Former Garage


Location Stapleton Heights (Staten Island)

Price $180,000 (2001)

Square feet 2550

Occupants Jim Svetz (co-owner, the Muddy Cup Coffee House), Robb Huddleston (co-owner, the Muddy Cup; talent coordinator, Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting)

I just want to say that coming into port is always so exciting, though this morning it was Staten Island, not Hong Kong, and the cargo was people, not spices. Oh, well. The bus driver at the ferry knew where your Muddy Cup café was. We’re starting off this conversation in the café because, one, it’s less than a block from your home and, two, it might as well be your home, with the yellow mantel, maroon walls, puffy rose and green brocade couches, and the 1940s V-is-for-Victory photo of Robb’s North Carolina grandparents—their heads are surrounded by flags. So Jim, as you wrap up the plate of Rice Krispies Treats with Saran wrap, tell me who is the man with his feet up, watching the Today show on the big TV. [Jim] That’s Bob, our former landlord. He lives in a house built in 1840 where we lived for four years until we moved a month ago to the former garage nearby. This building, with the café, is from 1920. It used to be Weinmann’s Bakery. We got this wood-and-glass counter out of an old general store near Albany. We went to Delaware to get the upright piano. We have at least 20 musicians rotating in and out of here. No one knew how many artists were in this area until we opened September 1. We’re about 10 minutes from the ferry. People say they can’t believe this isn’t the West Village. The Education of Max Bickford show is shooting at our café. Richard Dreyfuss’s character has a daughter who’s going to college. They think it looks like Massachusetts here.

As we walk to your real house, I realize that not only did you renovate and open a café in September, but you also bought your house a month later. Now you’re renovating that. And then there was September 11. [Robb] In between, we went to Europe to research cafés.

You are wonder men! Your house—well, former garage—is like a bowling alley. It’s so long. [Jim] We found it because we were researching commercial spaces in the area. We want more people to open businesses here. We liked it so much, we decided to buy it to live in. It’s zoned for residential and commercial. In 1931, it was a garage for a giant Victorian house. The house is gone now. [Robb] When we moved in, we had to dismantle a 20-by-20-foot walk-in freezer, with a crowbar. [Jim] There was a fish distributor here at some point. [Robb] The smell! I had to scrub everything! [Jim] Then, just before we bought it, a church was going to be here, until they found out they couldn’t hold public assemblies. They’d already made this raised platform area.

Where you have your bed. You two are the epitome of conversion. [Robb] Nothing’s sacred with us. [Jim] As you come in, we’re going to put up a wall of old sash windows to set off the entrance hall. The windows are from the house across from Bob’s. A waterfall will come down over here. It will run 24 hours a day. There will be a little trough. [Robb] A koi pond is going on the south end. Wait, you’re standing on it. [Jim] All this is not going to happen in a month. [Robb] We get inspired every day.

You painted the walls sandy beige—patchyeffect—and the floors like the maroon walls of the café. [Jim] I love dark red. The floor paint is called Balmoral. It’s Ralph Lauren. When we showed everybody the paint chip for thecoffeehouse, the whole neighborhood said, Oh, it’s too dark. Oh, it means anger. Then we opened. They said, Oh, it’s so great. [Robb] People just don’t have vision nowadays. In the front hall here, we tore out the wooden subfloor; there was dirt underneath. I found a 1910 liberty dime and little ivory dice. I haven’t been able to get anything done because I spend hours digging. I’d hate to see us when we’re 70 years old. We’re so eccentric already.