Sunday, August 15, 2010

House-Hunting in Back Bay

I have finally put my finger on the real reason why we can't find a new place to live. We've seen all kinds of condos and houses, but mostly they are shiny new renovations, either boasting the best finishes Home Depot has to offer, or sparkling with higher-end appliances and fixtures. But none of them has had any character. Almost everything we've seen, in all shapes, sizes, and price ranges, has been completely devoid of architectural charm. To me, this means well-proportioned rooms, high ceilings, deep moldings, real wooden floors, elegant fireplace mantels (no fake gas logs, either), and period details from the time these brownstones were built.

Of course, all of this is what gets ripped out, along with too many of the walls, in today's renovations. While they might ruin a perfectly good bedroom by dividing it into two awkward spaces, developers have this idea that people want to live in the equivalent of a studio, with the kitchen, living room, and dining area all joined into one awkward space. And the cabinetry, flooring, fixtures, and hardware (blackened bronze is popular these days) are all in some kind of taste, I gather, but certainly not mine.

We recently made an appointment to see a sprawling, 1,500-square-foot penthouse duplex on our street with a roof deck. We had been forewarned about it by others who had been there. "It's a dump, a really awkward space. It needs total renovation, but it's hard to even figure out what to with it," one realtor said.  We hiked up to the 4th floor on a narrow stairway covered in colorful Arts and Crafts-style patterned carpet. The duplex belongs to an older artist and his wife (it turns out I've met them both a few times), and they have a taste for covering every inch of their walls with paintings, drawings, masks, Mardi Gras beads, and anything else that can hang from a hook. Their many windows were unscreened, which made us worry about their two old cats, lolling on the living room chairs. The kitchen was... well, if you've ever been in the house of aging hippie artists who've lived long and well in the same place without renovating, you'll get the idea. It was homey; it was old-fashioned despite some '70s-era staircases and lofts. It was definitely bohemian.

It was also kind of a mess, thanks to too many cut-up rooms and staircases — and not right for us. But I really enjoyed it. Finally, a place with loads of warmth and character: the floors, windows, walls and fireplaces were old, worn, and original. Lovely. It felt vaguely European, without the customary slick stainless appliances and ugly "improvements." I was relieved to see that apartments like it still existed.

Maybe there's one waiting for us.

Today we looked at another penthouse, a floor-through with a roof deck, on our street. This one claimed to be 1,400 square feet, but it felt more cramped than our current 800 square feet. This was partly because two tall, wide staircases were included in that measurement; talk about wasted space. And the rest of it was chopped up into wasteful, irrational floorplan. While the kitchen was large, the other rooms were smaller than ours. And they weren't nearly so gracefully proportioned or detailed. There was a cobalt blue Viking refrigerator and range, but the rest of the place was pure, bargain-rate Home Depot, from the spindly, light oak staircases to the ugly bathroom fixtures.

For me, it's all about bone structure and character. They're both wonderful gifts from the fairies to the fortunate few — and that's as true for dwellings as for people. And I will keeping hunting for them.

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