NY Times on Chelsea penthouse leads me to wonder “what is a loft”?

structural columns, open space, big windows are not enough
Long-time Manhattan Loft Guy readers know that I am a loft snob, yet that I recognize that there is no universal definition (that I am aware of, at least) as to what distinguishes a “loft” from an “apartment”. Not that it should matter (much) to a buyer or a seller, whether a given space is a loft or an apartment (if the space is right, at the right price, so be it), but it matters to me as to what buildings to track sales in. For old buildings, it is usually very easy: if the building had a prior non-residential life and was converted to living spaces, that is almost always a loft building (at least for me). But new buildings (not newly converted, but newly built) are different. And require arbitrary judgments to a degree that is both necessary and uncomfortable.

But a maker of lists needs to make fine distinctions at times, as I do with the Master List of Manhattan Lofts Sold Since November 2008. I will leave for another day the question of whether I have been consistent in calling this new development a loft but that new development not a loft, and get to my point for today: I enjoyed the On Location feature in Thursday’s New York Times, with a lovely story about a married couple with living spaces on both sides of the Hudson River and a slideshow of the Chelsea penthouse she bought in 2009 and updated. Escaping to the City’s Bustle by Tim McKeogh paints a nice picture of this couple’s lifestyle as abetted by this Chelsea penthouse, with the customary slideshow for such features. Long story, short: it looks like a loft but it is not a loft, at least not for Manhattan Loft Guy (present) purposes.

We’ll get to the space and what the wife has done with it in a bit, but let me extend this taxonomy rumination.

if Chelsea House is, why not?
The wife’s (supposed) “2,400 sq ft” pied-a-tierre is a penthouse in this building, newly built in 2008 on an east Chelsea block that has seen many new developments in the last 6 years. That slideshow shows structural columns and floor-to-ceiling windows; there’s no floor plan that I can find for her penthouse but the pix show a large open living / dining / kitchen space. Our data-base says ceilings in the building are “not less than 9 feet four inches”.

The development is similar to the newly built in 2005 Chelsea House, 130 West 19 Street, in which I track sales on the Master List: big windows and open spaces, as you see in the pix for this unit that sold last month above $1,500/ft (unadjusted for the “300 sq ft” terrace); what you can’t see in those pix is the (single) structural support element in the main room; and, yes, our data-base says ceilings in the building range from 9 feet to 9’4”. As I say, I have been tracking Chelsea House sales from the beginning of the Master List, somewhat arbitrarily, I will admit. I can’t find it now, but I am pretty sure that I included the new building at 130 West 19 Street but not the building on West 22 Street because Chelsea House was marketed as selling “lofts” and the other one was not.

There is clearly a slippery slope for how closely new construction mimics classic loft buildings and interiors. Most Tribeca new construction explicitly uses loft visual and structural elements, and are marketed as “lofts”. This pair in Chelsea highlight the problem: if (as I recall) Chelsea House on West 19 Street was marketed as “lofts” and this West 22 Street building was not, does The Market treat them differently? I don’t know, but I tend to doubt it in this case. In general, I believe that people looking for “lofts” will look at spaces marketed as “lofts” and not at spaces marketed differently, even though these two Chelsea buildings are probably natural competitors.

Note to self … (you knew this was coming, right?), (a) find other buildings straddling this taxonomic border, and (b) re-think whether I should be tracking this West 22 Street as a loft-equivalent in The Market. Sigh….

the wife’s $190,000 renovation
Other than the yellow wall and the “crystallized glass catwalk” (I have never seen a catwalk on the floor below, but maybe I still have things to learn…) it is hard to find evidence of “renovation” in the wife’s penthouse., as opposed to decor, furnishings and that lovely built-in cabinetry in the living room. Unfortunately, there are no “before” photos from the listing when the wife bought it in 2009.

Here is the story the her-New-York-his-New-Jersey couple told the New York Times:

The Littmans bought the apartment for just under $4 million in 2009, and Ms. Littman spent about two years and $190,000 transforming it into the minimalist space of her dreams, in collaboration with Robert D. Henry, a New York architect.


Renovated to reflect Ms. Littman’s tastes, the apartment is now “really my spot,” she said. “When I look out the window, I just love being part of the city. It’s the energy here that’s always been something for me.”

I mention this duplex penthouse for sale in the same building because you can see what the space probably looked like when it was new. Note the significant difference in the stairway after renovation: very sleek, very minimalist, with a different bannister. It also looks as though she dropped her ceiling to an even height in the entire main room, as the other penthouse has a beamed ceiling along the living room, protruding light fixtures in that room, and a dropped ceiling with high hats over the kitchen. It looks as though she either put in a wall of (open) closets in the master suite, or replaced the doors on an existing closet with drapery.

I bet the $190,000 “renovation” included the custom cabinetry and the $15,000 sofa. Nice space, isn’t it? (Two years??)

does everyone exaggerate about their real estate?
I think we have seen this before in New York Times reports based solely on what owners tell the reporter. I bet she got the number of children and grandchildren right; not so sure about other stuff, except I know she is wrong about two things:

69-year-old mother of three and grandmother of six, has a sunny new 2,400-square-foot Chelsea penthouse to call her own. “This is my escape,” she said.  

From that listing from 2009: “2,324 sq ft”. Not a dramatic difference, but still.

Note the price they claim: “just under $4 million”; compare the deed price: $4,225,000, off an ask of $4,650,000. A more dramatic difference, no?

So I have spent time on this holiday weekend beating up on a grandmother for exaggerating the size and price of her pied-a-tierre (while giving props for her renovation and decorating choices) and agonizing over whether her “apartment” might really be a “loft”. You’d think I’d have better things to do, getting ready for a second night seder while also preparing for Easter dinner tomorrow.

But I’m already pretty much prepared for those meals! So you get me wandering around Chelsea, comparing photos, and having an anxiety attack about arbitrary labels. Deal with it (or not). Good pesach and Happy Easter to anyone who relates to those things. (For the rest of you: enjoy the lovely weekend.)

© Sandy Mattingly 2012

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