Location: East Village
“Are you building a house in there?” asks Blanche, Robert’s elderly neighbor, when she sees him tirelessly shlep construction materials down the hall week after week.
Blanche has known Robert since he was born—the same year that the Mitchell Lama apartments were completed and the same year that Robert’s grandparents moved in to their spacious modern affordable apartment and out of their tenement on the lower east side.
Entering the building on the corner of 1st Ave and 2nd Street, I am reminded of all the apartment buildings I have ever walked into in Eastern Europe. It’s institutional ‘aesthetic’ is unavoidable, but is quickly redeemed for me, by its improvised human elements.
There are a few people chatting around a card table that seems strangely cozy in the elementary school blue-tiled lobby. I realize quickly that the mailperson’s presence justifies each person’s need to be social. Everyone I run into is well over 65, and I imagine each of their apartments being a wonderfully preserved mid-60’s extravaganza—full of things for which I might love to overpay in a thrift shop on Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg.
Walking down the long Mitchell Lama 3rd floor hallway, past what I later learned were the apartments of Blanche and Stella, respectively, I arrived at Robert's den of 21st century minimalism. The important thing to keep in mind here is that prior to Robert moving in, all of the original 1964 features of the apartment were fully intact. That includes the green carpeting and deep beige colored walls, the laminate cabinetry, each of the fully enclosed boxy rooms, and the sea foam/grey bathroom motif.
In that these apartments were built as co-ops for the middle class of New York City by the city—a concept that is almost hard to fathom at this point in the current real-estate development madness—and that they were meant to keep as part of a larger cooperative, current owners are still restricted from selling their apartments on the open market. Therefore, when Robert 'inherited' this apartment, he knew he was going to make it his own for the long-term.
Robert is an amazing person, especially in this day and age of the lure of mass produced, easily accessible albeit generic and homogenous products available. Robert has resisted the seduction of the market by taking it upon himself to manufacture almost all the elements of his renovation. If he can’t make it, he will design it and have it fabricated within a half-mile radius of his home.
Although he has high-end tastes and the demand for quality, he has managed to create an envious home on a limited budget and with environmental sensitivities. Yes, he has an architecture degree under his belt, and yes, he knows how to design, but he also has incredible patience and perseverance. He is willing to do months of research to track down a specific floor tile, ride his bike while balancing long strips of wood trim on the handlebars, and live amongst chaos for as long as it takes to get the job done to his high standards. An avid subsciber to the Slow Food movement, Robert has extrapolated many of the same tenets towards the art of home renovation.
Just to do a quick run-down of what he physically constructed with his own two hands and a couple of tools--the wall unit in the living room, all the white shelving in the bedroom and study, the desk, the kitchen cabinets (with doors from Ikea), the counter top which was then wrapped in stainless steel by a store on Chrystie St., the dining room table, and the design of the medicine chest (which was then fabricated by Canal Plastics on Canal Street).
Robert has lengthy, but rewarding, anecdotes for every aspect of this process. I kept asking and he kept talking and 2 hours later we just about made it through all three rooms of his spacious, 780 square foot apartment. If you must know, there are about 650 feet worth of living space and the remainder accounts for counter space, closet space, shelving space, and the bathroom.
The apartment feels generous and airy and my favorite trick for expanding space is the exaggerated blinds across a regular sized window. It is a great idea, easily implemented with a tremendous impact.
Take note of the cork floor! In the form of 12”x12” tiles, it is everywhere except in the bathroom. In the rooms where he expects more wear and tear, he has sealed them with the most environmentally sound polyurethane he could find, and in the other areas, he used wax. The effect is wonderful. You just want to take your shoes and socks off and run around to experience the inevitable warmth of such a material.
Robert’s biggest piece of advice for eager renovators is to live in a new apartment for a while, and then take action. Learn what things you initially hated that grow on you and actually work well and what things you simply can’t tolerate another second.
He admits that he knows what he likes but does not always possess the skills to achieve it. This is something a DIYer may want to accept at the outset and ignore or may want to work within limits and call in professionals when the desire for independence and a sense of accomplishment is outweighed by the inevitable impact of your mistakes.
Let us all learn from Rob that having high standards and the time and desire to achieve them is more than half the battle. As is evident from these photos, great things can be achieved in characterless apartments. Rob used the simplicity of the space to his advantage. He knocked down walls, pulled out cabinets, expanded the size of the bathroom, built out from the remaining walls to create storage, and embraced the random nature of right angles in the apartment.
The result is a feat like no Mitchell Lama apartment has ever seen. It is an oasis, and yes, it is a house, built from the outside in.
Shops that Robert endorses in addition to those mentioned above:
Robert says he made literally hundreds of trips to Bowery Building Supply where they would happily cut plywood to size, fewer but as crucial a number of trips to Brickman’s Hardware on 1st Avenue, and Metropolitan Lumber for hardwood custom strips.
Most of the kitchen hardware harks from David Sanders on the Bowery. Robert says “It is a great place, if you can catch someone's attention. Their people are all fantastic, but they ignore you studiously until you force them into it.”
The blue and grey Bisazza mosaic tiles in the bathroom and kitchen, respectively, are all from Tiles, Marbles and Things on Bleeker/Crosby. This place gets a ringing endorsement from Rob as “a great store, with a very nice owner named Rob.