Shelter, a column about New Yorkers and the places they call home, ran in this paper from 1997 to 2006. To relaunch the feature, which will run here online weekly, we’ve assembled five portraits of New Yorkers at home.
Location Mariners Harbor, Staten Island
Price $390,000 in 2009
Size 2,500 square feet presently; 6,500 eventually
Occupants Biagio Pergolizzi (operating engineer), Kristen Steinman (textile maker), Nadia Szold (filmmaker)
From the exterior, the Captain Barnes mansion looks like a madman’s lair, a hulking, paint-flaking white-brick facade. Open the front door of the Staten Island manse, and you half-expect to find either Boo Radley’s Italian cousin or the taloned ghost of Howard Hughes, naked, lost in a movie reel, pink napkin covering his junk.
Instead, you discover Biagio Pergolizzi, fully clothed in a white dress shirt, blue jeans, and tan Crocs. Hair tied into a ponytail, the 27-year-old is instantly gregarious, so eager to give a tour of the 1850s house—named for its original owner, prosperous 19th-century oyster captain Stephen D. Barnes—that he’s like a pet waiting to be walked.
Pergolizzi, who admits that he has “a very good job” as a Local 15 member of the International Union of Operating Engineers—they’re the guys who run heavy equipment, “a true aristocracy of labor on construction sites,” as Tom Robbins once categorized them in this paper—was looking for a “fixer-upper” when he came across the listing for the Captain Barnes. Since there’s still fire damage from the late ’70s, the landmarked property was advertised as a “burned-out shell,” but 2,500 square feet for an offer of $390,000? With a 12-by-20-by-40-foot saltwater pool and a 30-foot well? “As soon as I saw it, in my mind, it was mine.”
At first, Biagio had no idea what he would do with it. He contemplated turning the “beast of a house” into a crazy speakeasy oyster-bar, a bed-and-breakfast inverse (“dinner and bed”) where reserved guests could spend the night slurping wine and shellfish, then traipse upstairs and drift off to sleep. There would also be a naked woman in the tub in that incarnation, always bathing, “just because.” There was also talk of turning the place into a haunted house or a celebrity rehab center. But at the moment, the Captain Barnes mansion has become a vessel for Biagio’s wildest domestic dreams.
Take, for example, the housewarming party he threw in October 2009. No expense was spared: There were 700 shucked oysters, 100 guests, and a tabletop oyster-shell ice sculpture. A limousine shuttled visitors back and forth to the ferry, a hired bouncer watched the dog and the front door, and a bartending staff from the Lower East Side joint Piano’s kept glasses full. A Balkan brass band materialized, after the witching hour, and waded through the strappy heels and black ties. At one point, there were fireworks.
The night also had a title: the Prima Festa (Italian for “first party”). To commemorate the occasion, the Middlebury College alum produced a DVD for all his guests. In the slideshow of photo highlights, you can see a glowingly exuberant Biagio, surrounded by bow ties, slicked-back hair, and at least one leopard-print dress, frozen in a semi-permanent state of ebullient toast. Outfitted in a suit jacket and a cartoony top hat, Biagio looks like Shaolin’s answer to Slash. The accompanying credits are equally exaggerated, citing Biagio as producer and director, acknowledging the guy who cut lemons all night by name (Thomas Gardner), and ascribing security to Brutus Barnes Pergolizzi (Biagio’s Doberman pinscher).
Biagio’s plans for the four floors are constantly changing. At the moment, he works on the house all day; spends his nights operating machinery at Ground Zero, where he makes the money to fund the renovations; and is focused on making the place into an artists’ colony-type retreat for four of “just the right people. Like-minded. Big beds.”
The attic: Currently a graveyard for surveillance equipment (“If I ever want to open a casino, I’ve got all these high-speed cameras”), the top of a combusted Ferrari (“If you ever get a flat tire, don’t just keep going”), and a gargantuan autographed Ricky Martin poster rescued from a demolished Tower Records (“I thought maybe it was going to be worth something, but nobody wanted it”), the attic will become some sort of studio.
Upstairs: Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a sitting room with a mahogany couch of original horsehair upholstery. “I’m not building for me,” he clarifies. “I feel like I’m building for my son’s son’s son or daughter’s daughter’s daughter.”
Ground floor: The front dining room, which includes a sponge bust of Neptune, will stay the same. What’s now the kitchen will be a bar, just for the house, because “that’s how we roll.” A gilded California King–size bed-platform that’s loosely modeled after Louis XIV’s last sleeping quarters will probably get a dance pole and become a stage. “I’m not kidding—these are things that not only am I capable of doing but possibly will do,” Biagio insists. “Most homeowners like this are 50 to 60 years old and they pay a contractor to do this stuff. Me, there’s nothing that I can’t do. And if I can’t do it, I’ll figure it out.”
Basement: The brick oven is already installed. In addition, Biagio envisions a smoking room, a wine cellar, a gym, an aquarium with something exotic. (“Maybe like octopus, jellyfish, or a seahorse?”) A hot tub done in white marble dust, with a map of the world engraved on the bottom. “And I will just be sitting here, with my feet on the world.”