A Dream Home Undone by Divorce

By PENELOPE GREEN / N.Y. Times

Published: November 4, 2009
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ON HER WAY Leslie Williams is leaving her sleek loft. / Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times

WELCOME to home interrupted, Leslie Williams said, opening the door to what appeared to be just the opposite: a bright TriBeCa loft with near-lapidary finishes.

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Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times

The 14-foot table, made in anticipation of large family gatherings, will stay behind. More Photos »

A slight, blue-jean clad figure, Ms. Williams padded barefoot past the smoky green onyx panel and the Venetian plastered walls in the front hall, where old-fashioned filament bulbs hung like giant fireflies from the ceiling. There were 19th-century wallpapers and 60’s era fixtures designed by Arne Jacobsen, hand-made beech kitchen cabinets and pickled maple floors, and a 14-foot ash table that marched alongside a white-washed brick wall.

It was the kind of place many New Yorkers dream about, the sort of impossibly beautiful apartment movie directors cast as home for “arty” characters who would more likely be living in a cold-water collective in Bushwick in the real world.

For a time, it was Ms. Williams’s dream home. She and her husband, both of whom are in television production, moved in two days before Christmas in 2007 after a renovation, at the time not yet complete, that had already taken about a year.

Two weeks later, Ms. Williams’s husband moved out. He was done, he told his wife, with the renovation, and the marriage.

Perhaps there were unseen fissures in the marriage that the stress of the renovation cracked wide open; perhaps the 14-year relationship had run its course. Whatever Tolstoyan truth Ms. Williams and her husband embodied is not the subject of this story. (He has asked not to be mentioned by name.)

This tale begins with Ms. Williams, alone in a nearly finished loft with 200 cardboard boxes. For it fell to her to finish the apartment by herself, gussying it up for sale so it could be someone else’s dream home. And as universal as Ms. Williams’s experience may be — Harriet N. Cohen, a Manhattan matrimonial lawyer, calls it “the renovation divorce” — its resolution is unique.

First, the apartment sold for not too much less than the asking price of $2.6 million, even in the lousy market over the summer, going into contract after a few weeks. (By contrast, Ms. Cohen told of gruesome scenarios ramped up by the tanking economy: one divorcing couple, who lost their jobs in the midst of the proceedings, are stuck, she said, with “the marvelous apartment that won’t sell, and the bank is foreclosing and the co-op is evicting”; in another instance, one spouse is buying out the other at the appraiser’s valuation, which is considerably less than the amount they invested to buy and renovate it.)

More important, as rueful and regretful as Ms. Williams, 53, still feels, she is on balance hopeful about the new life that has been afforded her.

“I’ve put a lot of my life in a box to be married,” she said. “I’m taking the box down. I’m going to India. I want to go to Egypt.”

“It was nice to be here once it was all fixed up,” she admitted. “A tiny piece of me wishes I could stay here forever. But as my mother said, ‘A house is only four walls. You can’t tear your heart out.’ ”

THREE years ago, Ms. Williams, her husband and her daughter from a previous marriage, Quincy Kevan, who is now a college senior, were living in a rental loft in the West Village. When the landlord wanted their place for someone else, they looked for a place to buy. It was an opportunity, Ms. Williams said, to put their stamp on a home.

What would it look like and feel like to design a place from scratch?

Ms. Williams, whose first job in television was as a wardrobe and personal assistant to Pee-wee Herman, had been collecting objects for years — like huge globe light fixtures from Laurel, a ’60s-era manufacturer. “She’s a great collaborator and had all these great ideas,” said Laura Gottwald, who designed the TriBeCa loft with the architects Maria Ibanez and Todd Rouhe.

“The architects made this beautiful plan,” continued Ms. Gottwald, an interior and furniture designer, describing bedrooms built a step up from the common areas, with sliding doors made from different materials. “It was about exploring ideas about what it means to be a family, or how a family changes, what’s public, what’s private. It was almost like a Case Study house, in that it examined how people really want to live now.”

They had seen about 50 places, Ms. Williams said, before they found “this hippy haven” on North Moore Street. “There was a wooden hot tub on a platform — everything smelled like chlorine. There was lattice everywhere, a huge mahogany bar.”

It was goofy, she added, “but it had a really good vibe. You could tell it was a place where people had been happy. It just needed the layers stripped away.”

It was 2,100 square feet, and they bought it for $2.12 million, at the top of the market. Unfortunately, others in the building were moving in as well, and at the point Ms. Williams and her husband began their renovation, which ended up costing about $500,000 (at least 20 percent more than they had budgeted), so did two other new owners.

“It was horrible,” Ms. Williams said. “It was very traumatic. The stars had aligned for a huge explosion.”

The money was pouring out, she said, but worse, for her, was the physical chaos. Because the building was old and tiny — a ’70s-era co-op with few residents, no real construction rules at that point and a minuscule elevator — and because there were three renovations happening at once, the building, and its residents, began to show the strain. “Everybody in the building was mad and rightly so, and it really started to feel out of control,” said Ms. Williams, who was becoming more and more agitated. A turning point was the day she walked in and discovered a construction worker urinating in her daughter’s bathtub.

“I freaked out,” she said, while her husband became “more and more quiet. It’s hard to know what was going on for him. It got to the point where he’d say, ‘Let’s go down and take a look at the work,’ and I couldn’t. I almost felt like I wasn’t going to be able to live there.”

Her husband, she has since deduced, interpreted her agitation as unwillingness to participate in the project. “My way of handling it was running for cover,” she said. “His way was to get in there and push through. It seemed like a good pairing, but there was a lot of emotion and the move was horrible and we were both beaten up by the process. All of a sudden he stopped talking. Somewhere along the way he made a decision, but I didn’t know it was in the works.”

When he left, she remembers him saying, “If we hurry, we can get this done in three weeks.” He was not referring to the renovation.

After that, communication was terse, conducted through e-mail, and concerned money only.

All that winter, Ms. Williams dug in at work, which was her haven in a way the apartment — not yet a “home” — could not be. Construction was ongoing, and she still owned the loft with her husband. (The maintenance and mortgage were too high for either Ms. Williams or her husband to carry alone, she said, and she had asked her husband to wait until Quincy finished her junior year of college before putting the place on the market.)

At 7:30 most mornings, “three guys and their lunch would appear, and there’s me and my nightgown.” She’d put in a 10- or 12-hour-day at her job as an associate director on the “Rachael Ray” show, come home, sidle around the boxes, hold the dog (Ruby, a 7-year-old Yorkie) and watch “Law & Order.”

There were tears, but only at home. She told no one at work, or in the building, about her separation.

“It’s embarrassing when your husband dumps you,” she said. “It’s shameful. You wonder if you are as bad as they think you are.”

Five months went by. It wasn’t until Quincy was due back from college in May 2008 that Ms. Williams roused herself with a marathon of unpacking, though she kept a “giant island” of boxes by the windows.

By Thanksgiving, she had fully rallied. There were 22 for dinner, including her mother, Quincy and Quincy’s father, and college students Ms. Williams had been mentoring. The still-unopened boxes by the window were covered in a white tablecloth and made a pretty nice bar, she said. It was the first time anyone had sat at the long table, and in Ms. Williams’s mind, it exorcized the bad feelings that had blanketed her.

“It was a good way to say, ‘O.K., this place is for human beings,’ ” she said.

By spring, the loft was finished, and in June, she called Richard Orenstein, a Halstead broker, who has made a specialty of TriBeCa real estate. “I said, ‘I’ve been watching your career. My husband and I are splitting. It’s been horrible, but I have a really amazing space and I need to have it shown by someone with good taste.’ ”

Mr. Orenstein wasn’t fazed. “Divorce is as old as the hills,” he said, and in real estate, it’s a constant.

“It can be very acrimonious. Sometimes couples use the broker to get back at each other,” he continued. “This was different. They are both realists and they wanted to get the place sold for the best price possible in a tough market.”

Which it did. Next month, a young couple will move in, which Ms. Williams feels is a nice resolution. “I’m trying to do everything right, so when they move in it will be positive,” she said. “If I can do that, then it’s good for me.”

Her own plans are not finalized, but she is circling in on two rental apartments, where she would have a friend on the same floor.

“I have a lot of regrets,” she said, explaining that the renovation brought out the most basic differences between herself and her husband — their ideas about money, their long-term goals, all the big stuff.

“I regret that we bought the apartment and tackled such a big project when clearly our relationship needed to be attended to. I regret that I wasn’t better at handling the stress of the renovation and at not taking my stress out on my husband. I regret not being better at handling the money part of the renovation.”

Still, she is looking forward. Maybe in a year or so, she’ll find a place in Brooklyn, a house she can do on a budget, with friends; a place where her mother could live too, with room for a garden.

“I’m thinking, ‘commune,’ and I’m ready,” she said. “Let’s go!”

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3 thoughts on “A Dream Home Undone by Divorce

  1. Dave says:

    Zoom, that’s a weird article. Why is it always the contractor’s fault when something doesn’t go right in a renovation? Most people don’t have a clue what they’re in for when undertaking major home renovations and the contractor is always to blame because, of course , “the customer is always right”. Balderdash! Boo-hoo that someone has to walk around boxes for a couple of months, as that would certainly destroy any marriage. Anyone with $500K to renovate their trendy NYC loft (which they may not even own ) needs a reality check. Spoiled, arrogant and useless Yuppies, the lot of them! Go contractors!! Suck ’em dry!!

  2. lornakismet says:

    What’s the matter Dave? Didn’t get your saucer of milk tonight? Tsk. 🙂
    Zoom

  3. Dave says:

    Har,har Zoom. Just had my milk. It’ll keep me calm until I have to deal with the ghosts in my room later this evening. 🙂

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