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)
Manhattan’s oldest house is the Morris-Jumel Mansion, a Palladian hilltop manse that served as George Washington’s headquarters in the autumn of 1776. Overlooking the Harlem River, the Bronx, and the Long Island Sound, the home’s 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, we’re closed. But he’s brought people and they don’t 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 building’s 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 Mansion’s selling point is that “Washington Slept Here” (Aaron Burr did, too, though Morrisjumel.org’s History Section gives George top billing), then Sylvan Terrace’s 21st-century slogan might be “Steve Buscemi’s 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 that’s an estimated 1,500 square feet. “Our landlord doesn’t 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 studio—as Penguin Prison, he’s 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 Michael’s Broadway Video. But even in such a typically overstuffed workspace as a home studio, there isn’t a hint of clutter. “I like to throw things away,” he explains. “If I throw something away today, a year from now, I’ll never remember I had it. I mean, I’m not going to throw away a guitar. But you don’t need that much.”
The impulse to discard—or willingness to move on, depending—has also characterized Glover’s 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 Glover’s studio.) That last project was a joke, but Glover’s Interscope-sponsored solo jaunt as a corndog r&b emcee in a starched collar, blazer, and sneakers wasn’t. “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, Glover’s recent metamorphosis into a kewpie-haired synth-pop frontman is a direct consequence of something he didn’t trash. A while back, his friend Alex Frankel from the DFA dance band Holy Ghost! was rummaging through Glover’s 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 don’t even care if there’s sound,” Glover admits. The Charleston, South Carolina, date earlier this year drew “the rowdiest crowd I’ve ever played to—they were just going crazy.” That isn’t at all indicative of his home life, he swears, even though there’s a pyramid of Knob Creek bourbon bottles downstairs in the kitchen. It’s his girlfriend’s birthday on Friday, they’re having a party, and they’ll 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 they’re coming here, ‘Oh, I’m 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.”