This article originally appeared in the September 2005 issue of ELLE DECOR. For more stories from our archive, subscribe to ELLE DECOR All Access.
I’m the kind of person who would have liked to have lived at the Plaza. I love crystal chandeliers and gold leaf, velvets and mirrors, Oriental rugs and marble. I love things that are old and glittery, that come with layers of glamour and past lives. So the moment my husband and I walked into our apartment for the first time nearly two years ago, we knew that this was it.
Built in the 1920s, reputedly as bachelor pads for well-heeled young men who were making their fortunes on Wall Street, the apartments in this Greenwich Village building had sunken living rooms, woodburning fireplaces, 11-foot ceilings, and arched windows (some even had “Juliet balconies” from which, I imagine, the bachelors could yell down to their friends on the street). Back in the 1920s, I suppose the building was considered to have every modern convenience, as there were servants’ quarters on the top floor, and, in the basement, extensive kitchens from which the young men could order dinner that was sent up in a dumbwaiter. It was all very Jeeves & Wooster, reeking of late-night parties and illicit affairs, bathtub gin, and jazz. To this day a house rule exists that no musical instruments are to be played after 8 p.m.
But this being New York City, by the time my husband, Charles, and I walked into the place nearly 80 years later, it was a wreck. The apartment hadn’t been occupied for several years, and the last person who had lived there (or, we guessed, had used it as an office), was a movie star with rather bohemian taste. The only original closets—one for coats and another for linens—had been ripped out, the kitchen had no cabinets, the dining room contained large built-ins at strange angles and heights, and the bathroom was a pitiful slot with an early model of a steam shower and, perhaps, the original toilet. “Isn’t it fantastic?” the real estate agent gushed. “I just know you’ll be able to turn this into a tiny jewel.”
I smiled gamely. While it was apparent that the apartment had “good bones,” I also knew that I had absolutely no idea what to do. My decorating and renovation skills are nil—indeed, I once used a shower curtain from Pottery Barn as “window dressing.” I immediately called my friend Susan Forristal, a glamour girl who also has good bones. A former top model turned interior designer, Susan has tastes that range from classical to contemporary, and each of her projects is different, from a townhouse in the West Village to a loft for a music executive. But Susan was more than mere decorator. While I stood gibbering in the corner, freaked out by the fact that we were going to have to do a complete renovation, Susan calmly put together a team consisting of a contractor and an architect and became, in a sense, the project manager.
The first step was to restore the elements of the apartment that had been taken out, and then to rejigger the proportions of the bathroom, bedroom, and dining room to allow for closets. (It seems that the closet, along with the television, blender, and V-12 engine, is an invention that took place as recently as our parents’ generation.) I am very happy to say that, despite lacking any skill in geometry, I was the one who figured out how to enlarge the bathroom, a moment of such eureka proportions that I still think of it from time to time with enormous pleasure. (I even had a couple of moments when I thought I’d missed my calling and should have become an architect instead of a writer.) My ideas weren’t quite as successful in the living room, however. With its high ceiling, dramatic windows, and steps, I envisioned a room that would serve as a sort of stage set, where guests could sing and dance. Why not turn it into a ballroom, I wondered, picturing a black-and-white checkerboard floor, light-blue walls, a huge crystal chandelier, and nearly no furniture to get in the way.
A good decorator never tells her client that her ideas are insane, and, luckily, Susan was a great one. Instead of pointing out that a ballroom wasn’t really appropriate in a 1,200-square-foot apartment, she merely priced out the cost of replacing the floor. The $50,000 price tag quickly put my misguided decorating ideas firmly to rest. And then the novelist Jay McInerney stepped in: He had a Louis XVI sofa he’d purchased from Christie’s in the ’80s that had eventually landed in storage. He showed us a Polaroid, and we bought it immediately.
The rule of decorating is that you’re supposed to start with a rug, but we did things a little differently. Among the first pieces Susan found were gold-leafed sheaf sconces and a wonderful palm-leaf lamp, followed by 1920s mirrored side tables. Then we chose a minty green for Jay’s sofa and the small bustle chair I’d purchased the year before on a whim. The living room looks fairly formal, but hidden in a cabinet under the bookshelves is a bar and mini fridge, usually stocked with Champagne.
It might not quite be the Plaza, but when it comes to fun, we give those bachelors a run for their money.