Incredible Hulks, Enticing the Young
New York Times
By Lockhart Steele
Published November 11, 2004
Scott Jones for The New York Times - UP ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE New blood at Co-op Village: Margot Perman and Jürgen Riehle.
THE hallways are as dingy as can be, with yellow paint flaking onto beat-up tile floors. In the bare lobbies, elderly residents shuffle between elevators and front doors. Outside, cracked concrete paths wind among patches of lawn, the massive forms of the buildings hulking above.
By all appearances this place — the Cooperative Village, a collection of undistinguished red-brick towers strung along the eastern reaches of Grand Street on the Lower East Side — is one that only a grandmother could love, the last place anyone would expect fresh design activity. Unlikely as it may seem, however, the towers are quietly evolving into something of a design laboratory as a wave of younger residents move in and remake these overlooked relics of midcentury Manhattan real estate one apartment at a time.
Set just south of the Williamsburg Bridge, where lower Manhattan bulges into the East River, apartments in Co-op Village were unavailable on the open market until 2000. Now that they are in play, the towers' ungainly appearance only seems to increase their offbeat appeal. "Granted, it looks so institutional," said Carol Markel, an artist who bought a one-bedroom apartment with her husband last year. "But I like that. In a way it proves your creativity."
Pioneers include Richard Fortus, a guitarist for Guns N' Roses, who moved in last year, officially stamping Co-op Village with the sheen of hipness. He was followed by SuChin Pak, an MTV news correspondent, who is renovating a one-bedroom she bought in July, and Gary Shteyngart, a novelist, who just closed on a one-bedroom.
"You get such a mix: all these young hipsters and the Hasids and the modern Orthodox," said Mr. Shteyngart, author of "The Russian Debutante's Handbook" (Riverhead Books, 2002). "The buildings could be a crossbreeding experiment."
Built between 1930 and 1960 by trade unions, Co-op Village offered the union members a chance to buy apartments below market rates. Later the same opportunity was extended to nonmembers, but eventually the waiting list ran to 10 years or more. There was of course a catch: owners who wanted out were required to sell their shares back to the co-op at little or no profit, negating any chance of a real-estate killing.
That changed in the late 1990's when, like manna from heaven, residents were granted full ownership of their apartments. As the apartments underwent deregulation from 1997 to 2000, price caps kept owners from flooding the market in a rush to cash out. Prices have more than doubled in the last two years, said Jacob Goldman, the owner of LoHo Realty, which specializes in sales in Co-op Village, but they are still a relative bargain for the mix of artists and hipsters (and a smattering of Wall Street types) who would otherwise have to go to Williamsburg or Clinton Hill in Brooklyn, or even beyond, to find comparable square footage at the same prices.
"On the outside they are ugly," said Dana Menusi, 31, a fashion and design photographer who bought an apartment in 2001. "They look like cheap projects." No matter. The appeal lies in the interior, where behind decades of paint, wallpaper and dated moldings the original clean lines are ripe for revival.
Of the four tower complexes, Amalgamated Dwellings, built before World War II, and Hillman Houses, built soon after, had prewar detailing. The new class of design-minded buyers tend to gravitate to the newer complexes, Seward Park Houses and East River Housing, designed in the 1950's by Herman J. Jessor, an architect known for middle-income housing. Jessor eschewed prewar detailing in favor of a more austere look.
"There's an astringent, economic efficiency to these apartments — not a lot of bells and whistles — and very straight lines," said Stacey Jacovini, the principal in Ascape, a TriBeCa design firm, who oversaw the renovation of a one-bedroom last year for Ms. Markel and her husband, Richard Cramer. "When you take off the shag carpet, the pink paint and the moldings, which we did," Ms. Jacovini said, "and raise the door heights and open up part of the walls, the rooms become more of a modern space."
Margot Perman, 42, a graphic designer who bought a one-bedroom place in a Seward Park tower last year with her husband, Jürgen Riehle, also 42, said they were impressed by the views of the East River and the Midtown skyline, which were enhanced by the clever angling of the buildings just off the surrounding street grid.
Working with Ronnette Riley, a Manhattan architect, Ms. Perman and Mr. Riehle remade their boxy interior as a single space. "It seemed like there were walls everywhere," Ms. Perman said.
Ms. Riley's plans called for a larger master bedroom with space borrowed from a set of closets the couple decided they could live without. A wall between the eat-in kitchen and the living room was removed, creating an open living area with views to the north and east.
The day the couple closed on the apartment, Ms. Perman learned that she was pregnant. So Ms. Riley altered the plans to include a pint-size baby's bedroom in the very middle of the apartment, now home to their 1-year-old son, Anton.
To echo the contemporary feel of the remade space, Mr. Riehle, who was raised in Karlsruhe, Germany, scoured eBay's German Web site (www.ebay.de) in search of midcentury furnishings that had not yet surfaced on eBay's main site. His finds included four original Egon Eiermann chairs from the 1960's ($600 for the group).
One advantage of the towers, residents have discovered, is their proximity to inexpensive furnishings outlets on the Lower East Side. Ms. Menusi, the photographer, bought a sofa at Las Venus on Ludlow Street and had it re-covered with a fabric she found on Orchard Street. Master Kitchen Supplies, a store on Chrystie Street that specializes in custom work, designed sinks, countertops and a kitchen cart for her, all in stainless steel and all for less than $10,000.
Like many newcomers, Karen Skurka, a real estate broker, stumbled upon Co-op Village almost by accident and snapped up a two-bedroom for $290,000 in 2002. She hired a design firm called the Apartment, which also runs a home furnishings store on Crosby Street, to turn her run-down rooms into an otherworldy white environment with modular furnishings and floors covered in white epoxy. Stefan Boublil, a partner in the Apartment, called it "a livable iPod."
Mr. Shteyngart, 32, was living in Italy last spring, watching online as prices for Co-op Village apartments went up roughly $20,000 a month. "I should have bought before I left," he said. "I decided I would fly in and just buy something on the spot." So he did: a one-bedroom on the sixth floor of a 20-story building. "Of course I could have bought a two-bedroom penthouse for the same money eight months earlier," he added.
Newcomers like Mr. Shteyngart find themselves in a place that is growing oddly divided between young and old. "I have a large percentage of seniors who come from a socialist background who built these buildings," said Heshey Jacob, 60, general manager of Co-op Village. "But I also make it my business to understand what the young families want."
Nodding to younger tastes, Mr. Jacob installed gyms and bike rooms. But the old-timers won the thermostat wars. When energy-efficient windows were installed in East River Housing several years ago, temperature levels in the apartments shot up.
"The older people love it because the apartments are warmer, but the younger people are screaming that we give too much heat," Mr. Jacob said.
When Amy Letterman, 33, a media planner, bought an apartment in 1995 — her father already owned one and had put her name on the waiting list when she was 12 — she was met with skepticism. "When I moved in, it was 75 percent senior citizens," she said. "I really stuck out. One old lady didn't believe I could actually be moving in: she thought I was stealing things. I had to have the guard tell her, `No, she really is moving in.' "
Despite the generation gap, residents agree that there is a rare spirit of community.
"It's a new kind of extended family," said Noah Wildman, 33, a graphic designer who is among the most prolific participants in an online message board for residents. "The really old ones are unfriendly, always complaining that it's too cold. But some I do enjoy talking to. My next-door neighbor asks for my help reading her medications, and there's one large Orthodox family on my floor who are very cool."
Erin Mulvey, 27, a financial analyst who bought a one-bedroom last year for $230,000, said she found the eccentricities a welcome change from her previous building on the Upper East Side. "We got a gym, and now all the old ladies work out there as well," she said. "You see Orthodox women in long skirts on the treadmills."
Like other newcomers, Ms. Mulvey has adjusted to the Saturday practice of rigging one elevator so that it stops on every floor, an accommodation to the sizable Orthodox Jewish population that strictly observes the Sabbath. While pushing an elevator button is prohibited on the Sabbath under religious law, stepping into and out of an elevator is permitted.
The rise in prices is unlikely to stop the flow of newcomers, though the balance may tip toward a more affluent crowd. Still, younger residents who have discovered Co-op Village have come to see it as more than just a stopping-off place before trading up or leaving New York City.
On a recent evening, as the sun set and the Chrysler Building twinkled on the Midtown skyline, Ms. Perman and Mr. Riehle prepared to tuck their son in for the night.
"The hallway still needs to be redone," Ms. Perman said, "but we're patient. We're not going anywhere."