Latest on Hamptons Reno: My Go-To Great Room

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IT ONLY TOOK FIVE YEARS to get there, but the great room at my place on the East End of Long Island is finally livable. The final phase of its transformation this spring: a bout of quickie decorating in the newly insulated and painted space.

This changes everything. The new, improved great room is warm when it’s raw elsewhere in the house, bright and inviting where it used to be dark and dreary. It’s now everyone’s go-to room, instead of what once felt like wasted space.

I worked like a demon for two weeks, putting things back to rights after a fall of construction and winter of abandonment, restoring the room’s furnishings and hanging art (i.e. framed posters). Local yard sales yielded a few things that weren’t strictly needed, but which I could not resist (pix below).

The new wood stove insert, which fit neatly into the existing fireplace, is what enables me to be here several weeks earlier than in the past. Prior to these recent improvements, the house was basically an unheated summer bungalow. Two-thirds of it is still an unheated summer bungalow, but the 400-square-foot great room, at least, now approximates the comfort of a real house.

Painted white floor to ceiling, it looks more like a Hamptons beach house than a cabin in the Adirondacks. I sent new photos to a couple of local real estate agents and asked them to list the house for rent from July 1 through Labor Day. Next thing I knew, the house was taken for the season by the first person who looked at it.

That was gratifying, and freed up space in my brain that had been taken up with worry about finding a summer tenant.

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Fabulous Mother’s Day present from my son: a new black Corian countertop for the kitchen, above. Major upgrade on previous chipped white Formica.

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A new addition to my coral collection. Can’t buy real coral anymore, so I’ve been buying vintage coral at yard sales, along with flowerpots, rugs, wire items, mobiles…

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Art-directed yard sales are not rare in East Hampton.

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How cute is this? Yes, another yard sale find.

Posted in HAMPTONS, INTERIOR DESIGN, RENOVATION | Tagged , , , | 11 Comments

Jump Start to the Season: My Long Island Garden

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THE PAST FEW WEEKS at my home on the East End of Long Island, New York, have been a revelation. I hadn’t spent much time here in April or early May before, even though I’ve owned this quirky house for five years, so the seasonal developments on this half-acre of former oak woods are new to me.

There’s more birdsong than I remember, and I’m amazed at how fast the garden has gone from wintry brown to everything-happening-all-at-once to practically jungle-like. Above, as it looked about a month ago.

The trees were bare when I arrived, and I enjoyed the unaccustomed brightness of the property and the parade of flowers I normally miss: bleeding heart, epimedium, Solomon’s seal, ekianthus.

Seeing the tiny white flowers of the local ground cover, lowbush blueberry, gave me a new appreciation of it. It’s all over the place. I had originally thought I’d gradually replace it with other plantings, but it’s more firm in its intention to remain than I am in mine to remove it.

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Above, lowbush blueberry; ekianthus; epimedium 

The  floral procession continues, with allium, broom and irises now having their day, and rhododendrons soon to peak.

The trees are now fully leafed out, with native oaks, sassafras, cedars and maples seeding themselves everywhere. For a moment, instead of pulling them all out and tossing them, as I have been doing, I envisioned a new business called the Paper Cup Nursery, selling tiny tree seedlings by the roadside. For a moment.

I’ve rented the house for July and August. Now it remains for me to enjoy being here until the end of June, which won’t be difficult. I opened the gate the other day and, for a nanosecond, spotting two teak chaises in the sun, didn’t know where I was. What resort is this?! was the thought that ran through my head.

Then I remembered. I’m home. I’m back to yard sales, walks, sunset picnics and my favorite position on the deck, surveying my domain at the end of a day of weeding, glass of wine in hand.

Four to six weeks ago:

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Two to three weeks ago:

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Now:

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Below, practically an instant garden: hostas and ferns planted late last fall where once there was nothing at all

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Posted in GARDENS & GARDENING, HAMPTONS, LONG ISLAND | Tagged , | 9 Comments

Who Knew? Greenpoint’s McGolrick Park

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The impressive 9-acre Monsignor McGolrick Park, an urban oasis tucked between Williamsburg and Long Island City, is surrounded on all four sides by vintage row houses from fine to funky.

The park has been there since the 1893, a welcome leftover from the City Beautiful movement the swept the nation in the last decade of the 19th century, but I had never been there until an errand took me to Greenpoint this afternoon.

Established as Winthrop Park and renamed in 1948 for a beloved local priest who was instrumental in the creation of a new church, convent, rectory, hospital, school and playing field for the neighborhood, it’s a classic late Victorian New York City park, with wrought iron fences, wooden benches and towering sycamores.

Though McGolrick Park is new to me, savvy folk have already pushed the prices of even the vinyl-clad buildings past $1.5 million, and the renovated ones much higher (a minuscule house on the north side of the park, bought for 675K three years ago, turned over recently after being tripled in size for well over $2million).

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Russell Street, along the south side of the park, has substantial, well-maintained turn-of-the-century brick and limestone buildings.

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A curved Neoclassical pavilion with wooden columns, built in 1910, was restored in the 1980s and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.  

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On the north side of the park, this row of humble two-story buildings looks like it belongs in another city altogether. Baltimore maybe? 

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Monitor Street, along the north side of the park, is unusually colorful for Brooklyn.

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I love the French blue trim against the terra cotta brick on this tiny house.

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This one made me laugh. A bit of Venice in Greenpoint.

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A Renaissance Revival school building elevates the architectural tone in the northeast corner of the park.

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Among the few grocery stores and restaurants ringing this square of green (visualizing it in summer), there are none you could call upscale…yet.

Posted in ARCHITECTURE, BROOKLYN | Tagged , | 4 Comments

The Great Room Becomes a Greater Room

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IT’S GETTING ON FOR SPRING, and I’ve got a decorating project to look forward to. Naturally, this makes me very happy. It’s been a while since I had an opportunity to indulge this passion of mine, since I’m a designer with no clients — only myself.

The room in need of decorating is the 400-square-foot great room at my rustic-modern retreat on the East End of Long Island. You remember my great room, don’t you? Here’s what it looked like last summer, when the interior walls were the same plank of wood as the exterior walls, and the room was (to my mind — some people liked it) dark and oppressive:

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Last fall, over a period of about six weeks, I had the ceiling and walls of this room insulated, Sheetrocked and painted, and a wood stove installed, making it the only winterized space in what is essentially still an unheated summer bungalow.

The floor is still one sheet of plywood over a crawl space, and the new wood stove insert, which fit right into the opening in the existing mantelpiece — though I expect it to work well once I get the hang of it — hasn’t yet been properly fired up.

But my hope is to now be able to use the house a month longer on either side of my usual May-October season — from mid-April, when the water gets turned on, through November, when it’s turned off.  I’ll have at least one toasty room in which to hole up during those still-chilly shoulder-season months.

Basically, I’ll be moving the same furniture that was in there before back in. But I’ll have fun playing around a little with rugs and art and lamps and such.

What I’m happiest about, even more so than the already-warmer, already quieter space that’s been created, is that it’s classic, sparkling beach-house white instead of its former dreary brown. And I’m pleased that I was finally able to get at least this much done, after owning the house nearly five years.

Scroll down for the transformation. Stay tuned for the furnishing.

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First the walls and ceiling had to be framed out with 2x4s at 16-inch intervals to hold the batts of insulation in place.

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I used Roxul brand mineral wool insulation, supposed to be non-toxic and much more environmentally friendly than the pink fiberglass stuff (so don’t ask me why the workmen are wearing hazmat suits).

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Next the Sheetrock went up between the ceiling beams, which were deep enough that I didn’t mind losing a few inches of them to the insulation.

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The Hearthstone wood stove insert was delivered and installed in early November. It’s a self-contained unit, lined with soapstone, and with an integrated chimney liner (so I didn’t have to worry about re-building the chimney, which was cracked and not tall enough and didn’t have a good draft).

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Over the fireplace and on one long section of the wall opposite, there was cedar paneling I liked. I left it for a bit of texture (enough with the Sheetrock) and had it painted white.

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I might have left the ceiling beams unpainted, were it not for heavy stains from long-ago water damage. The easiest thing was to paint them white, too.

The plywood floor got a coat of gray floor paint as a temporary measure. Step by step and bit by bit…

P.S. The house is once again available for rent for the months of July and August (one month minimum). Read all about it, with more photos, here

Posted in HAMPTONS, INTERIOR DESIGN, LONG ISLAND, PROPERTIES FOR RENT, RENOVATION | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Quickie Renovation in Philadelphia

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ONE OF THE BEST PIECES of self-help advice I ever read in a magazine was: “Savor your accomplishments.” Ridiculous that I had to read it in a magazine, but I did, and I took it to heart.

Here we are in deepest winter, and I’m savoring. There aren’t any laurels handy, so I’m resting on my couch in Brooklyn, pleased that I managed to sneak in a second Philadelphia apartment renovation in 2017. It’s in the same three-unit Queen Village building where I created a duplex at the top of the house, combining unused attic space with the one-bedroom apartment beneath it, early last year.

That first reno, which began in late ’16 and took six months, was long-planned. In fact, I’d wanted to do it since I bought the building in 2005.

This second reno, begun in September, finished in November and rented in December, was completely unplanned. But it became necessary after the hot water heater in the second-floor unit burst one midsummer’s night. It completely ruined the floors of that apartment — no great loss, as they were cheap carpet over plywood, but it also pointed up the need to re-do the whole place, which was super-shabby and not at all chic, and hadn’t been touched since the 1980s.

The flood also messed up the ceiling of the unit below, on the ground floor. The repair of that was covered by insurance, but the stress of the whole thing, for both tenants affected and also for me, was one of those times when being a landlord seems pretty dreadful.

However, it ended well. The downstairs tenant was a trooper and put up with the weeks-long repair work and painting in her bedroom and bath. The tenant on the second floor, who had been there for about ten years, found a new place quickly. And the results were worth it.

I used the same contractor and many of the same sources and materials as for the previous reno. There was one big design move: removing the wall between the former kitchen and the living room, which had made the living room feel very narrow.

The apartment has a new kitchen, new bath, new pine floors, new baseboards, new window sills, a thorough paint job, and a happy occupant.

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The floors are Lumber Liquidators’ cheapest. Yellow pine, $2 and change per square foot. Almost all their flooring is manufactured and pre-finished. This is what I wanted: actual wood.

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The kitchen is just appliances, really, with a Home Depot sink base unit painted black . A stainless steel work table from a restaurant supply store (seen in photo at top) provides extra counter space. 

For upper storage, I used a vintage wood/glass-door cabinet from Beaty American, a terrific architectural salvage store in Kensington. 

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The bedroom has a closet with a washer dryer and a walk-in closet on the opposite wall.

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The new pedestal sink is from Lowe’s and the floor is black commercial-grade vinyl. 

Below, a couple of ‘Befores’ for context:

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Posted in MANAGING RENTAL PROPERTY, PHILADELPHIA, RENOVATION | Tagged | 2 Comments

Hudson on a Tuesday Afternoon

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THE UPSTATE NEW YORK TOWN of Hudson is an extraordinary repository of 19th century residential and commercial architecture.

Its main drag, Warren Street, is a mile-long stretch of clapboard and brick buildings — mostly row houses, many with storefronts, but there are also some grand freestanding homes from the town’s 1860s whaling heyday. There’s virtually nothing more recent than the year 1900 to mar the street’s historic purity.

For decades, Hudson had been an economically depressed community, like many Hudson Valley river towns that lost their industry in the 20th century, and its back streets still have their fair share of poverty.

I hadn’t been in Hudson for some years and had heard there were new shops and restaurants, a whole lot of renovation and restoration, and that real estate prices had gone up alarmingly since I wrote a tongue-in-cheek article in The New York Times about spending my weekends doing recreational house-shopping.

Antiques are Hudson’s stock in trade, and there are dozens of tony shops full of fine furniture and art (priced to rival NYC), architectural salvage and vintage clothing. One would think they might be doing some brisk business in the week before Christmas, but last Tuesday afternoon, most of them were closed. Likewise the restaurants.

Hudson is a weekend community, it seems; it does not have the population to support businesses in mid-week.

But the town itself is an open-air museum for the old-house lover, and it was fun to explore the shops that were open, including the impressive multi-dealer Antique Warehouse on Front Street, chock full of stuff that made me wish I had a new house to furnish. And what I saw through the shuttered storefronts made me want to go back again to Hudson…on a weekend.

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Posted in ARCHITECTURE, HUDSON VALLEY, TRAVEL | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Van Morrison’s Belfast

IT’S AN EASY TWO-HOUR BUS RIDE from Dublin to Belfast, Northern Ireland, where I traveled last week to fulfill my original goal in planning an Ireland trip in the first place: seeing Van Morrison in concert in an intimate supper-club setting at Belfast’s Hotel Europa.

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Belfast is Van’s hometown, and I (mistakenly, as it turned out) thought he would surely give his all for a local crowd. But there seemed to be more Americans there than any other nationality. I met people from Arizona, New Orleans, Texas, Oregon, Chicago.

I’m a longtime fan of Van’s and had seen him perform half a dozen times, so I knew the show could be either a transcendental experience or just him, as they say, “phoning it in.”

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Rock chick with a Belfast blowout

This one was probably more the latter, with a couple of exceptional moments. Van did the requisite 90 minutes and ran off with barely an encore or a thank you, without properly introducing his fantastic band or even his daughter, Shana, who joined him onstage for one number.

Still, I had a blast, seated at a convivial table of mostly Americans, plus one Swede and one Irishman, in a room holding just 350 people.

I spent only a day-and-a-half in Belfast, a city with some truly grand Neoclassical architecture interspersed with harsh modern structures, staying one night in a stylish boutique hotel called Ten Square and moving the next night to the Europa.

My Belfast explorations took the form of a daylong pilgrimage to spots Van has written about in his songs over the years, about two miles from the center of town in gritty East Belfast. I walked there from my hotel, passing some of Belfast’s major Victorian landmarks, crossing the Albert Bridge over the Lagan River under dreary skies.

Roughly following a self-guided walking tour laid out by a local development organization, I headed for Van’s humble birthplace on Hyndford Street, where he lived until adolescence, evoked in a long spoken-word piece on the album Hymns to the Silence; Cyprus Avenue, mentioned in more than one song, lined with stately homes he aspired to as a kid; and bucolic spots like the famous “hollow” of Brown Eyed Girl, and Orangefield, the park that inspired a gorgeous, romantic song on Avalon Sunset.

I wasn’t in Belfast long enough to fully understand its history of sectarian conflict, now mostly calmed, or pick up on the cultural differences between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK (the border my bus had sailed across was a sticking point in the Brexit talks while I was there, the TV news about nothing else). I didn’t have time to investigate Belfast’s restaurant scene or the galleries in the Cathedral Quarter, apparently the arty part of town.

But I saw plenty. Come let me show you what I did get to see of Belfast.

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Above, an Art Nouveau relic, the first thing I photographed on getting off the bus from Dublin.

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Lovely intact Georgian terrace (or, as we say in Brooklyn, early 19th century row houses), above.

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The recently renovated Ten Square Hotel, across from the 1906 Town Hall, below (which I read somewhere is a “shameless copy” of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral — not a bad thing to copy).

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View of Great Victoria Street from my third floor room at the Europa, with the world-famous, putty-colored Crown Liquor Saloon, an 1885 extravaganza of tile work, etched glass and carved wood, on the corner.

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Originally a Victorian ‘gin palace,’ I was looking forward to a gin and tonic, but The Crown doesn’t do cocktails — only beer and whiskey.

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The Soviet-style Hotel Europa was once known as the most-bombed hotel in Europe, or perhaps the world. Its new history began in 1994, after “The Troubles” subsided.

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Next door to the Europa, the 1895 Grand Opera House survives!

Below, buildings of interest seen as I wended my way toward East Belfast.

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The enormous St. George’s Market, below, is used several days a week for produce and such.

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The 1869 Albert Memorial Clock, below.

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Views from the Albert Bridge, below, one of many bridges over the Lagan River. Belfast was once a shipbuilding powerhouse. The Titanic was built there, and the Titanic Belfast is a massive new tourist attraction. Not for me, however — I was on my way to Van Morrison’s birthplace!

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East Belfast, below, was quiet on a Tuesday morning in early December.

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My first Van-related site, above: the beautiful grounds of the still-extant Elmgrove Primary School, a leafy contrast to the barren surrounding streets.

IMG_0017Above, “the hollow”

You remember:

Hey, where did we go, Days when the rains came?
Down in the hollow, Playing a new game…

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Hyndford Street, above, was deserted. Number 125 — the “two-up, two-down” house of Van’s first 16 years — is marked by a discreet (that is to say, minuscule) brass plaque.

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Down on Cyprus Avenue
With a childlike vision leaping into view
Clicking, clacking of the high heeled shoe
Ford and Fitzroy, Madame George

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I really enjoyed my stroll through Orangefield Park, above, even calling up the relevant song on Spotify, plugging in my earbuds, and listening to it as I walked. Dorky but perfect.

On a golden autumn day
You came my way in Orangefield
Saw you standing by the riverside in Orangefield
How I loved you then in Orangefield
Like I love you now in Orangefield…

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Then I hopped a double-decker bus back to Donegall Square, above, in the city center (only because I couldn’t get a cab to stop).

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There was a Christmas market going on in front of City Hall.

I felt like I’d really been somewhere — not just to the other side of town, but to a different era, and I came back with a prize: a deeper appreciation for the source of the music I’ve so enjoyed over the years.

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Posted in TRAVEL | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments