La Garçonniere


LOCATION Upper West Side

PRICE $115,000 in 1999 [$600 maintenance]

SQUARE FEET 450 [one-bedroom co-op in adjoining turn-of-the-century Queen Anne row houses]

OCCUPANT Scott Butler [medical supply sales, lead aprons]

Your old-world gas lamps are flickering outside the building but there are no lights in the hallway. A deliveryman with a bottle in a brown bag for some woman was too scared to go up the stairs. The hall lights are out.

Are the gas lamps . . . A mother and daughter owned these two adjoining row houses at the turn of the century. The attic had a pass-through so they only had to have one set of servants. In the ’70s, an investor bought the buildings, gutted every single thing, even the floors. He made 22 units. In ’85, it became a co-op. Then, you could only buy these apartments with cash because the building was in such financial straits, no bank would give loans. When I bought this, they were turning the corner. I did not have to pay cash. Initially, I was renting this apartment. My owner lived in Rockland. She was unable for years to sell. She said, Scott, how would you like to buy the apartment and we’ll waive the broker’s fees. [Phone rings.] Judy, it’s completely dark in here. That’s the property manager dealing with the lights.

Where do the gas lamps . . . I immediately said no thank you. I’d just sold this condo in California where I lost $40,000. It lost value. I’d gotten a special government loan for first-time homeowners. They were trying to get people to buy in an area that was, ah, up-and-coming. I’d lived in California for 30 years.

Why did you move here? A job. The only reason you should go to New York is if somebody else is paying for it. Otherwise it’s stupid. I told her, I don’t want to buy. She said, You’re not doing the game. You’re supposed to counter-offer. I’m saying, Go away. She said, I’ll lower the price. So I said OK. This same apartment is between $400,000 and $500,000 today. The whole building loved me. They asked me to be on the board while I was a renter. Here’s a New Yorker cover from May 14, 1984—a drawing of these buildings.

All pink and blue. What about the gas lamps? There were existing poles where there used to be gas. I said, I’ll look into getting replacements. The lamps go 365 days a year. It’s like a gas stove that never goes out. Ours is an actual flame. The process was a big rigmarole. We were grandfathered because we were repairing existing gas lamps which hadn’t been used in years. You can’t put new ones in, only maintain one that exists. We’ve got the only gas lamps on the Upper West Side. There are a lot in Park Slope.

More importantly, Joan Bennett stands under one in Scarlet Street. New York was all oil lamps until gas came in the 1820s. Electric light came in the 1880s. Did you ever hear of the Transnational Lighting Detectives, a crack, Japan-based organization that runs around checking lights and levels in Singapore and other big cities and writing eloquently on the subject? You should see their book. Now, all I can think about are lights. Scandinavian countries have the blue moment, when a highly transparent blue afterglow can last for hours. Copenhagen values light so highly, since they have so little natural light that when darkness comes, incandescent lights go on little by little. Tokyo loves uniform, naked white light—even homes have one big fluorescent ceiling fixture. White light increases anxiety, they say. New York’s street standard is high-pressure sodium, good for crime scenes. Does it cost extra to have gas lamps? Less than $100 a month. They serve no function, purely decorative.

What about your country house in Gallatin, near Hudson? I got it in 2002. It’s from the ’70s.

Here are photographs. You have a red barn, too. It was actually a garage. I painted it. I call the house itself La Garçonniere. In New Orleans, that was the bachelor’s quarters in the back of the main house, where the men smoked and drank and cussed.

Are you comfortable in that northern landscape? It’s so dark and Dutch. It’s not dark. There’s no more Dutch.