High on the Hog

The McCalls’ Splendiferous Government-Appointed Penthouse

The wife of State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, a man who would be governor, has created a palatial penthouse for herself and her husband—largely at public expense.

Dr. Joyce Brown—president of the Fashion Institute of Technology—has spent more than half a million dollars in school funds refurnishing the rent-free apartment she shares with McCall above the college's Chelsea campus, records show.

The Brown-McCall residence is a spacious, 4254-square-foot apartment that takes up the entire top floor of an 18-story student dormitory on West 27th Street near Seventh Avenue and boasts a wraparound terrace with views of the Hudson River and lower Manhattan.

Running interference: Dr. Joyce Brown, left, and McCall's daughter, Marci, with the comptroller after McCall announced that he would be a candidate for governor.
Photographs by Keith Bedford
Running interference: Dr. Joyce Brown, left, and McCall's daughter, Marci, with the comptroller after McCall announced that he would be a candidate for governor.

It came with the job: FIT is part of the SUNY system (the State University of New York), and like other state colleges, requires its president to live on campus, providing them with rent-free housing.

But after being named president in May 1998, Brown decided the official residence needed to be made more, well, fashionable, befitting the leader of a school that has launched some of the country's top designers.

She sought and won approval to carry out an extravagant $529,000 refurbishing. To do so, she drew on the school's operating budget for $295,000 to renovate and furnish the living room, dining room, kitchen, and an office—the apartment's so-called "public" areas. She then won an additional $234,000 from a nonprofit educational foundation that raises funds for FIT projects and scholarships. That money was earmarked for the "private living space"—two bedrooms and a library.

Brown had the clout to win the backing of both boards. In addition to her post as president of FIT (salary: $146,864), she is president of the Educational Foundation for the Fashion Industries (annual stipend: $36,716).

Today, the penthouse is stocked with tens of thousands of dollars' worth of new handmade cabinets, imported rugs, and drapes. Its walls and floors have been elaborately refinished and painted. Wallpaper and ceramic tiles worth thousands have been added.

Exactly how posh the new penthouse is could not be determined, since Brown refused to let the Voice see it or be interviewed on the subject.

But those who have been there describe an apartment that would make even rag trade millionaires coo in appreciation, and one that might startle FIT's ambitious but still struggling and mostly working-class student population.

Asked about the penthouse, school officials balked for more than six weeks before providing limited details on the expenditures. Questioned about some of the eye-popping figures spent on the makeover, officials said the outlay was only a small portion of some $13 million raised by Brown since she took over.

You've got to spend dough to make dough, school officials indicated. The improvements are in the school's long-term interest since the penthouse will help woo wealthy potential donors, they maintained. But officials refused to provide any specifics on what public events have been held in the penthouse. In a written statement, the school said only that "nearly a dozen events have been scheduled to take place there," including "fund-raising dinners, cultivation events [and] public relations occasions."

At those affairs, guests will be entertained in splendor.

They will pass through new wooden doors bought and installed for nearly $24,000. They will mingle on a living room floor refinished for almost $13,000, sit in new sofas and chairs that cost $20,000, rest their feet on three rugs that cost almost $23,000, and be surrounded by $15,000 in new drapes and curtains. They will listen to music from $4000 worth of stereo equipment, and be careful placing their glasses on the coffee tables, which cost another $4000.

If the night is temperate, they will step out onto the terrace, where $13,000 in new landscaping and $2150 in outdoor furniture have been added. A glance at the kitchen will show it has been remodeled with all new fixtures: a $4500 refrigerator, another $8000 for a new stove, dishwasher, microwave, and oven. The three bathrooms have been redone with $30,000 in new ceramic floor and wall tiling and $6000 in sleek new granite vanity tops.

Not all guests will be invited to the apartment's inner sanctum ("No, I've never seen it," said one longtime staffer). But those who do will walk along a new $12,000 carpet, pass through a vestibule with a new $6000 cabinet on their way to the library/den, which boasts a $6000 "sleeping sofa," a $6500 rug, a pair of armchairs bought for $4100, and new lamps and drapes worth $15,400. (Somewhere in the vicinity is a new $435 safe.) A peek inside the master bedroom would reveal a $20,500 enhancement, almost all of it spent on new drapes. A smaller guest bedroom got short shrift with only a new $1000 bench added to the decor.

All of the work was overseen by a crew of high-paid experts: FIT graduate R. Scott Lalley, a designer with offices in New York and Palm Beach, who is known for creative color schemes, received $29,680; an architect was hired for $43,000; a construction manager got $28,000.

Such expertise was needed, FIT officials insisted, because the apartment simply wasn't livable when Brown took over. "It wasn't in any kind of living condition, and there were virtually no furnishings," said FIT spokeswoman Loretta Lawrence Keane.

Prior presidents brought their own furniture with them and took it with them when they left, said Keane. Brown, who lived in an Upper West Side condo with her husband when she was appointed, opted not to do so. As a result, new furnishings were needed, Keane explained.

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