I’ll Take Manhattan, Even if it Means a Makeover
In the process of helping our older son search for an affordable one-bedroom apartment a few years ago, we stepped over more than our fair share of cockroach carcasses on our way up decomposing brownstone steps.
By Robin Jovanovich
In the process of helping our older son search for an affordable one-bedroom apartment a few years ago, we stepped over more than our fair share of cockroach carcasses on our way up decomposing brownstone steps. Luckily, we didn’t happen on any rats in or outside what I came to call the “tenements with potential” listings we were shown by realtors who were just getting into the business.
After a few weeks of this, I brightly suggested to son and husband, “Let’s raise our sights and our spirits. Let’s hire a real realtor.”
Once we did, I, at least, was off to the races. Marci Halfon, our broker, has good taste and even better instincts. She realized before I did that what we were really looking for was an apartment for us that our thirtysomething son could camp out in until he was ready for the next act in life.
Marci had me at Gramercy Park. After my parents divorced, my father lived a short chapter of his life in the Gramercy Park Hotel. I wasn’t Eloise — I did have a turtle, however — but I was treated royally at the increasingly seedy hotel.
We settled on a co-op with a wraparound terrace and views we’d never tire of. The only roadblock was that the board wasn’t interested in absentee owners, whose son was the placeholder.
So we changed neighborhoods. “How about Tudor City?” Marci suggested.
“Isn’t that kind of a dull area?” we asked. She said we should take a look. After looking at three apartments in this landmarked neighborhood that sits above the United Nations, we bought a “two-bedroom” (one bedroom, one study with two tiny bathrooms and an oddly tiled galley kitchen) that our son could afford to “rent” (no need to explain to other parents of college graduates) from us.
Other than repainting the bedroom and living room, we did nothing before our son moved in. He actually never moved into the study, preferring to watch TV in the living room and do all his work from the dining room table. I’m not sure he did much cooking either, but he was a single guy and the appliances had their issues.
But once the golden boy decided that his next stop was Brooklyn —Williamsburg, to be precise, which was a surprise to his mother, who grew up on the Upper East Side in the Sixties, when Williamsburg was a major crime scene, not the restaurant scene it has become in a few short years — I suggested to my husband that we talk to the architect that lived in the building about making a few minor changes.
We’d met Agustin Maldonado, interim dean of City College’s School of Technology and Design Department, at the required board meeting before the sale. We passed, so did Agustin who is warm, outgoing, and memorable. He described the day back in the 1970s when residents, him among them, stood out on the street to prevent bulldozers from tearing down the 1920s neighborhood. The civic-minded architect was part of the Tudor City Historic Preservation Committee that landmarked the neighborhood in the late 1980s.
My idea was to open up the apartment, especially the entrance into the kitchen and the bedroom, which I felt should be a study. Agustin wasn’t too sure about swapping the bedroom and the study, but he’s well-mannered and said my idea was “somewhat interesting.”
Once we ironed out every inch of the plan, he recommended we meet Donal Soraghan, a contractor he’d worked with on numerous projects in the building and beyond.
No one could have lived through the renovation of that 1,000-square-foot apartment, but Donal did the work in a matter of months, which is no easy matter in Manhattan, particularly in a landmarked building. When Donal’s crew removed the terra cotta tiles from the kitchen walls and floor, the dust lingered for days and the detritus filled hundreds of contractor bags (he took us to see the pile in the alley).
Earlier this year, we hired a mover to take furniture, paintings, and household items from our house to the apartment. In a matter of hours, I had pretty much arranged the furniture and when Donal came the next day, we hung the paintings. Our architect, who had a key, happened to stop by that afternoon when my husband and I were trying out the new living room layout.
There was joy in Agustin’s face and some disbelief. “It really all works!”
The apartment was working out just fine for us until a few weeks ago. Our younger son and his wife called from their new Williamsburg condo across from McCarren Park (a place I was definitely not allowed to go to in the Sixties): “We have to move out. Our apartment has leaks and is growing black mold!” The apartment has really come in handy. My husband and I really look forward to using it some day.
— Photos by Agustin Maldonado