Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A former resident of Daheim

Yes, 47 years ago my old house in Millbrook was occupied by none other than the notorious Dr. Tiomothy Leary. I am amazed by the fact that most fully grown adults - at least those under the age of, say, 27 - have never heard of him. Many of us back then were certain he was changing the world. A lot we knew! But wasn't he a handsome young man. He never gave up, which speaks at least to a firm character. Contrary to rumor, Leary's brain was not sent into space upon his death (videotaped in 1996, if I recall the date correctly). Instead, 9 grams of post cremation ashes were put aboard a rocket and set into orbit for a few years. Inevitably, earth's gravitation pulled the capsule back into the atmosphere, where it was incinerated before reaching the surface. Somewhere in this story is a metaphor for life in a larger sense, but I can't quite get my hands around it.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Old bathrooms

Being what I like to think of as a "high end" Manhattan real estate broker - at least, I like to think that way - I see a lot of fancy bathrooms. The look thse days is Waterworks sinks with either lots of chrome piping, or free standing bowls sitting on cube-like bases made of anything from epoxy to granite. There's one toilet out there that actually wipes your butt for you. (For me, this is definitely over the edge). The jazziest showers have huge shower heads and lots of big chrome plated valves. None of which can really compare with my old shower from Tuxedo Park. I bought it from the Tuxedo Park School, a mansion called Blairsden, built for a vanished millionaire named John Innis Blair, and had it installed in a beautiful house I rented for a few years, called Crow's Nest, designed in 1899 by Warren and Wetmore for a banker named Henry Munroe. There never was a more luxurious shower than this. I brought it with me to Millbrook when we moved here in 1982. It sat in a closet for years, until I finally sold it on eBay. I wonder if it was ever reassembled.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Deep Thoughts, by John

I realize that writing a blog is sort of like keeping a diary, and then leaving it on a park bench or a bus. Unlike a diary, I suppose I actually do want people to pick it up (figuratively) and read it. Next I've got to buy myself a camera.There are all sort of old house related posts that cry out for photo illustration. I've got a big closing looming in the near future, and besides paying off loans and old debts, I'm going to buy myself something sexy in the digital camera line.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

An "Old House Fix"

I used to belong to a loose and slightly squirrelly group of like-minded souls called the Mansion Maniacs. It was a diverse bunch to say the least, but we all had one thing in comon; a passion for big old houses. Making a field trip with a fellow Maniac to some magnificent and usually semi-ruined joint on Long Island, or New England, or Philadelphia was purest pleasure. I used to think of it as an Old House Fix. I had one yesterday, here in Millbrook. the house was a 1910 Colonial Revival built for the man who developed Woodmere, Long Island. In 1909, he made such a killing selling the town to speculators that he retired up here to live the life of a country gentleman. His house has been in institutional hands for half a century, and it shows. But boy oh boy, did I love this place. The rooms - like the 30' x 50' drawing room - are all grand and bright. The porch, at least before the forest grew back, had a Catskill Mountain view. The whole place is redolent with that signature early 20th Century air of settled luxury. How about those fiedlstone chimnneys too; I've never seen that particular detail on a house in this style. I love my house, which is about the same size, but this is my favorite style of architecture.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

I still can't get over those 2 houses I saw yesterday - and I see a lot in Manhattan too. Both are illustrated on the web, so for those unseen persons who read my blog (you are out there, right?) here are the respective links:

1) 247 Central Park West (at 85th St), www.sothebyshomes.com # 0135126; and
2) 81 Barrow St., www.elliman.com # 1241325

I have a charming new listing of my own, which seems modest compared to the above. It's a 16' wide 4-story townhouse rental at 216 East 61st St., and I have to say I love it. It is so NOT perfect - no Waterworks; no granite; no Poggenpohl, but instead a lot of un-renovated old house charm. The building itself is typical of the speculative rowhouses put up by the hundreds on the East Side in the 1860s. This one was renovated in the 1920s to the tastes of that time. If I had $18,000/month, I'd rent it in a flash. I'm negotiating on a property right now - quite a luxurious one, actually - that was rented to its current tenant by a broker, who subsequently married her client and now lives with him in that house. Sounds like a good plan to me, who has been single long enough.

1) 216 East 61st St. is on the web at www.halstead.com # 1855339
I saw 2 amazing houses in New York yesterday, both on a broker tours. The first was a private brownstone facing Central Park West, priced at a cool $32 million. On the outside, it looked like a fairly standard 1880s rowhouse. Inside, it looked like the Museum of Modern Art. There was a 5-story open tower in the middle of the thing, with a dome at the top, sleek white walls with "important" art - (read that: 8' x 8' carvasses painted completely black) - a lap pool in the basement, a full-floor master bedroom suite with a 25' wide beige marble bathroom, a mahogany and stainless kitchen full of appliances for namedroppers. There was not a book or a framed family photo anywhere in sight...except in one little room in the front. It was kind of chilly looking, but certainly a jawdropper. The other was in the West Village and from the outside it looked like a careful historical restoration of a 4-story, high stoop, ca.1850 brick rowhouse. The first 2 floors were along those lines - high ceilings, mouldings, wide plank floors, antique marble fireplace. The top 2 floors had a completely unexpected high-tech look - sheer walls of unusual substances (I don't even know what the closet doors in one bedroom were made of), bathrooms with square sink bowls sitting on dark wood bases, that kind of thing. The roof was a sort of 2-level Hanging Garden of Babylon, complete with 8-person hot tub, outdoor kitchen, full grown trees, flowers everywhere in planters and boxes, and a total of 2500 planted exterior square feet. Asking $16.9 million. If I could sell either of these houses, even the cheaper one, it would make me well for this year.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

My firm just listed a limestone townhouse in Harlem, for a bit over $2 million bucks. It's a beautiful place, with the same sort of woodwork I've got upstate at Daheim. To me, the perfect way to live in New York would be in a townhouse. This same place would cost 5x as much downtown, and Hamilton Heights,where it's located, is an extremely attractive townhouse neighborhood. Well, it's worth a fantasy. I should note the weblink here; will get it later and put it in the blog. Am off to a closing in another townhouse this afternoon. It's a rental - for $11,500/month - in an elaborately renovated East Side mansion. P.S. That rent is for one floor of the house only.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

our private bowling alley

The Swiss Chalet bowling alley at Daheim, built in 1896, is a tour de force on several levels. Formal columns, bullseye windows, ornamental brackets, and crenelated battlements are all articulated with natural fieldstone, collected right here on the property by the Italian masons who built it. The superstructure above is made of gigantic dressed pine logs whose deep overhanging eaves are supported by massive scrolled brackets. German language exhortations to hard work and deserved recreation are chiseled into gable ends and along the balcony on the second floor. The roof was originally covered with huge boulders, placed for historical accuracy, or in the event of an unexpected Alpine blizzard. Horribly vandalized when I first came here, my landlords have restored it quite magnificently. It's like a gigantic Faberge egg sitting behind my house. Not really too useful; ask me how often I get the "yen" to go bowling. (Answer: not very often). But it is beautiful. Every big old house at the beginning of the 20th Century, that was worth its salt, had a bowling alley. Would that it were a swimming pool instead. Here's what it looked like in the late 1890s, and today.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Oops, here's what it looked like when I came along.

Polarized light sockets

May whoever came up with polarize light plugs be consigned to an eternity of trying to plug them into old fashioned extension cords. Since my old house was equipped with only 4 light sockets for 38 rooms - only kidding, sort of - we have a lot of extension cords. The breaker for that haunted 3rd floor guest room is located in a panel in the basement, and all of a sudden it's begun popping off at random intervals. The problem started when my friend Luisa began staying there for summer weekends. In lieu of dragging chains up the stairs, our ghost has decided to pop the damn breaker. Equally effective, I'd say, if the purpose is to annoy.

Mr. Dieterich was a gaslight man, but in a prescient moment he had the house wired and piped at the same time. Here's a photo of it in 1889, before subsequent additions doubled its size. The other photo shows how it looked when I came along, not quite a century later, in 1981, after it had been boarded up for 10 years.

My firm is launching a blog of its own, and I'm a member of the "Beta" group. In our "webinar" the other day, I learned that some brokers have all sorts of success blogging. That is, after an average of 55 blogs. That's a lot of blogging - or blabbing, as the case may be - for an audience of "zero." Maybe we do it for ourselves. I have one follower so far, but he is the husband of my honorary sister, Holly, and I suspect his presence is due as much to kindness as it is to actual interest.

One of my favorite things about big, old and preferably un-modernized houses are the bathrooms. They are so grand and spacious, and the fixtures to my eyes are really pieces of industrial sculpture. We used to have a kitchen in Tuxedo Park with floor to ceiling "subway" tile walls, varnished oak cabinets with glass front doors, and a gigantic black stove with a black metal hood. It was wonderful, and it was the first thing our otherwise thoughtful and charming landlords ripped out when they returned from Paris. Happily, I've got pretty much the same thing, still intact, at Daheim. How could anyone not love this kitchen?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

My mother was from the south, and when I was a little boy she filled my head with wistful - and mostly apocryphal - tales of Louisiana plantations. She really hooked me on the big old house thing. I loved them not just as objects, but as symbols. And I'll have to figure out what I really mean by that, before indulging in any more highfalutin' language. There's something wistful about great country houses, especially the ones down on their luck, which, not coincidentally, are the ones with which I've had the most personal experience. There used to be a great house called Thorncrest, located near my home in Millbrook. It was torn down in the 1940s and its once manicured estate has grown back to virginal looking forest. A friend and I visited the foundation recently for a column I write on Old Houses for our local paper, the Millbrook Independent. It's strange to walk around a 70 year old mulch pile with trees growing out of the middle of it, surrounded by faint traces of foundation walls that correspond to a postcard printed a century ago. This was some kind of a house, as you can see, designed in the 1860s by Edward Tuckerman Potter for the founder of Millbrook, George Hunter Brown. It's the sort of place people used to call "ugly," but I wish it were here today. I know I'd love it.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

My haunted guestroom is in the upper left corner of this photo

I've spent many nights alone in my house, and have never been afraid. It's like all old houses; it makes noises. As with bats, the best thing to do about late at night noises in old houses is pay no attention. The bats will dematerialize, in the way of bats, and the odd thumps and creaks will go away. too The sound of someone walking up the west staircase (there are 3 stairwells in the house) was reported by numerous guests over the years before I finally heard it myself. The west staircase is uncaarpeted and the sound of footsteps on painted wooden treads is distinctive. One woman many years ago claimed to have been awakened in the middle of the night by a wild-haired woman peering down at her in her bed. I tend not to believe stories like this, even though another guest reported waking up when the foot of her bed was lifted and shaken. These things only happen in one third floor bedroom on the back of the house. A corner of it is articulated by the square tower in the upper left corner of the close-up photo of the building exterior. As long as no one's in that room, we don't hear anything. If someone stays there, whatever it is keeps walking up the stairs, and sometimes scaring people.
It is June the 9th, 2010, the first day of my blog about BIG OLD HOUSES. I have lived in one or another of them for the last 40 years. At one point, my former wife and I used to joke that we had lived in a total of 246 rooms. I'm still in the last house, a 38-room manse in upstate New York built by a German tycoon named Charles F. Dieterich. Actually, there's a Civil War farm house in the middle of my house. Starting in 1889 Mr. Dieterich kept enlarging the place until it arrived at its present size. That would have been around 1914. My house is not huge - certainly not Vanderbiltian in scale - but it is large. Everybody assumes it must have a ghost and to be honest, it does.