Monday, February 8, 2010

Beauty and Decay in Brooklyn

Williamsburg, Brooklyn, 1991

My friend Brad knew two sisters in Brooklyn who were looking for a roommate. "They're English," he said. "A little odd..." he said, then added, "...you know, like you." They lived in a Civil War-era house in Williamsburg and the rent would be $300 a month for my own bedroom. It sounded too good to be true.

Out I went on the rumbling L train to Bedford Avenue. A short walk later, I reached 154 North 9th Street. In front of me stood an unprepossessing tenement building. The buzzers all indicated various apartments except for one that had a piece of paper taped above it that read "Rear House." I buzzed it and the door clicked open, revealing a long hall that completely bypassed the building and led out back to a small private yard.

What I saw took my breath away.

In front of me was an enchanting two-story Lilliputian carriage house that looked as if it had just escaped from the pages of "Alice in Wonderland." The small yard was hugged tightly on three sides by wooden trellises which were profuse with climbing roses. Wanton roses. Fearless roses. Roses that had refused to have their ambitions clipped by pollution or city stress. As for the house, it was covered in so much ivy that it was clearly in the midst of a grudge match with the flowers for "Best of Show."

Of course I moved in immediately.
(Front door of carriage house, Williamsburg, 1991-ish)

My two roommates, Jane and Mary, soon became my best friends and co-conspirators in style. Mary was a self-employed couturier and Jane was a music promoter/Jill of all trades. They were Pre-Raphaelite beauties with a thrilling ability to create glamour, drama and humor out of the most quotidien details. In our house, the heels were high, the lipstick was red and the books were Virago (the pre-Persephone Persephone). Oh, and every night we drank a tipple of amontillado sherry "purely for medicinal purposes."

I still dream about our kitchen table. The top was covered with two huge slate slabs that Mary had discovered in the earthen basement and then painted with coats of shiny shellac. It was rough and uneven and where the middles met, she planted a row of live moss from end to end. (Yes, we watered it.) You had to be slightly careful about where you set your coffee cup so it wouldn't tip over, but other than that, it was a eco-surrealist fantasy.
(Mary in the kitchen. Note the slate table.)

The house definitely had its quirks. When it rained, you needed to use an umbrella in the bathroom. In winter, the wind blew through the paper-thin walls with such ferocity that we would regularly wear winter coats inside. The floorboards sloped, the staircase was wonky and it was the most vocal house -- creaks, groans, moans, you name it -- I've ever lived in. But we loved it in spite of its weaknesses. It was blowsy with personality, that house. It was a Civil War dame who had long outlived all her contemporaries, but who was seeking with every nail and joist and length of timber in her body to remain upright for as long as she could.

In the upstairs salon, Mary and Jane had draped velvet remnants over the threadbare sofas for a bit of rough luxe glamour and stippled the walls a Venetian gold.
(Me in the upstairs salon. Note the nearby coat.)

Our dining room was painted many times, depending on our boredom level. In the incarnation below, it was "Oscar Wilde Green." On the right, you can see a mannequin draped with one of Mary's dress designs. She made me two neo-Edwardian fitted suits that I still own today. Both had accentuated shoulders, a nipped-in waist and a slight bustle effect in the back that made me feel like a post-punk Wharton heroine. I'm wearing one of them in the photo below.
(Me after a lengthy repast, circa 1991-ish.)

There was never a dull moment. One day I came home from work and discovered that Mary had planted more moss on the fireplace and was growing flowers out of it. You can see them on the left side of the mantel. She and Jane sewed damask slip covers for the wooden chairs they found on the street so we could "entertain properly."
(Dining room, circa 1991-ish)

Another time I walked in the door to find my roommates, in high heels and lipstick, sawing up one of our four salvaged dining chairs to use as kindling. There was a winter storm raging, the furnace was broken and the inside temperature had reached crisis levels. When you live in a homestead, sometimes you have to make tough choices.
(Upstairs fireplace, Christmas time, 1992-ish)

I wish I had a photo of my bedroom, but I don't. It faced a Polish sausage casing factory, not the most scenic of views, so I transformed it into a Moroccan fantasy with dark tangerine walls and a navy-blue ceiling that I swirled with celadon to conjure up an approaching storm. I hung a mosquito net over the bed and decorated the room with vintage fabrics and cushions. It was very "Sheltering Sky."

We had two blissful years together before love and career opportunities pulled us in separate directions. But our experiences together in that house, as well as our friendships, remain vivid to this day.
(Three thrill-seekers on a barnacle-laden barge on the Hudson River, 1992-ish)

From Mary and Jane, I learned first-hand that great personal style isn't about money, it's about attitude, wit and a dash of devil-may-care. Somehow on the tiniest of budgets we managed not only to live with elegance but also to entertain with flair. Countless friends from Manhattan trooped out to see us, the eccentric adventuresses living in a tumbledown house on the wrong side of the river and having the time of our lives.

We welcomed them with glasses of amontillado sherry, of course.


(Side note: One of my readers, Daniel Halifax with the compelling blog, has a scandalous story to tell regarding one of his ancestors and this very house. Perhaps he'll comment....)

Up next: Cool Britannia, 1996


35 comments:

Sneaky Magpie said...

This sounds amazing. I love the look of this apartment, I can imagine Tim Walker shoot happening in there. You are very lucky ladies to experience that house!

littlebyrd said...

Great story and beautiful house. I love how descriptive your writing is. What a treat to read first thing this morning!

Susan Erickson said...

Style is easy to create when it's part of who you are. Youth is a wonderful thing...I also lived in houses that coats were required but I always painted and decorated to make them mine. Even the old log cabin in the Yukon. Great post!

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Sneaky Magpie: Tim Walker is my FAVORITE photographer!

Modern Traditionalist said...

Lisa,
You have lived a truly enchanted live. Those green walls! Incredible! I've said it before and I'll say it again, your evocative writing deserves to be bound and savored by a mass audience. I would be honored to have you resting on my bookcase.

MT

magnaverde said...

I've been reading your blog for a long time, but, for the first time, I realize that the Bloomsbury allusion isn't talking about mindset, or mere inspiration, but about actual reality. This charming place--and the life that the three of you created there--truly is the American equivalent of Charleston cottage, and the fact that it could exist in the place that it did, and, more than that, as recently as it did, is almost beyond belief. What can I say? The world is full of wonders.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Modern Traditionalist: That would be a privilege for me as well.

And Magnaverde: Oh my. I am so so honored by your comment. xx

LPC said...

You were nearly vampires, conceptual vampires, rose-loving vampires, before Twilight took over. The lips, the skin, the chopping up of chairs. I do not believe that in my 53 years of life I have ever even approached that level of romantic heroism. It almost makes me question some fairly central assumptions.

Madelief said...

What an amazing story and beautiful house. I was wondering what happened to the house and your two friends?

Lieve groet,

Madelief

Kathy Gillespie said...

....you make me homesick for a place where I never lived.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

I love it that there names, Jane and Mary, are so deceptively ordinary. Where are they now??

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Me again. So happy to see you mention Tim Walker. Such a happy genius - his photographs take my breath. He would be a terrific subject for you, I should think!

French Fancy said...

You look three kindred spirits in that bottom photo - with liberal use of lippy. No wonder Brad mentioned the sisters to you - he obviously knew you would all get on.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

It all sounds too enchanting! And how adorable you look in the photos!!

Laura [What I Like] said...

Ah, you were not kidding about the "beauty and decay"! A couple of years ago I went to party in a Williamsburg house that sounds very similar to this...not quite so ramshackle but the layout and the gardens sound the same and the anything goes spirit was certainly there as well. It was quite the night! I envy you living several years (rather than one night) in such a locale...so excited for the England installment!

Angie Muresan said...

There's something so fascinating about decaying homes. It's as though all the lives lived within the walls breath out.

Joanna said...

Wow, you girls sure knew how to live! Thank for you such a wonderfully detailed and transporting narrative.

Daniel-Halifax said...

So THIS is why my blog counter just had an epilectic shock! Thank you dear.

Carmine Monteforte, my Great-Great Uncle was very successful in the moonshine. He singlehandedly brought all of his immediate brothers, sisters and parents over to the New World.

During the prohibition times, four FBI agents followed him to where Madame Borgnes Giramonti would someday live...and shot him.

See pictures for yourself:
http://hibernianhomme.blogspot.com/2009/10/wolf-without-foot.html

Lisa this I think was my favorite post so far! Thanks for the holler.

Daniel-Halifax said...

*moonshine BUSINESS

oops!

Nick Heywood said...

Frying Pan? Looks like the best of times all around.

As always, excellent post. It reminds of periods of my own life that I look back on fondly ... it's amazing how you don't know things while you're living them, isn't it?

Helen James said...

What a fabulous recount of a passage of time in your life, with the added intrigue of Daniels addition. Again you surprise and delight x

Ivarene Farmer said...

Post modern Jane Austin! Beautiful and timeless.

scj said...

I know that house! I live in Williamsburg now and, despite its recent popularity, it still holds charm and intrigue. Thank you for sharing such a fantastic tale. i am craving a navy and orange room, now.

plaisirs simples said...

LOVING this post...every one has an amazing tale of "when they first moved to NY"...wish mine was this glamorous....

Reggie Darling said...

What a marvelous story, indeed. Brooklyn has some incredible neighborhoods and houses that the snoots of Manhattan would drop their dentures over, if they could just see to it to venture across the East River . . . but better, perhaps, they don't!

The Wanderers' Daughter said...

This should be written into a storybook. What a wonderful post! We were sorely tempted by a similar carriage house in a somewhat questionable neighborhood of our city when we first moved down from the mountains. It really did not have enough space for us, however, and although I still dream of it, it's lucky we resisted since we adopted our daughter two years later. We now have more room, if a wee bit less vintage charm ;)

Jane said...

Hi Lisa - isn't it such a rite of passage to live with some real eccentrics? Even in Australia I have lived with furniture sawing and burning people so I imagine it is common in Brooklyn.

I love all your makeup - pale faces with slashes of red lipstick and biggish hair. You know we all thought we wore no makeup back in the 80s and early 90s but in retrospect we really did.

But tell me, what are they doing now? Is the fabulous bustle lady still designing clothes?

A Super Dilettante said...

What a lovely story..what a wonderful friendship as if all of you were united by your indivduality and your creativity. I wish I could be the fly on the wall in this decadent house!! Those were the days, my friends...

Acanthus and Acorn said...

Just found your blog and I was so disappointed....just the same as I am with the last page of any good book!!! I was completely entranced.

Diane James Home said...

Loved reading about your first home! It made me reminice of my first appartment on Avenue Charles Floquet in Paris - out the building's front door, la Tour Eiffel; out of our front door, "vue sur les poubelles"!

Anonymous said...

my first apartment in San Francisco was a sister to yours! My roommate and I brought furniture from her mom's house, we sawed the legs off the couch so it would be lower. I made aprons for us so we could entertain our parents at dinner. We would sit in the window when the grey line buses came by and they announced "up there in the window you can see hippies!" It was 1966, life was good. The house now is a restored victorian mansion selling for a cool 3 million.

sarah-jane down the lane said...

Wow, I loved reading this piece. Are you all still in contact?

You really evoked a grand student apartment in Glasgow for me, great memories,

Sarah.

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