Penguin Prison's Sylvan Terrace Home: Like Boardwalk Empire Without the Whores
Chris Glover in his Sylvan Terrace living room. More photos of Penguin Prison's headquarters here.
Shelter is a column about New Yorkers and the places they call home. Last time, we went to Victorian Flatbush to visit indie filmmakers Kasia Kowalczyk and Tal Harris.
Location: Washington Heights, Manhattan
Size: About 1,500 square feet
Rent: $1,900 a month
Occupant: Chris Glover (musician)
Manhattans oldest house is the Morris-Jumel Mansion, a Palladian hilltop manse that served as George Washingtons headquarters in the autumn of 1776. Overlooking the Harlem River, the Bronx, and the Long Island Sound, the homes lofty perch made it an ideal strategic base against the British. So as a city museum since 1903, it has become sort of a historical dead zone that draws Revolutionary War hounds and camera-carrying rubberneckers from half a world away. And when Chris Glover, a 29-year-old who lives on an adjacent block, knocks on the locked front door after visiting hours, the first thing the motherly attendant wants to know, before she decides whether or not to send him away is, Where are you coming from?
Glover smirks, offers, Down the street? She sighs. Then you can come back, were closed. But hes brought people and they dont live around here, he appeals. Against her better judgment, she lets everyone inside.
Glover has brought us up here for two reasons: 1) to show us where he sometimes comes to hang out, specifically, in the encircling park around the buildings perimeter; 2) that proximity to this place is another reason he likes living where he does, around the corner on Sylvan Terrace. If the Morris-Jumel Mansions selling point is that Washington Slept Here (Aaron Burr did, too, though Morrisjumel.orgs History Section gives George top billing), then Sylvan Terrace's 21st-century slogan might be Steve Buscemis HBO Mistress Lived Here. The secluded block of 20 wooden houses appeared on Boardwalk Empire last season, as a whore row where protagonist Nucky Thompson moved his lover. As a Prohibition-era backdrop, the former carriageway is a perfect relic: More than 100 years after the street was first built, the narrow stretch that connects St. Nicholas Avenue and Jumel Terrace seems like a fossilized alley, all symmetrical clapboard and quaint porches and cobblestone path, with no parking and little foot traffic.
Glover, a New York City native who records electro-pop under the name Penguin Prison, moved to Sylvan Terrace four years ago with his girlfriend, after he saw the rental listed on a website. I just got lucky, he says. Together, they pay $1,900 a month for the three-bedroom/two-bathroom duplex rowhouse thats an estimated 1,500 square feet. Our landlord doesnt charge as much as he could, I think, surmises Glover. (A few doors down, a real-estate-agent neighbor put her 1,650-square-foot version on the market for $875,000 last year.) I guess the landlord likes us?
The couple has been delicate with the place. Both levels are supremely neat, an untouched canvas of high ceilings and white walls. Upstairs, Chris has converted one of the bedrooms into a soundproofed home studioas Penguin Prison, hes been living off tour revenue and remix jobs for the past few months after leaving a job at Sandblast Productions, a music division of Lorne Michaels Broadway Video. But even in such a typically overstuffed workspace as a home studio, there isnt a hint of clutter. I like to throw things away, he explains. If I throw something away today, a year from now, Ill never remember I had it. I mean, Im not going to throw away a guitar. But you dont need that much.
The impulse to discardor willingness to move on, dependinghas also characterized Glovers creative life. I always wanted to be a musician, he admits, an ambition that led him to Star Search at 12, a gospel-choir stint as a kid with Alicia Keys, and singing jingles for hire as a teenager. But then he rejected harmony, threw himself into punk, and joined a Long Island band. He soon left that behind, too, by forming a fake boy band in college with two friends called The Smartest People at Bard. (An old black-and-white photo of the trio in varying degrees of undress is tacked up in Glovers studio.) That last project was a joke, but Glovers Interscope-sponsored solo jaunt as a corndog r&b emcee in a starched collar, blazer, and sneakers wasnt. It was a little too crazy for them, I guess, he says now of his major-label run as a hip-hop troubadour under his own name. He eventually scrapped that approach, too.
Amusingly, Glovers recent metamorphosis into a kewpie-haired synth-pop frontman is a direct consequence of something he didnt trash. A while back, his friend Alex Frankel from the DFA dance band Holy Ghost! was rummaging through Glovers stuff and discovered a vintage mini-keyboard, the Mattel-manufactured BeeGees Rhythm Machine. They started fooling around with cheesy disco-beat setting and came up with the first Penguin Prison song, Golden Train. Glover liked the sound and kept writing in that style; he has since recruited people to join him in playing live for the project. Now, Penguin Prison songs are on the BBC One playlist and Glover just returned from a Southern tour with one-man mash-up megalith Girl Talk.
Girl Talk shows are far more dance party than performance, the sorts of crowd-detonating blitzkriegs in which everyone gets hit with more ass than a toilet seat. Kids there just want to dance and get drunk. They dont even care if theres sound, Glover admits. The Charleston, South Carolina, date earlier this year drew the rowdiest crowd Ive ever played tothey were just going crazy. That isnt at all indicative of his home life, he swears, even though theres a pyramid of Knob Creek bourbon bottles downstairs in the kitchen. Its his girlfriends birthday on Friday, theyre having a party, and theyll be serving Manhattans along with a drink in honor of their home: the Sylvan, a concoction of vodka, lime, elderflower, and cucumber.
The only drawback of living so far uptown, Glover admits, is that Washington Heights is far away from where his friends live. You kind of end up not going out that much and just staying in, he concedes, more of an acknowledgment than a complaint. People joke when theyre coming here, Oh, Im going upstate! Oh, I gotta get on a plane, catch a flight, to go visit Chris. What do people say when they finally make it up here? Wow, you have so much space.
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