If ever a building threaded itself into the hallowed history of New York City, it is the red brick town house at 41 Charlton Street, framed by lustrous wrought-iron railings topped with little pineapples, a symbol of hospitality.
Built in 1827 by John Jacob Astor, it occupies what was originally the site of Richmond Hill, the Georgian mansion that served as Aaron Burr’s country seat. Over the decades the town house has sheltered illustrious residents, among them Robert Morgenthau, the long-time Manhattan District Attorney, who was married here, and a fashion designer named Catherine Shannon, a great-granddaughter of Henri Matisse.
When it comes to credentials, the current occupant, Lisa Spellman, is no slouch, either. Ms Spellman, 51, is the owner of 303 Gallery in West Chelsea. She also happens to be the grandniece of Cardinal Francis Spellman, the powerful mid-century Catholic prelate of New York; the pew in her front hall is a reminder of that strand of her past.
Now the house is poised for its star turn on the big screen. When Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a sequel to a defining film of the ’80s, opens next month, keep an eye out for one of the more charming residences of Gordon Gekko’s daughter, played by Carey Mulligan.
“It started about a year ago when somebody stuck a note under my door,” Ms Spellman recalled. During a dozen visits, the film’s production designers became ever more enamoured of the 12-foot ceilings and the half dozen fireplaces. They marvelled at the French doors and the oak-leaf motifs.
Thanks to the film-makers’ selection of her house for several critical scenes, Ms Spellman witnessed both the glitter and complexity that accompany the making of a Hollywood extravaganza.
“It was fascinating and also totally insane,” Ms Spellman said, sitting at her tiny kitchen table. “Once the film-makers decided on the house, there must have been a hundred people milling around for a week. This room was filled with cameras.
“And they totally emptied out the ground floor,” she added. “I watched the union guys tossing my furniture onto the street.”
Despite the chaos that inevitably accompanied filming, Ms Spellman was struck by how much care was taken with her interiors. She also got to lay eyes on, if not exactly hang out with, Michael Douglas and Shia LaBeouf, the two male stars. At night, she wandered through her transformed rooms, examining the perfectly chosen snacks (Fig Newtons) and the contents of the bookshelves (volumes on green investment, because Ms Gekko is a reporter for a progressive website).
“These were props for another life,” Ms Spellman said. “It was as if ghosts were inhabiting the space.”
Few people would need an excuse to live in a building whose pedigree is so impressive that the premises are triple landmarked – by the city, state and federal governments. But when it comes to where she lives, Ms Spellman has a particular affection for historical authenticity. And if she were to cite the one thing that led her to her home, she would talk about what happened to the windows in her previous apartment more than a decade ago.
“I was living in a co-op on Gramercy Park, an old building with beautiful metal casement windows,” she said. “Then one day we were told that they were going to be replaced with horrible aluminium double-sash windows. And that tipped me over the edge.”
In 1999, after checking out literally hundreds of places, Ms Spellman bought this house for US$2.7 million ($3.68 million), a price tag made more palatable by a few smart and lucky real estate transactions in previous years.
In many respects, the house serves as an extension of the gallery. Artists and sometimes collectors bunk so often in the upstairs bedrooms, it’s as if Ms Spellman were running a well-appointed bed and breakfast. Every six weeks or so, guests gather around the spare wooden dining table for opening-night dinners. In warm weather, festivities spill into the backyard, an urban woodland planted with ferns and ivy.
Ms Spellman has also used the premises for what she describes as “interventions” – her term for ambitious installations – by artists she represents. Her walls are filled with works by artists in her stable, though few are as haunting as Karen Kilimnik’s paintings of Tabitha, a girl with supernatural powers from the 1960s television series Bewitched. Despite their pop-cult origins, these paintings have the dignity of Dutch still lives.
In some respects, a sort of benign neglect has been the house’s best friend. No one has torn out walls to open up the rooms or ripped off period details to achieve a high-tech style.
The plaster mouldings and ornate woodwork look much as they must have nearly two centuries ago. The floors, made of random-width pumpkin pine, have been hand-sanded and finished with tung oil. The walls were stripped down to their lathing, and the new plaster was hand-buffed with beeswax, creating a sheen that, as Ms Spellman points out, “looks incredible in candlelight”.
Ms Spellman insists that the furniture, much of which found its way here through family, friends and flea markets, takes second place to the architectural details. But to agree would be to ignore the iron and crystal chandelier (French, 19th century), the red and white star quilt draped over the living room sofa, the vintage child’s bed where Ms Spellman’s terrier mix, also named Tabitha, likes to sleep, and especially the two hand-painted chests. One, made in Germany in the 1800s, is bottle green and dotted with tulips. The other, made in Austria in the 1600s, is adorned with diminutive urban scenes.
Despite all the improvements, the house is still very much a work in progress.
“Over the years, I’ve spent a couple of hundred thousand dollars restoring and repairing stuff,” Ms Spellman said. “There’s always something.” This year’s project was a roof over the kitchen, a later addition to the house.
“I wish these things could be decorative rather than structural,” she said. “But that’s the charm of it.
“You know,” she added proudly, “1827 is incredibly old for a house.”
Source : Today – 13 Aug 2010