AFTER RENOVATING A CHELSEA LOFT, A CELEBRATION WITH THE WORKERS
Originally published by The New York Times on Nov 26, 2014, Written by Steven Kurutz
Last year, James LaForce, a co-owner of the public relations firm LaForce & Stevens, and Stephen Henderson, a writer, bought a 4,000-square-foot loft in Chelsea that was in need of major work. It had been owned since the 1970 by a photographer and his wife, and the entire back of the apartment had been turned into a darkroom and a graveyard for ancient photography equipment. “It looked like Thomas Alva Edison left 15 minutes ago,” Mr. Henderson said. Translation: A gut job was needed. It was a yearlong process in which a small army of dozens of workers stripped the loft down to an empty box and built it up again. They created spacious bedrooms and a vast open living-dining area in the back, and out front, a den and a large gleaming kitchen for Mr. Henderson, who loves to cook.
After the couple moved in last July, they began to experience feelings that, while not unprecedented in the history of renovation, were surely uncommon. This was especially true for Mr. Henderson, whose office happened to be on the same street and who oversaw much of the design decisions.
“I was over at the apartment when it was being built a lot,” he said. “All of the guys were working so hard and were super nice. I kind of missed them.” Mr. Henderson joked that he spent so much time with the project manager, Jeremy Munzell, that a platonic romance developed. As Mr. LaForce, who had more of a back-seat role in the renovation, said: “It was always Jeremy this and Jeremy that.”
So instead of holding a ritual purification and praying that they would never see their contractor and crew again, as some homeowners no doubt do, Mr. Henderson, 56, and Mr. LaForce, 57, decided to host a big dinner party to thank the men and women who created their new home. The guest list included everyone from their decorator to the former police officer from Poland who did the tilework and Vinny the electrician from Super-Charged Electric of Staten Island.
The party, which took place last month, was the first that the couple, avid entertainers, had held since they moved in, and the mood was reunion-like. In the kitchen, Mr. Henderson and a team of assistants were putting the finishing touches on the Vietnamese beef stew, saffron cauliflower salad and other dishes, while the tradespeople milled about, catching up and appraising their own handiwork.
Tony Jones, a carpenter who lives in Brooklyn, hadn’t been inside the loft for a few months but had no trouble recalling where he had laid his hands. “I did those windowsills,” said Mr. Jones, who, like many of the guests, had brought his spouse. “I did some of the flooring, the baseboards.” In his many years as a carpenter, he said, he hadn’t received many dinner invitations from homeowners or had a chance to see “a place when it’s all dressed up.” Looking around at the leather sectional and cowhide rug, he seemed impressed. “Normally,” he said, “I see it empty.”
Nicole Cota, who works for Fernando Santangelo, the designer, and was responsible for the lacquered piñata red wall color by the elevator, had also moved on to other homes and homeowners. “For the most part,” Ms. Cota said, “you do your job and hopefully shake hands at the end.” But she seemed happy to be back, and added that by hosting a thank-you dinner, Mr. Henderson and Mr. LaForce were “setting the bar really high” for her future client-designer relations.
Mr. LaForce, who felt a bit left out during the renovation, said the party “brought me closer to the project” and offered a chance to interact with the people he had heard so much about. For Mr. Henderson, who is writing a book about soup kitchens around the world, cooking for so many people was an exciting challenge. It also gave him a chance to use his eight burners and two ovens.
“This is my best kitchen ever,” he said. “It’s open to a nice part of the apartment. It’s got lots of nice work space.”
The last apartment the couple owned, in London Terrace, turned out to be a poor fit for entertaining. “James and I had lived in New York for 25 years, but we did something hayseeds do,” Mr. Henderson said. “We got so excited about the fireplace and wraparound terrace, and didn’t realize it wasn’t very big. We hardly ever made fires in the fireplace, and we didn’t go out on the terrace.”
But their new loft’s generous size (the living-dining area is bigger than many Manhattan apartments) and floor plan (a mix of open rooms and smaller spaces) allowed the evening’s guests to congregate in one place or move around easily. The apartment never felt crowded.“ We can have 10 or 12 people over, or we can have a buffet for 60,” Mr. Henderson said. “We very much bought and designed the place knowing we’d have lots of people over.”
If he and Mr. LaForce were the evening’s ringleaders, its quiet stars were the brothers Taffera — Robert and Eric — the contractors on the project. They have spent the last decade renovating townhouses and apartments, primarily in Brooklyn Heights and the West Village, and have assembled a team of subcontractors they view as an extended family. “The painters care that the wall is smooth,” said Robert Taffera, the older brother. “The carpenter cares that the corners are mitered properly.” And, consequently, he added, “we build good relationships with clients.” On this job, Eric Taffera said, he, Ms. Cota, Mr. Munzell and Mr. Henderson formed a brain trust. “We were the ones deciding how the lighting’s going to be, where it’s going to be set up,” he said. “We had a blast.”
Eric likened a renovation of this scale to a movie production, with skilled craftspeople coming together for a short but intense period to create something before moving on to the next project, rarely to all cross paths again. When the move-in date comes and you no longer see one another, “there is a little bit of emptiness,” he said. “That’s why we’re excited tonight, and there are hugs.” As the evening wore on, the guests formed little groups: The carpenters huddled in the den; the HVAC crew from M. La Penna Refrigeration, in Mineola, N.Y., ribbed one another across the dining table; Ms. Cota, Mr. Munzell and Eric Taffera reconstituted three-fourths of the brain trust around a plushy couch.
Earlier, Mr. LaForce and Mr. Henderson had called everyone together for a toast.“James and I are so grateful that we get to live here and that you did such a beautiful job,” Mr. Henderson told the guests, many of whom he will most likely never see again. “Your ghosts are not going to be in this place, but your spirit is.”
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PHOTOGRAPHY BY: STEPHANIE DIANI