Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Half-Century Modern

Lileks talks about his house:

this is a house of right angles, as befits the style of the time. Mission, Arts & Crafts, whatever you wish to call it. I know some people expect me to live in a jet-age 50s-style joint, and believe me, I’d love to. But I would feel compelled to walk around in a bowling shirt with black-framed glasses, listening to Esquival, and that would feel like 24/7 dress-up.

I know what he means. If I were living in one of those white high-rises built in the same era as the motels on these postcards, I would feel compelled to go around the house dressed like Laura Petrie, and do the cha-cha while I vacuumed. But that would be silly. I never vacuum.

One thing I've found with this apartment re-do is, you have to design for the type of place you have. I would love to have those low-slung Danish Modern pieces, those coffee tables shaped like kidneys. But our place is tall and narrow.

When I first got out of school and was looking for a place in the City, I wanted to live in one of those pre-WWII luxury buildings on the Upper West Side. This was before gentrification made those buildings co-op and spectacularly unaffordable. But in the late 1970's, most of them were rentals, and rent-stabilized. Some even had rent-controlled tenants who had moved in well before 1968, when rent-control laws were abolished.

In the pre-yuppie West Side, you basically had two types of tenants in those places:

1. Older people who had been there since World War Two;

2. Half a dozen young people sharing a two-bedroom apartment.

So I would go to the home of a scene partner from acting class, and she would greet me with, "Oh this is Steve, and Heather, and Wendy, and Bob, and there's another guy Michael but he's waitering tonight, and this is my room, I have the dining alcove."

As attached as I was to my fantasy of big-roomed, high-ceilinged grandeur, I was turned off by the idea of being the seventh roommate. And the alternative was to wait for one of the elderly tenants to die, but that wouldn't have done any good anyway because the apartment would have been taken off rent control and raised to Fair Market Value.

If I did live in one of those places, though, I would have had French and English Country antiques; furniture that had weight and heft and looked as if it belonged to people who had studies. We didn't have studies in Queens. You studied for the Civil Service Test.

But something eventually opened up in the West Village, even if I regarded the place as a stopgap that I'd be in for a year instead of a place I'm still occupying. In fact, to the twenty year olds visiting some of the newer tenants in the building, we're the old people who have been living there since World War Two.

I had been ashamed, at first, to say that I lived in a tenement. If you weren't living in a high-rise, the only other place to have lived back then was in a brownstone, preferably with an Exposed Brick Wall and a Wood-Burning Fireplace. Tenements were for losers who couldn't afford brownstones. But a couple of years after I moved in, New York crawled out of a recession and into a real estate boom, and even a tenement became a hot property. In fact, many had been built to last and have fewer violations than some of the high-rises that were thrown up virtually overnight, to house a lot of kids with more money than sense who came here to make a killing on Wall Street.

I'd recommitted to this place a couple of times already: Once in 1984, when I said to myself that this is probably where I'm going to live until I'm either incredibly successful or married to someone with a bigger apartment, so let's stop treating this place like a giant dorm room and make it a real home. This was an emotional risk in those days, and maybe these days: A girl pushing thirty actually committing to making a home for herself as a family of one. But it changed me from a loose end to somebody who could leave the party knowing she had someplace to return to.

The second time I recommitted was when I married someone from out of town who wanted to relocate to New York. Somehow, I was able to make room where I wouldn't have believed there could be any.

The third time has been in the past couple of years. Two factors contributed to this: The insane price of real estate anywhere near enough to the City that would permit me to take a job other than weaving on a loom in Vermont, and my husband's chronic illness. But these two factors have also inspired me to make changes and take chances where I had always accepted "no" in the past, and not just with my walls and my furniture.

Ironically, while I'm planning the future of the apartment, I'm also looking back to the beginning, when I first moved in. I always got sort of a "cottage" vibe about this place, even though it's in the City. The "rustic chic" thing is wide open to interpretation, so I've been very particular at sorting out things that say "beach house in Nantucket" and not "the Gunne Sax dress I wore in high school."

On the agenda for this summer are new kitchen cabinets and beadboard paneling, and a new painting and replastering job. This is something I'm not leaving to my DIY skills, so it involves a whole new learning experience of asking around and interviewing people. But I'm looking forward to it anyway.

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