March 2023 El Portal Web feature by Leslie Armstrong
Leslie Armstrong has published three books: The Little House, Collier
Macmillan (1979); and Space for Dance: An Architectural Design Guide
(1984), and in 2020, Girl Intrepid: A New York Story of Privilege and
Perseverance, a memoir.)
Brownstones by Leslie Armstrong
I am a city girl. Houses for me have generally been apartments that are part of or added to New York City brownstones—named such for the inexpensive sandstone with a high concentration of iron that was used to clad the facades of many late-nineteenth century New York row houses. Some of the houses where I lived were floor-throughs, others the front or back half of a floor; one was a floor added to an old tenement building. My mother’s taste colored each of the houses I lived in as a child. Then my love of design and my commitment to modernism in general (but not in the particulars) determined the function and “feel” of the houses I created within these various brownstone types and lived in as an adult.
One Primus Avenue, Phillips Street, Boston, MA
Here I spent the first seven years of my life. One Primus Avenue was a stepped alley off Phillips Street that opened on to a series of entries to apartments on either side. Ours was a duplex that was dark and dingy and, at the same time, spacious. On the upper entry level, my parents’ and my bedrooms flanked a short hall ending in an arched opening that gave on to what I then perceived as a huge, double height living room. A narrow stair with a wrought-iron railing led down a side wall to the living room floor. At the bottom of the stairs, huge windows gave on to the concrete paving of a courtyard that would be better described as a glorified airshaft. Centered on the opposite wall was a tall fireplace with its chimney breast tapering as it reached the ceiling. High clerestory windows on either side of the chimney breast gave on to the alley that was Primus Avenue and admitted a few rays of sun for several minutes each day. My parents’ books filled two tall, inset bookcases below each window. Two stubby yellow love seats and a low, square, oak Parsons table with a red leather inset panel were centered on the fireplace.
It was a party room, and my hard-working young parents – my father was a doctor and my mother, a lawyer – had plenty of parties. What I cherished most about this room, and this apartment, was that it was the only environment in which I experienced my parents together and us living as a family. The summer I was seven my parents had divorced. My life in Boston was over. My mother, close to broke, was moving us to New York, where she had been raised. She would have to find a new job as a lawyer, not easy for a woman in the late 1940s. My father was moving to Chicago.
145 East 62nd Street
We took a taxi from La Guardia airport to our new apartment on East 62nd Street—then, a blue-collar Italian neighborhood just two blocks north of Bloomingdale’s. It was dominated by the relentless rattling and rumbling of the Third Avenue el. Our apartment was on the top floor of two contiguous, very narrow brownstones and was composed of four rooms connected by a U-shaped corridor: a double sitting room in front, on the street, which functioned as a living room/library (the two yellow sofas from Boston were combined into one for that room), a sort of dining room/guest space/study, and two bedrooms in back overlooking the gardens and into the rear windows of the Barbizon Hotel for Women. There was one for me done up in red-and-white candy stripes, and at the end of the hall was my mother’s room with its wall of mirrors and built-in mirrored dressing table and its ingenious parallelogram-shaped desk nestled into the bay window. A kitchen, breakfast area, and bathroom were in the middle. I was pleased to see that at least one of the double-ended mahogany beds that had been in my room in Boston had made it to New York. Although I missed the big living room in Boston (and my school, and my friends, and my father), I could tell, even as a little girl, that there was something special about our new little apartment. It was cheerful and full of light. More than that it was a triumph of space planning and decorating on the part of my mother and her interior designer, Horace Terrell. But neither Mr. Terrell’s genius nor my mother’s taste could compensate for me for the loss of family and place that I had had in Boston.
242 East 62nd Street
When I was fourteen, my mother, who had finally found paying work as a lawyer and not as a secretary, wanted to move to a larger apartment—actually, to buy a house. She zeroed in on a sixteen-foot-wide brownstone on 62nd street east of Third Avenue. There was a duplex apartment on the bottom that had been built to the full depth of the hundred-foot lot, with an open patio in the middle and a glazed corridor along one side and three small floor-through apartments above. The duplex was accessed from an areaway at the front of the house, and the rental apartments above were accessed from the stoop. These would give my mother rental income to help pay the mortgage and carrying costs of the house.
Enter Pierre d’Argout and Neil Fergusson, a gay couple in business together as decorators. My mother wanted to scrap everything from our little apartment and start again a la française—as close to Louis XVI as she could afford. No more old English hand-me-downs, and certainly nothing modern.
I was mortified. I had grown to love our little apartment.. It was comfortable, familiar, and clever. I didn’t want everything I had held dear replaced with gilt chairs with bowed legs and oval backs, and chests of drawers with curved fronts and marble tops. I had decided at age ten that I wanted to be an architect, therefore if we were going to have change, it should be a change toward the new. Further, what was to be my room in the new house was smaller than my room in the apartment. So what was in this move for me? My mother begged me to trust her. Edward Wormley, her client and friend—a little guy with a short neck, and a squeaky voice tinged with a Southern accent,—was a furniture and interior designer. He was going to make magic for me in that little room, in exchange for my mother’s legal services. And he did.
In a room nine feet wide, eleven feet deep, and almost ten feet high, he found space for two narrow single beds stacked on top of one another, wall-to-wall bookshelves above the beds; a tall, narrow bureau with drawers of graduated heights, a built-in desk with a bank of drawers to one side, a built-in record player and space for my records, and a concealed bin for storing bedding for the second bed. The design was so clean and tight that there was visual and actual space for movable furniture. This included a small (Dunbar) easy chair—Wormley was Dunbar Furniture’s top designer—an armless (Bertoia) desk chair on casters, a twenty-four-inch round (Dunbar) occasional table with a travertine top, plus the black lacquer mini piano (two octaves short) that my mother had procured for me during the last year we were at the apartment. An oversized paper lantern by Isamu Noguchi hung in the middle of the room to provide light and lower the visual height of the ceiling. The walls were grass cloth. The wood was a honey blond. A shiny, black Formica counter edged in the same blond wood stretched across the windows and served as the desktop. The fabrics and upholstery were in a warm beige with accents in chrome yellow, rich ochres, and oranges—some smooth and silky and others a coarser open weave. The raw linen curtains with their blackout linings fell from the ceiling to just past the desk counter. And the wall between the window and the door to the tenant’s hall was covered with a grid of small, cylindrical steel pins about ten inches on center that enabled the hanging of art of any size in any configuration.
It was magic.
My pleasure in having this room to myself was short-lived. A year later, my mother married a man with two daughters who came to live with us. He was given my room as his study, and I and his two daughters, both younger than I, were kicked upstairs to one of the rental units. Three of us in two bedrooms. I was not one bit pleased, but my new step father was a good man and I was thrilled to be no longer an only child.
294 Riverside Drive
After a semester living at home while attending Columbia School of Architecture, it became clear that I had to find my own apartment. My allegedly liberal mother and step father were keeping way too tight a rein on my social life. A college friend and her new husband were looking to sublet their studio apartment on the ground floor of a turn-of-the-century townhouse at 294 Riverside Drive for a year while they went abroad on his Fulbright. Their apartment was fully furnished and equipped. All I took with me were my clothes, my drafting table, and my drafting stool. These I placed right next to the large casement window that overlooked Riverside Park. The rent for this elegant front room, the smallish foyer, and the narrow kitchen and poky bathroom—both at the back—was ninety-five dollars a month. I loved the graceful proportions of the main room, its stone mantel and fireplace, the rich casings around the doors, the raised panels of the doors themselves, and its eccentric, if shabby, furnishings. I loved looking through the filigree wrought-iron grille at the huge trees in Riverside Park and through them to the Hudson River while I drew through the night. And I loved its proximity to Columbia and its distance from my parents. Sadly, my tenancy here was also short-lived, but my year in the funky grace of that front room looking through the huge plane trees to the Hudson River persuaded me to reside forever on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
332 West 101st Street
I found a new apartment around the corner, at the back of a fifth-floor walk-up in a newly renovated brownstone just in from Riverside Drive. Another college friend agreed to room with me, which reduced the pain of the higher rent. The plan was a bit strange. You entered directly into a wide but shallow kitchen, which opened on to a narrow living room. I installed black-and-white vinyl floor tiles in the kitchen, which helped dignify the entry experience, and bookshelves on each side of the chimney breast (sans fireplace). My roommate took the little room off the living room, and I moved into a newly built enclosure over the rear extension. It was tiny but flooded with light streaming through the band of windows facing south and east over the back gardens. I bought a pullout sofa bed that, when extended, just cleared the drafting table. It was my aerie. I persuaded my landlord to sell me the column capitals from the house’s original Victorian staircase and turned these into small end tables, and I bought a narrow, late-eighteenth-century antique Italian trestle table, which served as a combination writing desk and dining table.
That fall, I met a handsome young man and his three-year-old son, Lafcadio. My father had more or less disappeared after my parents’ divorce. I had missed him terribly. This man’s love for this little boy so moved me that I was sure he was the right man to love and with whom to start a family. (I was wrong but that is another story). A year later, we were married and moved together to a two-bedroom floor-through across the street.
333 West 70th Street
Two years into our marriage, we decided we should try for a child of our own, which would require a larger apartment so each child could have his own room. As we’d both grown up in New York City brownstones (I in a floor-through and my husband in an entire house), we looked for a brownstone to buy on the West Side of a sort we’d never seen there: small, full of light, and without any historical significance, so I could play architect and turn the floor plan inside out to make it work for a twentieth-century working couple without destroying any valuable decoration or ornament. We looked at only two houses. The first was a typical, lugubrious West Side Victorian––not acceptable. The second was very narrow, only fifteen feet wide, and had been built on spec as workers’ housing in 1895, so there was no detail to preserve. It was so far west on 70th street that there was nothing in front of it and sunlight streamed through its pokey windows.
333 West 70th Street overlooked the then very active Penn Central railroad yards. It seemed to be on the edge of nowhere. The views to the southwest––out over the yards, the elevated West Side Highway, and the Hudson River––embraced every form of transport: trains, cars, airplanes and helicopters above, and freighters and ocean liners in the distance. The house cost $62,500, which seemed exorbitant at the time, but it was perfect. We begged and borrowed from both our families, took out two mortgages, and closed on a cold day in February 1967.
333 was not a typical brownstone—first, because it was clad in Roman brick and stucco, and second because it had no stoop leading up to the parlor floor, nor an adjacent areaway leading down to the garden level. The main entry to the house was up four steps from the street. Originally, this level housed a reception room in front and the family kitchen and service functions at the rear. The parlor floor above housed the dining room at the back and the living room at the front. A narrow service stair in an extension to the rear connected the kitchen to the dining room. Above the parlor floor was the master bedroom floor, and above that were children’s rooms. None of these features remained when we bought the house, which was fortunate because this layout would not have worked for me. I wanted a rental unit at the bottom of the house to help defray the carrying costs. On the parlor floor, I wanted a small studio apartment at the back with a kitchenette and bath in the extension, in which a housekeeper could live with dignity and in relative privacy. In the front of the parlor floor, I wanted a study/guest room. I wanted to open the third floor and move the kitchen, dining, and living room functions all to this long, narrow space and have our bedroom plus two small bedrooms for our children on the top floor. And I wanted to alter the sizes and shapes of the front windows so as to bring the view south down the Hudson deep not the interior.
I spent the spring on the construction drawings for the house. In so narrow a house, there was no room for big gestures, so I played it straight. Like many graduates of architecture school who hadn’t worked summers in construction, I knew nothing about how things were actually built, but I knew that getting the drawings right was my only chance at realizing the clean lines and details to which I aspired. I befriended Terry Quinn, an elderly and often inebriated Irish carpenter who was working on a house a few doors down, and folded everything that he could teach me into the construction drawings. In June, we hired his employers to do the job, on the condition that Terry would be our foreman and master carpenter. In August, I found out I was pregnant. The house would be more than ready by the time our baby was due. And it was.
333 has been my castle, my Norman keep. It has never laughed at me. It has sheltered me and my three children through my three failed marriages and their own sometimes difficult upbringings. In fifty plus years, little has been done to change its layout. There have been some lighting upgrades, a partial kitchen upgrade, a change of pictures, and some new chairs and sofas have replaced those worn thin from use. The income from the garden apartment has carried the house and subsidized my commitment to a profession at which I have not been especially successful financially. 333 lies deep in the memories of my family and friends, my friends’ children and my children’s friends, who have sat at our table and slept in our beds and on our floors.
From Chelsea to Harlem to Home
In 2008 I finally married the right guy. I wanted to start my life with him on neutral turf. John Bowers was a writer and a downtown guy. He had lived in Greenwich Village since his arrival in New York from Eastern Tennessee in 1962. My mother had died and with my inheritance, I bought and fitted out a loft in a converted manufacturing building in Chelsea and rented out my triplex at 333. I’d never before lived in an apartment building with a door(wo)man and elevators. It was weird. However handsome our loft, it felt like a stage set, its formality more tuned to my late mother’s taste and expectations of me than to mine. I was almost relieved when, in 2009, I lost my job, could no longer afford the carrying costs, and had to sell.
At the suggestion of a young developer for whom I was working part-time, we picked up sticks and moved into the seventh add-on floorof a newly converted tenement at 2196 Frederick Douglass Boulevard, the uptown extension of Central Park West. The apartment was allegedly a three-bedroom rental and much smaller than our Chelsea loft. In addition to light pouring in from three exposures, its winning feature was a tiny terrace off the sparkling white master bath that looked out over the rooftops of Harlem. The layout was nuts, with an open kitchen in the middle twice the size of the small area relegated for living, work, and dining in the front. I used all my ingenuity to stuff our possessions (mainly mine; John could live in a car if he had food, drink, and good books nearby) into its confines. Living in Harlem, even as it was rapidly becoming gentrified, was living in a new and different culture: part African, part European, part African American, spacious and elegant in many places, squalid and impoverished in others, but always warm and welcoming. Despite the cramped and dysfunctional layout of our Harlem abode, we were very happy there.
In 2014, the husband of a close friend was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. When they married, also in 2008, he moved into her very small one-bedroom apartment in a posh apartment building on 79th Street off Park Avenue. Having a smart address meant a lot to each of them for different reasons. However, there was no room in this chic, little spread to accommodate the help they needed to manage his decline. My friend’s husband was prematurely shipped off to a nursing home, where he languished and died. This was a wake-up call. There was no space in our Harlem apartment for caregivers either. And John was way older than they. I looked around Harlem for a larger apartment. Prices were skyrocketing. We were paying more in rent than we received for our garden larger garden apartment at 333.
It came in a flash. We could go back to 333 when our tenant’s lease was up. There we would have plenty of space, and the stairs would be good exercise for us both. Seven years had passed since I had moved out. Maybe the ghosts of my past would be gone. John was game.
During the summer of 2015, while still in Harlem, I replaced the roof and the front windows at 333. I tidied up the central air system, made a few changes to the rooms on the parlor floor which had been used mainly for kids’ bedrooms over the years, and repainted everything. In August of 2015 we moved back to 333 where we each have our own space, and we have shared space. There is room for those of our five kids who want to come home for a stretch and for the people we are beginning to need to care for us.
The ghosts are gone.
333 is now our Norman keep, his and mine.