Home At Last
We’ve been following the Robertsons’ renovation project since July
by Margaret Mitchel
The purpose of this multi-part series of articles, following Marijke Briggs and George Robertson from the start of the purchase and renovation of their new two-bedroom apartment, was largely to learn first-hand about the many technical and procedural issues they would be confronting and, hopefully, pass on their experience to folks moving into the coops who are planning similar projects.
We met in July, but the couple had made their bid on the place in February. “It took almost five months to close, dealing with the co-op board, the management company, the bank,” says George, “and now, five months after the closing, we’re in.”
Two years earlier, the Robertsons and their first born, Jackson, had been driven by rising costs out of their artistic Williamsburg rented loft. They settled in a friend’s one-bedroom in Stuyvesant Town, and started looking for their “piece of the rock,” their own Manhattan apartment. “We had a feeling this would be the area, it was the best deal in town,” says Marijke.
But sitting in their brand new living room with the four of them (their two boys in tow), I noted not so much a sense of a technical, or other tangible kinds of achievements. What’s in the air is much more emotional.
“The anxiety and the psychology of moving was one thing,” says George, “but what we learned in the process was to appreciate what’s involved in getting a project like this right.”
As they’re taking me through their new apartment, which is fast beginning to look very lived-in, courtesy of two healthy toddlers, Marijke mentions that Dov Goldman has been in to check on them, but he and the rest of the people from LoHo Realty haven’t yet been over for the official tour. It was Dov who brought them here originally, to what was, at the time, a sad, broken, hovel of an apartment, piled with mountains of trash, and plagued by broken walls and broken windows. Needless to say, they took it on the spot...
We share a few murmurs of approval regarding the happy-go-lucky Dov, who may have had more newspaper articles written about him recently than several real estate brokers put together.
The Robertsons say they maintained an excellent working relationship with their contractor, Joe Foti. But what it came down to (and perhaps it’s the most crucial lesson to be learned) was this: They took it for granted that their contractor was a competent professional, and they expected that once he understood what they wanted, his execution would be very good. But they did not expect their contractor to be a mind reader.
“We’re good communicators,” says George “and so we made sure Joe understood us, really understood. We directed him on every little thing.” Interestingly, Joe Foti’s reaction was friendly and responsive. He was happy, it seemed, to work with clients who knew exactly what they wanted. In fact, one of the Robertsons’ inventions, an oversized storage space extending all along the entry hall, ensconced behind floor-to-ceiling sliding doors, has become one of Foti’s standards, which he now offers as a feature to new clients. And when a bathroom fixture was installed unevenly, and George insisted, it was realigned, even though the tile had already been put in. Every contractor makes mistakes, but it’s the good ones who fix them.
They enjoyed a luxury in this project, which most people do not, namely that Marijke, an art teacher, was on a six month maternity leave through much of the project. She was able to go out herself and buy all the components. “I spent hours in paint stores, home centers, and with online merchants,” she relates. “I’d throw the baby into his carrier and go off every day to do the work.”
The contractor didn’t have to make artistic choices, nor living-space choices. All he had to do was build, and that he did exceptionally well.
“Designing and communicating the design is a responsibility the owner has to take on,” says George. He is a museum planner and designer (his most recent work is the brochure for the new Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, with gorgeous artistic renderings of what were at the time of publishing only architectural plans).
“You have to have a vision before you start,” contributes Marijke. “Short of that, you must develop a vision of how you want things to gel together.”
She takes us to a special point in their kitchen, where you look at the three living areas: dining, kitchen and family, and the three different colors on the walls: cream, ivory-white and orange, merge into a pleasant cohesiveness, all emanating from the same palette.
“Everything is in unison,” she says with a broad smile.
Jackson picked the color for his and his little brother’s bedroom: an earthy, vegetable-like green which I found hauntingly beautiful. “It’s the color that caused us the greatest anxiety,” confesses George. “Green is such a tough color to do attractively.”
Their own bedroom (which is the smaller of the two) is in rose-red and white. As a rule, both bedrooms, as well as the living area, maximize the window spans. Being in the center apartment line of their section, the Robertsons do not have a porch and their view does not include the typical Seward Park wide sliding glass porch-doors which let in a lot of sun and open onto a broad view. But what they do have they’ve kept unobscured, cherishing the bit of view they offer. In fact, the layout of the furniture in the family area practically calls for folks to be sitting on the couch, holding a glass of something strong at the end of the day and staring at Manhattan out there.
The anchor of the entire apartment is situated in the space between the open kitchen and the family area, where hallway walls once stood. It is a slab of marble set over a California kitchen counter, with a modernist three-pronged light fixture hanging above (when it’s finally installed) and bar stools surrounding it (as soon as they’re delivered).
Here is where Marijke and George are planning to hub their activities, from breakfast to homework, to board games, to late-night conversations. In my mind the structure took on the dimensions of a home design equivalent of Stanley Kubrick's 2001 Space Odyssey monolith. Life will squirm here, rich, energetic, feisty. A family will mature and grow old here, around this dark rectangle of hard stone. What a delightful notion!