All a Beach House Should Be


A FEW weekends ago, my sister and I enjoyed the loan of a sun-filled mid-century house in Sag Harbor.  It was a perfect weekend at the beach.  Never mind that it was mid-winter. And we never actually got to the beach.


We opened a bottle of wine (<–key!), made a fire in the fireplace, and sat contentedly reading, glancing up occasionally to look through floor-to-ceiling windows over an open, grassy field to the water, not another house in sight.



No small part of my pleasure was the stylish but low-key decor  (the owners are an architect and a photographer/stylist) from sources ranging from Design Within Reach to local barn sales.

The white walls and wide-ranging mix of styles and textures will inspire me when I get to decorating my own beach house (very soon, I hope!)




The house was built in 1962 in the style of Cliff May, father of the California modern ranch house.


It’s for rent any time, year round.  Oh, there’s a pool.


Gingerbread for Sale

p10206802There are a couple of astounding gingerbread houses on the market right now. Not the edible kind — the Victorian kind.

In the mid-19th century, when gingerbread trim on houses first became popular, carpenters would laboriously cut out custom patterns. By the 1870s and 1880s, the corbels, railings, brackets, and so on were mass-produced in factories (they still are; Google ‘Victorian gingerbread’ and you’ll see).

There’s gingerbread in abundance in places like Cape May, N.J., Ocean Grove, N.J., and Oak Bluffs in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. There’s quite a bit in Shelter Island, N.Y. and I’ve occasionally seen it elsewhere (anyone?)

Let’s hope this 6-bedroom house on Main Street in Sag Harbor is the custom kind. They’re asking $2.25 million for it.


And how about this one, in Greene County? CRAZY!! It’s called “the Icicle House,” for obvious reasons. It was built in 1845 and is on the market for only the fifth time, fully restored, for $290,000, with four acres.


Desperately in need of some foundation plantings to balance out the heavy-looking woodwork. A hedge of white hydrangeas would be nice.


How to Renovate an Apartment in 3 Weeks




NOTHING I love more than a quickie renovation. When a longtime tenant finally vacated the ground-floor apartment of my building in Boerum Hill on January 31 (never having dusted in 10 years, apparently), my son Max and his handy dad swooped in like a SWAT team to unhook the old kitchen sink, install a new one, move and re-plumb the stove, and build an L-shaped half wall that makes the kitchen an entity instead of three appliances floating in space.

p1020848I called a re-glazing company to make the pitted, rusty bathtub like new ($300), and hired an electrician to install a ceiling fan, hang new pendant fixtures in the living room and kitchen, and a sconce in the bedroom (all IKEA), and add grounded outlets in the kitchen and bathroom.

Then Max installed over 100′ of baseboard. He and his girlfriend Alexis (they’ll be moving in there this weekend) spackled and puttied; I primed; she painted two coats of a gorgeous sage green (Benjamin Moore’s Green Tea), exorcising all traces of the previous occupant’s salmon pink.


Total cost: just under $3,000.

In the process, I re-appreciated the ol’ place. The building is 1830s. The ground floor was originally a store; the ceilings are nine feet tall.

What’s left of the original architecture is practically nothing, but the exposed brick wall (very trendy in the early ’80s, when we first turned the former bodega into a rental unit) has a beautifully proportioned fireplace opening.


In the back bedroom, overlooking a garden the tenants share, are the most paint-caked window moldings ever, bottom.

They should be stripped. We didn’t bother, but as I lovingly stroked yet another coat of semi-gloss over them this past weekend (at least the fifth time I’ve done so since we bought the building  — as children! — in 1979), I was conscious of the whole Greek Revival thing: how these fluted columns, lumpy and chopped up as they are, were intended as an homage to ancient Greece, in days when the building and the neighborhood were a lot more elegant than they are now.

What a difference a base makes

That they’ve survived 180 years is miraculous; I’m not getting rid of them now.


The Historic National Road Less Taken


In August of 2006, a friend and I met up in Chicago and decided to drive back to New York along the old two-lane highways.  We thought we’d avoid the nerve-jangling traffic of the interstate, and maybe score a few antiques at pre-eBay prices.

From Terre Haute, Indiana, through Ohio, a snippet of West Virginia, and into western Pennsylvania, we took what’s now called the Historic National Road, a Federal designation for the ribbon of highway originally masterminded by Thomas Jefferson as a way to open up the west.

Construction of the road — at first a log-reinforced trail for pioneers’ covered wagons — began in Maryland in 1811 and reached Illinois in the late 1830s, just in time to be made obsolete by rail travel.  Later, it was used by early automobiles and bicycles, and reinforced with brick to bear the weight of Army trucks in WWI; in the 1920s, it was straightened out, paved with asphalt, and named Route 40. In the 1960s, mighty I-70, which runs roughly parallel, superceded it again.

Today, there is plenty of ugly modern commerce along Route 40, but there are also, if you slow down enough to look, remnants of 19th and early 20th century history and architecture, including about a dozen pre-Civil War inns and taverns (some now antique shops or B&Bs; one, the Huddleston Farm in Cambridge City, Indiana, is a museum).

Then there’s the road itself. In places, you can veer off the modern-day thoroughfare and suddenly find yourself on a quiet, older brick-paved section that feels like the back of beyond.








The Ironmonger Under the El

p1020807You must have wondered – as I did – What is all that antique iron doing in the Lowe’s parking lot?  For a while, it was a hopeless jumble, but Roy Vaccaro, whose family has been in the scrap iron business for 100 years, selling radiators, plumbing pipes, and what have you, has gotten it together.p1020815

Four months ago, when his brothers retired and they closed Vaccaro Bros. Scrap Metal on 15th Street between 2nd and 3rd, Roy rented space from a storage company under the F train tracks off 8th Street in Gowanus, which happens to be at the entrance to Lowe’s.  There, in well-organized fashion, he displays metal architectural salvage gleaned from local demolitions — cast iron newel posts starting at $100, fences, gates, window guards, railings, finials, fireplace covers, and pieces thereof.

All is of local origin, Roy says, from Brooklyn, Manhattan, and the Bronx.p1020812

“I can tell where a house is by the metalwork,” Roy maintains. “If you go up any street towards Prospect Park, you’ll find less iron. Between 8th Avenue and the Park, it’s 90% stone, very little iron.”p1020809

The best block for ironwork, Roy says, is 10th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues in Park Slope — “the most diversified iron around.”p1020811