COOPER SQUARE, NOHO, MANHATTAN
Circa 1900 industrial loft-warehouse | Conversion of 7th floor, front space
from commercial to residential use | 2750 gross sq ft / 2000 net sq ft
PIONEERING LOFT CONVERSION IN LOWER MANHATTAN
New York City artists as real estate developers. Today, when we think of New York City real estate, we think of the The Tischmans, Silverstein Properties, Vornado, the Related Companies. But credit for the pioneering redevelopment of Lower Manhattan during the 60s and 70s arguably belongs to artists, who took old industrial lofts and converted them into living and working spaces. In the process, they turned vacant buildings into homes, blocks into neighborhoods, and created a new class of residential housing that became chic and soared in value.
During this early period, struggling sculptors, painters, photographers, dancers, and musicians needed cheap space in which to work and rehearse, and leased lofts for studio use in vacant industrial buildings in what were then desolate, dangerous, risqué neighborhoods throughout Lower Manhattan. To save even more money, artists eventually began moving into them altogether and converting them into residences. The leases were commercial, with no residential tenant protections. The agreements with landlords were sometimes based on nothing more than a handshake.
It was in this environment that Michael, one of dwellstead's founding principals, learned about restoring and converting buildings and neighborhoods.
During Michael senior year at Cooper Union’s Art School in 1976, he decided to build his own living/working loft. He paid $3,000 for the right to a classmate’s lease (this was called "key money") on Cooper Square and set about converting what was a relatively raw loft into a habitable space in an industrial warehouse.
Michael knew a bit about carpentry, electrical work, and plumbing—having picked it up from his grandfather in his high school years. This space tested all those skills and gave him a lesson he never forgot: that vacant, neglected historic buildings could acquire new life by becoming comfortable homes within which to live and work, that this could be done affordably, and that these rehabilitated buildings could become anchors in the renewal of their neighborhoods.
The rent, although only $331 a month for more than 2,750 gross sq ft, was expensive for those days, so Michael built 3 bedrooms so he could have roommates to share expenses.
The building had two residential units and a sound studio occupying 11,000 of the 49,000 square feet. The rest of the building was empty.
The front seventh floor (top) unit that Michael acquired was virtually "raw" space:
A completely open plan, with plastic curtains hung from the ceiling dividing the space into "rooms".
A floor with decades of parakeet seed and poop ground into the floorboard gaps
Drafty windows that did not close tightly
An industrial fan in one window
A bathroom across the hall
A "kitchen" that included a 1920's oven and stove, a 1950's fridge, a laundry room sink and a shower stall
A very leaky, rusting tin ceiling
Brick walls with decades of coats of lead paint
Non-code compliant electrical
Non-code compliant plumbing
A manual elevator
The neighborhood was sketchy at best, even though it was across the street from The Cooper Union, a world-class school of science, engineering, art and architecture
Michael never bothered to document all the work that he did on this loft or any of the others he worked on in those days. The picture below is the only one surviving, taken a few weeks into construction by a photographer classmate and friend, after one of the roommates had already started moving in (too much of) his stuff.
< He's not usually this
grumpy looking. Really.
The first round of construction work done on the loft included:
Gutting almost all the previous tenant's work
Removing the industrial fan
Negotiating the cost of new window installation with the landlord: Michael paid 1/3 of the $3,000 cost
Power-washing the floor
Framing out three bedrooms, a kitchen area and a shower room
Re-installing the electrical
Redoing the kitchen plumbing
Installing all sheetrock, spackling and compound
Painting the tin ceiling white (to brighten up the place with a lighter reflective surface) as well as the walls, including covering the old (likely lead-based) paint on the brick wall
Installing an "intercom" system that consisted of a button screwed next to the entrance door of the building, with a wire running up the facade of the building to a buzzer inside the north window (When a friend pressed the buzzer, Michael would throw the key down to him or her in a paper bag to let them in).
Building bookcases for a library
A later round of construction included sanding down the floors and finishing them with 4 coats of industrial strength oil based polyurethane (the stuff is illegal today: Michael's lucky his neurons are still functioning), and chemically removing the paint from the brick wall.
For Michael, the skills he developed and enhanced came in handy; for years afterward, they provided a source of steady freelance income as he went on to work on a dozen more residential loft conversions for friends, a teacher, and other artists.
FIGHTING FOR THE RIGHT TO STAY IN YOUR HOME.
By the 80s, "loft living" evolved from being an austere necessity for struggling artists into a fashionable and luxurious way for people in law, advertising, and other more lucrative professions to live in the city.
Landlords doubled and tripled rents, sometimes refusing to renew the leases altogether in an effort to force out artists, who organized and fought back. To learn more about Michael's 8-year involvement in tenant organizing, see Advocates Are Born in our blog section, but the upshot of this is that Albany passed The Loft Law. In part, it created the only class of residents who are recognized as both tenants and owner/investors.
36 COOPER GOES THROUGH ITS FINAL RESTORATION
Over the years, Michael's loft went many changes; the tin ceiling was repaired, rooms were reconfigured and the loft was otherwise remodeled depending on the needs of roommates who came and went.
Then, Michael met Liz, and they got married. Now, the loft had to be converted from a man cave to a family home with a wife and daughter.
Out came the drafting tools, the saws, the sanding machines, the router, the hammers and nails. Except this time, due to the enactment of the Loft Law, everything had to be done by the book, which took twice as long as before. The landlord's architect had to take Michael's drawings and re-draw them (Michael was not a licensed architect), the plans had to be approved by the city, and the electric and plumbing work had to be done by licensed electricians and plumbers.
Liz brings in her special touch and learns all about the kitchen triangle. Liz started reading about kitchen design and learned about functionality and materials. She made subtle but ultimately important changes that made the space more ergonomic and pleasurable to the eye and the touch. Improvements included a newly designed bathroom, custom kitchen cabinets, stainless steel appliances, a dropped ceiling with recessed lighting in the kitchen, and even more bookshelves that Michael built for his ever-growing book and vinyl LP library. When the work was finally completed it had the quality they were looking for: a warm and inviting home with an industrial edge—a space with modern features that retained much of the feel of its history. The total cost of all renovations over 40 years was approximately $60K.
THE LOFT IN ITS FINAL ITERATION
click to enlarge
By the end of the 2000s, the neighborhood had become completely gentrified and was certified as an Historic District. All traces of its desolate, dangerous, and risqué past were a distant, romantic memory, along with many amenities that made the Tribeca|SoHo|NoHo|East Village corridor special. The flea market boutiques, bodegas, book stores and art house cinemas were all vanishing, one by one. Even the Village Voice—the once-venerable progressive weekly that Michael's landlord bought and moved into the building—had skipped the neighborhood.
With rents soaring ever higher, artists and others are looking to move on (or have already done so) to other regions where communities can be built that are diverse, inclusive, affordable and that offer the room for experimentation and growth. dwellstead is an active participant in this evolution.
The Village Voice has since ended publication. All that exists is an archive maintained by a small staff...in our old home of 41 years that has now been converted into an office space.
NOHO HISTORIC DISTRICT
THE CURRENT FLOOR PLAN