, along with many family photos from years past. “My DNA is in that chair,” he says, noting that he still gets his monthly haircuts in the same chair he sat in as a boy.

The brief trip down memory lane precedes the home’s nucleus of entertainment, in a cavernous space outfitted with a 42-stool wraparound bar—one of three bars in the home. Ferro’s parties need no hired entertainment: the space includes a professional DJ booth and sound system, pool table, dance floor and disco ball. A regulation craps table flanked by a row of slot machines conjures up an Atlantic City casino vibe.

Want to kick back? Catch a flick at the 12-row movie theater, complete with a state-of-the-art surround sound experience with vibrating floors and cushy chairs. “Jurassic Park is amazing in this room,” Ferro says. His home cineplex even has a mechanically animated usher, who lights up in a glass ticket booth and greets guests.

In case that fails to amuse, just past the movie theater is a concealed door that leads to a 22-foot-deep bomb shelter. Ferro says he built his safe haven during the “Y2K scare” but dismisses any past paranoia. With its own air circulation and surveillance system, the hidden refuge extends over 150 feet across the property.

“Time and money, and a whole lot of effort,” is how Ferro, at the top of his game as a pharmaceutical and biofuel entrepreneur, describes the growth of his impressive compound. The home, he says, stands as a testament to his own personal “chutes and ladders” journey of constantly working, climbing and building.

“It’s bridges and tunnels,” he says, “everything I always wanted to do as a kid.” So with all these amenities, is there anything missing from his wish list due to space or zoning constraints?

“Maybe 20 acres, and some horses out back.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 6 (September, 2011).
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