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.
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.
Keane’s statements confused one former penthouse resident. Even before Brown’s renovations, the apartment was “fairly lavish,” according to Allan Hershfield, who lived there for five years during his term as FIT president. Hershfield, who retired in 1997, said he had heard from former colleagues about Brown’s expenditures. “It’s hard for me to imagine spending that,” he said of the spree. “It’s not something I would have done.”
Like the rest of the state’s community colleges, FIT has been buffeted by budget cuts in the past decade. The school gets about a third of its $97 million budget from the state, a third from the city, and the rest from student tuition.
But FIT officials are on their own when it comes to deciding how much can be spent on the president’s residence, according to SUNY officials. “We do not issue guidelines relative to the residences of community college presidents,” said SUNY spokesman Dave Henahan.
Teachers say the school itself could use the funds. “There is always a need for more money,” said veteran professor Lou Stollar, who teaches psychology and heads FIT’s union, the United College Employees. “There is always the need for new technology,” said Stollar. “The fashion industry designs with computers—and computers are expensive.”
Stollar said he was under the impression the penthouse renovations were limited to the living and dining room areas and that the cost was borne by the educational foundation. “That comes as a surprise to me,” said Stollar, when told that the bulk of the money was from the school’s own operating funds.
Brown herself underscored the school’s pressing needs when she announced in August 1999 that FIT had won a crucial new state grant of $300,000, which would enable it to launch new computer graphics and design instruction. She made the announcement nine months after winning board approvals to spend almost double that amount on her own apartment.
Saving state money has been the credo of Comptroller McCall, who is hoping that his progressive politics and fiscally conservative policies will propel him into the governorship next year.
A spokesman for McCall said the comptroller had no involvement in the decision to refurnish the apartment. “Any of the renovation work at the FIT apartment was done by and for the college,” said Steven Greenberg. “The comptroller played no role whatever in the changes that were made there. They were approved by the foundation’s and the college’s boards of trustees.”
In addition to the penthouse, McCall and Brown own a $1.2 million home in Dutchess County and condos on Central Park West. Brown, a youthful 54, is the first woman, and the first African American, to head the college. She came to the post with an extensive résumé as an educator and administrator. She served briefly as a deputy mayor for community affairs under former mayor David Dinkins. Her appointment as president of FIT was viewed among Albany political watchers as a temporary cease-fire between McCall and Governor Pataki, who controls a majority of the SUNY board that approved Brown for the job.
If a truce existed, it ended this year when McCall announced his candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination for governor. Despite his wife’s post in the SUNY system, McCall blasted Pataki in February for allowing politics to govern the appointments of SUNY and City University trustees.
It has not been smooth sailing for the comptroller since his announcement. Last month, McCall’s daughter from his first marriage, Marci, 37, was arrested for writing thousands of dollars in bad checks. She pled not guilty. Brown has had her controversies as well. The FIT president raised the hackles of the school’s commercial and residential neighbors with a state-funded plan that would shut West 27th Street at Seventh Avenue, making half the block a leafy campus plaza and creating a narrow cul-de-sac at the western edge (see “Plaza Sweet,” Voice, February 20).
FIT officials say all of the penthouse furnishings will remain in the college’s possession at the end of the Brown’s term. But, of course, Brown may not need them. If McCall is elected governor, he has vowed to live in the Albany mansion provided for that purpose, something Pataki, who lives in Putnam County, has declined to do. And after the long absence of full-time residents, the governor’s mansion is also said to be in need of a makeover.
FIT for a Queen
A breakdown of total spending by Dr. Joyce Brown on her West 27th Street penthouse:
Research assistance: James Wong
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 3, 2001