A Trip Across America and Back in Pursuit of a Place to Call Home
“One time I accepted an offer to climb the rigging to the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal, when it was being cleaned and restored. As I stood on the scaffolding immediately below the station’s starry ceiling, I rediscovered a long-dormant fear of heights. But even though my knees were shaking, I was happy to be up there, cultivating an intimacy with one of New York’s signature buildings.”
When I began my search, I had only owned one piece of real estate in my life, a 720-square-foot co-op apartment at the corner of Third Avenue and Fourteenth Street in Manhattan. It was, when I bought it, a space with all the charm and character of a room at the Holiday Inn. But it had a view I liked of a particularly rakish streetscape: the Variety Photoplay Theater (which had gone from showing porn to being a respectable off-Broadway theater), the Faith and Hope Mission and the Pitstop, a biker bar that eventually morphed into an NYU student hangout. My apartment had standard-issue parquet floors, a daffodil-yellow kitchen that I planned to someday paint and renovate, and lots of closets. On one of the completely featureless eight-foot-tall living room walls, I had a furniture maker build a seventeen-foot-long shelving unit which accommodated most of my books, my collection of oversized magazines, and my files. In the corner nearest the window, I had a desk that wrapped around and gave me a view of the ceaseless flow of traffic—so many fire engines, so many buses—careening (or crawling) down Third Avenue. This spot by the window, where I would sometimes sit all day, writing, making phone calls, thinking, this spot was as close as I’ve ever been to home.
I thought I would live there forever.
Back then, in 1999, I was a professional urbanist. I was the architecture critic for New York magazine and my life was about exploring and understanding the city. I would look out my window as I’d begin my workday and nod to the Con Ed clock tower across Fourteenth Street or ride the elevator to the roof and take inventory, inspecting New York’s skyline as if it were my job to make sure that each of the buildings was in its proper place (a chore that was then, happily, entirely unnecessary).
My greatest pleasure as a critic was gaining access to the secret or off-limits portions of big buildings: the attic of the Chrysler Building, the corporate dining rooms atop the Chase Manhattan tower, the roof of the still-under- construction Condé Nast headquarters in Times Square. One time I accepted an offer to climb the rigging to the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal, when it was being cleaned and restored. As I stood on the scaffolding immediately below the station’s starry ceiling, I rediscovered a long-dormant fear of heights. But even though my knees were shaking, I was happy to be up there, cultivating an intimacy with one of New York’s signature buildings.
Then I was offered a job as the founding editor of Dwell, a new magazine about modern residential design. Taking the job would mean moving to San Francisco and devoting myself to thinking exclusively about small buildings, single-family homes. Instead of being led by architects and developers through their most ambitious creations, I would learn about building at a more personal scale. Homeowners and designers would point out the fabulous European showerhead, or the cleverly secreted storage space. I was making a headlong plunge into the nature and culture of domesticity.
The price that the real estate agent told me I could get for my New York apartment in late 1999 was so much higher than what I originally paid for it, I decided to sell. It made a certain amount of sense. I figured that the dot-com boom that was driving real estate prices higher couldn’t last. I thought I might want to stay on the West Coast. I thought I might want ultimately to buy a place somewhere else and fantasized about a beach house somewhere in Marin County. It was all semi-rational.
What I didn’t understand at the time about selling my home was how much having a home meant to me. The irony doesn’t escape me. I had sacrificed my own home to launch a magazine that was all about other people’s homes.
Early in the process of developing Dwell, we gave it a tagline: “At Home in the Modern World.” Meanwhile, I was adrift in the modern world. I rented a large, elegant, art deco San Francisco apartment, overlooking the bay from a Pacific Heights hilltop. With its sunken bathtub and sun-filled living room, it was more beautiful than any apartment in which I’d ever lived, but it wasn’t home. I missed the Variety Photoplay sign and the roar of Third Avenue.
All told, I lived for three years in a city in which I felt myself to be, in some deep, existential way, homeless.
During that period I dedicated myself to learning about every single architect, designer, developer, or homeowner in America who was doing something amazing with the design, economics, technology, or aesthetics of home. That was my goal for the magazine, to showcase every new idea in residential design. And my personal goal was to figure out how avant-garde designs could be built for a price that any homebuyer could afford. Even me. Especially me.
What I quickly learned is that it was the commercial homebuilders—the companies that routinely bulldozed open desert and plopped down a brand new subdivision of Spanish or Colonial or Tudor homes—who knew how to build cheap. One of their houses might, depending on the location, easily go for $100,000 or less. But custom homes, the kind of architect-designed places that a magazine generally publishes, almost always went for upwards of half a million dollars—and often much, much more. It occurred to me that there was no challenge in building an aesthetically perfect palace if you could spend a million dollars on it. The trick was getting results for a tenth of that price.
The events of 9-11 turned my homesickness for New York, my sense of displacement, into a fever, a condition that colored my waking thoughts and actions.
One evening, after a particularly long day at the office, I went to see the movie Spider-Man. Late in the film, there’s a scene where the villain, the Green Goblin, does battle with the hero in the airspace adjacent to the Queensboro Bridge. Just as the Green Goblin gains the upper hand, a group of ur-New Yorkers, who have congregated on the bridge, begin to throw bricks and stones at him. One of them yells something like, “Hey Goblin. Leave Spiduhman alone. Yuh mess wid one New Yawkuh, yuh mess wid all of us.”
The scene made me cry. I took this as a sign. I was going home.