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Home, Garden, and Car Care Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, October 2, 2008

“A Piece of Home”

By Zach Simeone

It’s no revelation: The physical spaces that surround us affect our minds, and where we grow up will shape how we come to view both the world and ourselves.

My home is no exception. The century-old townhouse in downtown Albany is as much a part of my family as my mother or father. My home is where it all started — where I started. I’ve never had another, and it was the perfect environment for healthy intellectual and philosophical growth.

The towering brownstone in the heart of the city has housed families for nearly a hundred years longer than I’ve existed. There’s a round, bronze plaque to the right of our front door, just above the doorbell, that reads “1889,” and below it, “Historic Albany Foundation.”

When the Albany Aqua Duck tour comes down our street, it announces that the stones that compose our house were taken from the remains of the original State Capitol, which burned in March of 1911. The fire is said to have started in the Assembly Library, caused by the aged electrical system. However, since the Capitol burned more than 20 years after the house was built, this would require some sort of time paradox.

Outside, my home stands in a row of tall, connected townhouses. Their height, in a way, makes up for their narrowness. The interior, more importantly, was remodeled and conceptualized primarily by my father and his father more than 20 years ago. As you spend time in the house, it becomes more and more apparent that truly gifted craftsmen pieced this home together, and the design concepts were executed with pinpoint accuracy.

Each of the building’s three stories — four if you include the basement — is essentially one large room. This wide-open space, coupled with the high ceilings, provides a kind of physical, not to mention intellectual, breathing room that is truly liberating and invaluable to the developing mind. It was for mine, anyway.

Being raised in such a spacious and unique environment nurtured my own capacity to be open and creative, to reach for more, to make the most of myself. It was inevitable that I would grow to be an artist, since the house is, itself, a work of art; my father and mother being a musician and an actress probably factored in as well.

My father told me that he built our home without sparing any expense, but without frivolity. That the different colors, shapes, textures, woods, and paints allow one to appreciate the colors and shapes in nature, in art, in people, in relationships. The complexity of the house helps one appreciate the diversity in the world, he said.

Spending time in large structures can make us feel small, although, in this vast pinball machine we call a universe, it seems foolish to think of myself as anything more than a particle bouncing about. See what you learn growing up in a brownstone?

It’s in the details

Between the outer and inner doors at the house’s entrance is a vestibule with an ornate cube design on the floor. The shapes pop right out, almost as if animated. This middle chamber is an elaborate transition between the two stages of entry, with walls of deep, maroon wood full of intricate carvings. The inner door features similar carvings, as well as a stained-glass window that displays five different-colored orbs. The vestibule, though, in its intricacies, is a microcosm for what comes next.

“The first floor was a complete restoration,” my father told me.

The room just off to the right of the front entrance, recently littered with velvety furniture and a smooth, brown coffee table, was once a wide-open space. This absence of objects created a vacuum that guided all attention to the ceiling’s beautiful plaster molding.

“Artists made latex impressions of the plaster moldings on the ceiling,” my father said, “which are half-shells, as in Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’; ruptured pomegranates; and connecting bones and joints.” A brass chandelier hangs from the ceiling.

Lining the back wall of this introductory space are two bookshelves containing my father’s collection of literature on the arts and the mind. They stand guard on either side of a white fireplace, fitted with a wall of interlocking rectangles, some green, some purple, but mostly different shades of yellow. The walls, once white like the ceiling, were repainted a deep, dark blue a few years back. At the far wall of this room is one of two entrances to my father’s study. More on that soon.

Straight ahead of the front door is a narrow hallway. To the left are steps that lead up to the second floor — the first of two identical oak stairways. Walking past the wooden staircase and down the hallway will put you at a three-way fork: straight ahead is the door to the laundry room, originally built as a butler’s pantry, which leads through to the backyard; to the left, brown, carpeted stairs lead down to the basement; to the right is a vacant doorway, the other entrance to the study.

“Repairing the fireplace in the study involved importing rose marble from Italy,” Dad said. The marble frames the fireplace, and displays a field of pale, pink flowers in low relief, popping out of the darker-pink background. I never spent much time in this room; I always found the bright pink walls to be off-putting. Still, the desk on the left wall and the table on the far right are made of a dark, red-colored wood that is truly stunning.

For the first decade of my life, we rented our basement out as an apartment. We had about a dozen tenants over that period. Seeing my parents provide shelter to other families throughout my youth taught me to be open and accepting of different kinds of people.

I remember names — Tony, Sylvester, Alexandra, John, Donna — but no faces, really. I do remember Dave, and his drumming. Between my father’s piano playing and Dave’s banging with sticks, there was quite a bit of live music to enjoy. Even after Dave got married and moved out, Dad was almost always benched in front of that piano, serenading from the second-story window whoever happened to be walking below.

When my father wasn’t churning out Gershwin classics on the piano for all the neighborhood to hear, the stereo in the second-floor living room was usually cycling through Ray Charles, Bill Evans, U2, Duke Ellington, Patricia Barber, Led Zeppelin, Frank Sinatra, and Beethoven.

The composers of old, the jazz greats, the guitar gods, and masters of every genre imaginable; over time it all started to blend into an aural smorgasbord. Apparently, I used to conduct them all with a straw when I was a toddler. I’m told I was pretty good.

The second floor was configured as an open space that included a dining area, kitchen, and living room. “The kitchen was deliberately situated at the intersection of the vertical and horizontal axes of the three-floor area that would become our home,” my dad said.

“Oak kitchen cabinets were selected to mimic the window and door moldings that had remained intact,” Dad went on. “The commercial-grade appliances, hardwood floors, and expansive areas were intended to provide a ‘city’ feel. The nine-foot-high windows provide an uninterrupted view of the Gothic cathedral directly across the street. There was always a grand piano in front of the largest window, framed by the arch of the cathedral that lay beyond. At one point, we considered replicating some of the architectural themes of the cathedral in the interior of the building; since it was so nearby, it was virtually inside the house anyway,” he said with his usual brand of sarcasm. “But we decided against this.”

The brick-pattern tiling in the backsplash behind the stove is perfectly laid out, and looks like a wall of solid whipped cream. Slabs of smooth granite, tan with black and dark brown flakes, recently replaced the off-white kitchen countertop and table.

The third floor has three rooms: my bedroom, which sits at the top of the house’s second oak staircase, a bathroom, and the master bedroom. A hallway runs between the two bedrooms, and the bathroom branches off just before the master bedroom. Looking over the railing that stretches across one side of the hallway, you can see straight down to the first floor. Note to those with a fear of heights: don’t look down.

My bedroom is a pleasantly simple break from the visual depth of the rest of the house. It was designed to be “whimsical and warm,” my father said. The floors are made of a dark, walnut wood, and the walls were a light purple, with white trim running along the floor. The walls have since been re-painted white. Though simple, it is quite spacious, and the three windows that line the back wall look out over the backyard, which is usually overgrown by an army of weeds.

“The focus of the third floor was actually the master bedroom, which, with the same window array [as the second floor], offered a view of the cathedral again,” Dad said. This room, however, is located at canopy-level of the trees in front of the house. “We conceived of it as a kind of tree house, and selected a bed fashioned as a large brass cradle which was placed in the trees.”

The house itself was my cradle, and whether my friends and I were escaping from a high-security government facility with guns blazing, grappling like our favorite professional wrestlers, or traversing the sewers as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it was the ideal stage for exploring the farthest depths of our imaginations. When you enter, you are wrapped in a cocoon of creativity that serves as a constant reminder that art is everywhere if you know how to look for it.

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