The following is a semi-fictional newspaper article that I wrote because it seemed more fun than whining about this project for another post:
When first-time home-buyers Adriana and Barry stumbled upon the real estate listing for a quaint 1,100 square foot cottage in the small Catskills hamlet of Olivebridge, they knew they’d found something special. An unassuming home surrounded mainly by woods and monolithic rock formations, it was clear that the house itself was in need of a few minor tweaks. Like so many homeowners in today’s market, they were prepared to embark on a small renovation to bring the house into line with their personal tastes.
“We knew what we wanted, and this house checked almost all of the boxes,” Adriana, an entrepreneur based in Manhattan, recalled. “All it really needed was a new kitchen and a few cosmetic upgrades.” They hired then-25 year-old blogger of the home-improvement focused blog, Manhattan Nest (manhattan-nest.com) to design, execute, and document the renovation for them. They gave him 8 weeks to complete the project.
Two months later, the couple found themselves spiraling deeper and deeper into a renovation boasting a size and scope that they never imagined.
“It was shocking,” Barry explained. “Every professional who walked through the house literally stood there and said to us ‘this is the worst house we’ve ever seen—period.’ That was devastating. We had no idea what to do.”
It’s a story most of us have heard before, told and re-told on television shows like Holmes on Homes and the 1986 modern classic, The Money Pit. But this story varies from that narrative thanks to one subtle but essential detail: this home was actually the product of an installation art piece entitled House, a project that has been decades-long in the making.
“I thought they understood that they were part of the piece,” explained the artist and previous owner of the structure, who agreed to be interviewed on the condition of anonymity. “You work on a single piece for over 20 years, and you’re just happy that somebody is able to really see the value in it when all is said and done.”
The concept for House was inspired by the ugliness and instability that often lies beneath attractive and robust appearances, according to the artist. “There are monsters inside every one of us, whether we choose to see them or not. I wanted to explore that in a domestic setting. All around America we have these nice little houses masking unspeakable evil,” he noted. “A lot of it had to do with the Reagan economy, too. Twenty or twenty-five years ago, we were all sitting around asking ourselves how anything could survive after such a sustained attack on our values and beliefs. I thought—hey, if I can give form to these feelings and anxieties with my art, maybe it’ll all serve a purpose.”
And so he went about doing just that: first purchasing the modest cottage in Olivebridge, about 2 hours north of Manhattan.
“The idea with the renovation was to kind of make it up as I went along,” he explained. It wasn’t such an easy proposition. “You have to understand,” the artist recalled, “I know how to do things more or less the ‘right’ way, but that’s not what this piece was ever about. This was about knowingly doing the wrong thing, and trying to make it seem like the right thing. You essentially had to pretend that you’d never seen a house before, or at least anything below the surface. You had to pretend that you yourself were a person who was pretending to know how to do things. Pretend that you were pretending that you didn’t know what a mess you were making of it. There were a lot of layers.”
“House,” undergoing renovation in the spring of 2015
And make a mess he did, at least by the standards of conventional building practices rather than art. “I started thinking, hey—what if I pretended like I didn’t know what nails were? What if I pretended like doors and windows could just go anywhere I wanted, regardless of the structural requirements of a building? What if I did the electrical and insulation and plumbing so that most of it would work for a while, but not for the long haul? It was important that the piece be an implicit reminder that anything can come crashing down around you at any moment. It really took off from there.”
It wasn’t always simple, or fast. “If it had just been modifying the building, the piece would have been completed in a year or two. But that wasn’t enough. We had to see how an idea like this would develop over time. We had to keep messing around with it,” the artist noted. “One year we released a colony of termites on House, and the next year we upped our ante and unleashed ten or twenty mice on the place and just let them do their thing.” It wasn’t long after that chipmunks and squirrels were also introduced to House, which was already experiencing a colonization of a different sort. “We didn’t even plan for the rot and mold,” the artist explained, “but we were overjoyed when it started appearing. We thought, hey, this is great. House is doing exactly what it should be doing. Sometimes as an artist, you don’t always get to control exactly the direction a piece will take, so it’s always terrific when it turns out even better than you imagined. It means you’re doing your job well.”
The “Squirrel Hotel,” undergoing renovation.
Often this took the form of experimentation. The side elevation of the building, for instance, sported a wall constructed roughly one foot from the true exterior wall of the structure, allowing for something several neighbors termed a “squirrel hotel.”
“We just kept adding layers to it,” the artist explained. “We wanted to know what would happen.”
The “Squirrel Hotel” under renovation.
“I built the whole thing with 2×4 pressure-treated lumber and steel L-brackets,” the artist revealed. “I like L-brackets because they aren’t really suited to the task, but they work. We knew they would rust. That was all part of it.”
Occasionally, keeping up with the organic development of House was a difficult task. “For the piece to succeed, it still had to look like a normal house,” the artist recalled. “So when things started to show outward signs of deterioration, we were quick to cover them up with whatever we had around. Bondo, a wood shim, a piece of masonite. Figuring out how to keep up appearances was half the project.”
When squirrels gnawed through the wood encasing a live electrical box, the artist was unfazed. “All you need is a little creativity,” he explained. Here, a bit of steel wool from the supermarket and a few wood shims made everything look like new.
“The squirrels honestly performed better than we expected. We thought they’d want to leave. Instead they stuck around and really took things to the next level,” the artist recalled.
The interior of the “Squirrel Hotel,” after several years of habitation. “It was a real gamble whether they’d just gnaw some wood,” the artist recalled. “but they had their way with insulation and electric, too. It was amazing hearing them go to work and wondering ‘what are they doing back there?'”
But all good things must come to an end. “It felt like we’d taken the piece as far as we could take it, and it was time to bring House to market,” the artist continued. “That’s always a gamble in this industry because you don’t know how the public will react. When Adriana and Barry walked through the door, though, you could tell that they really understood House in a way that some other buyers and critics just didn’t. They placed an offer shortly thereafter and we went through the whole charade. The offer, the contract, the mortgage, the inspection. It really felt like they were buying a house when they bought House. They were so convincing that I thought to myself ‘is this real?’ Most art buyers are snobs with too much money to blow, but Adriana and Barry aren’t like that. They really got it. They really loved it. I was overwhelmed by their reception of my work.”
It wasn’t until Kanter started his renovation of the property, however, that the attention to detail applied to House became clear. “I’d never seen anything like it, even on TV,” he recalled in a phone interview from Kingston Hospital, where he is currently being kept in isolation while battling Hantavirus, an illness spread mainly by the inhalation of mouse droppings that affects the respiratory system. “It’s truly remarkable to see so many things wrong within a single structure. It made me wonder ‘what the hell have I walked into?’ because it really seemed like a pretty normal house.”
Still, Kanter is a supporter of the arts. “People who work in creative industries are often misunderstood. Look at Andy Warhol. Look at Picasso. Just because I didn’t immediately ‘get it’ doesn’t make it bad art,” he noted. “In fact, maybe that makes it even more compelling.”
Not that the job hasn’t taken its toll. “We had no idea we were going to find something with this many problems,” Kanter explained. “It’s a terrible feeling having to communicate that to clients. It starts to feel like you’re doing something very wrong, like the disaster in front of you is all your fault even when you know it isn’t. It messes with your brain. You just want to fix something, and when you can’t, it’s incredibly frustrating. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt worse about anything in my life than I do about the course of this project, and I didn’t even build House.”
Adriana and Barry, Kanter’s now long-suffering clients, have a somewhat different set of concerns. “I wish we could go back in time,” Adriana explained. “I had to convince Barry to buy House but neither of us realized that it was essentially unlivable.”
“We love art,” Barry added, “but we just wish the habitability of House had been more clear. We get that’s what makes the piece work, but it would have been nice to get a backstage pass so someone could say, hey, here are all the ways that House could kill you, and are you sure you really want to do this? We might have thought twice if that happened. We want our money back. We’re thinking about knocking it down, because we aren’t sure what can be done to allow House to survive as an installation but also provide what we were hoping to get out of it in terms of being a place to live.”
Adriana’s view is a bit more nuanced. “Knocking it down isn’t an option. Daniel [Kanter] has suggested it, a few contractors too, but I love House. So we need to find some kind of solution that works for everyone.”
What exactly that looks like remains to be seen. After the renovation began, it quickly became obvious that the necessary repairs were well outside the scope of the original building permit that Kanter applied for with the local department of buildings. “I was calling them constantly,” Mr. Kanter recalled, “saying ‘hey, Judy, it’s me again—we have to rebuild another structural wall. Do you need me to stop so that the inspector can come take a look?’ And they always told me to just keep going and call back when we were ready for our framing inspection. So that’s what we were trying to do.”
When inspector John Armstrong did eventually show up, at the urging of both Kanter and the homeowners to inspect whether the house’s wood stove could be safely re-installed, he changed his tune. “It was like nothing I imagined. I was speechless. I’ve been doing this a lot of years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Armstrong, who was previously unaware of the development of House over the years, did not issue a stop-work order. “These guys were doing their best, and they certainly weren’t making things worse,” Armstrong explained. “I told them they needed to have engineers draft some plans though, because even I had no idea how to fix such a disaster. I don’t care if it’s art. It’s not responsible to let people live with so many hazards around, because they might not end up living very long.”
“I found a local engineering firm the very same day,” Kanter recalled. “I walked in the front door covered in all sorts of demolition debris and asked if there was anyone I could talk to. They looked at me like I had three heads, but they had someone out to House later that week to do an initial consult and go over the problem areas with me. We figured out what parts of House clearly needed to be eliminated so that we could still use our time efficiently while the engineers work on the plans.”
Kanter and the owners hired the firm roughly two months ago to provide a roadmap of the necessary repairs that would allow House to exist as both an art piece an a legally-habitable dwelling, but the journey is a difficult one to charter.
“Typically we’d recommend just leveling the thing and starting over,” said Stephen Davis, one of the engineers working on the project. “But House is different and we get that. That’s why we’re trying to fix it while still being sensitive to the ethos of the piece. We’re thinking of it like when the Met brings in someone to repair a painting. Even the best art needs maintenance every now and then.”
“Still,” Mr. Davis noted, “we’ve evaluated houses out on Cape Cod that were literally resting on a few 4×4 posts sitting precariously on top of a small piece of flagstone. House still takes the cake. We have our work cut out for us.”
There was still plenty of work to do, however. “The porch just had to go, obviously,” Davis noted, referring to a street-facing addition that was once a porch, then enclosed and given over to the small living room. “The structure was a disaster, and there was no sense in trying to salvage anything except the windows and some of the framing that could potentially be reused.”
“At this point,” Kanter explained, “we’ve demolished as much as we really can without knowing exactly what the next steps are. I’m hopeful that the engineers can turn their plans around quickly, and we can hit the ground running as soon as we get them. But right now, all we can do is wait.”
“We’re hoping to have answers to them next week or the one after,” Davis said about the progression of the plans. “Trying to fix House is a complicated task requiring a lot of special attention and creative thinking. They’re just going to have to be patient while we do our work, and then they can decide how they’d like to proceed. We’re talking about serious problems here with trying to make this art piece livable…you’re trying to do just enough to fix bad roofs, bad walls, bad foundations, bad electrical work, lack of insulation, plumbing that’s far from code-compliant. It might end up being that it’s just not worth it, as interesting or cool as House is to the owners.”
Everyone involved in the project, including the owners, are looking for creative solutions. Adriana and Barry have considered everything from placing a converted shipping container elsewhere on the property, so that House could be appreciated from a reasonably safe distance, to purchasing a home adjacent to House and connecting the two with something like an enclosed bridge.
“We’re exploring our options,” Adriana explained. “Nothing is off the table right now. We want a house, but we also want House. It’s a fine line. But I’m confident we’ll figure it out.”
Concerning his continued involvement in the project, Kanter said that while it would have to depend on the recommendations provided by Davis and his team, his mind is mostly made up. “Listen, I’m basically a blogger with a small amount of renovation experience. I know when I’m in over my head, and I’m in over my head.” Kanter said, indicating that he would likely pass the next phase of the project off to a qualified builder, and perhaps return to decorate when House receives its certificate of occupancy, whenever that is. “I just don’t have the experience behind me to even build a house under normal circumstances,” he went on. “Now I’m basically supposed to build one in reverse.”
The owners have something else in mind, however. “We don’t want to start over with a whole new contractor who we don’t know and a whole crew we don’t trust,” Adriana explained. “The first part of this project has been rocky, but we feel strongly that Daniel stay with us while we see this through to completion. He can do it.”
As for the artist, he claimed to be “just fine” with whatever the owners of his work decide to do next. “I poured my heart and soul into this piece for over 20 years, and then I got paid handsomely for it,” he said. “What more could an artist ask for?”
Day 31: Worked on demoing living room ceiling and exterior. Got all tongue and groove removed from front elevation and most of door side. Deconstructed squirrel hotel. Horrors. Window purchase for kitchen approved, will pick up Wednesday.
Day 32: Worked on exterior demo and loaded truck for dump. Demo complete on front, side with door (almost), and exterior of shared wall between kitchen and living room section. Must remove shiplap and dining room wall tomorrow and pick up kitchen window for installation on Monday. Set appointment with Central Hudson to remove meter pan in order to reframe wall.
Day 33: Dump run. Picked up window at Door Jamb. Continued exterior demo/de-nailing old siding, site clean up. Met previous owner, omg.
Day 34: Consulted with Edwin on plan for tomorrow and supplied shopping list. Researched wood stove clearance requirements.
Day 35: Loaded truck for dump. Met with building inspector re: wood stove. He wants engineer renderings and specs for new work. Went to dump, came back, and worked on clean-up from Edgar/Francisco demo in living room. More exterior demo.
Day 36: Edgar and I worked on reframing front door wall, exterior demo, interior demo. Went to engineers to discuss project.
Day 37: Demo and site clean up. Horrible day. Left early. Low point. Exhausted.
Day 38: Site clean up, exterior demo, met with Ed from excavating company and engineer. He will speak to building inspector and be in touch in a couple days with proposal to get the ball rolling.
Day 39: Site cleanup, constructing temporary wall in living room.
Day 40: Meeting with Adriana and Barry at job site.
Day 41: Meeting with engineer. Relayed info back to Adriana and Barry.
Day 42: Major site clean-up to prep for engineer meeting at site.
Day 43: Edgar and Francisco demo’d front porch.
Day 44: Edgar framed in new kitchen window. Francisco worked on tearing off remaining asphalt siding. I hauled stuff to dump. Scheduled engineers to meet tomorrow.
Day 45: Met with engineers to evaluate house. Yikes, yikes. Plan that they will submit brings things up to/close to code…underpinning foundations, new ceiling structures, foundations, collar ties, floor systems, everything. Long, long road ahead, goddamnit. Will likely have to gut more of house, almost all of it. Also went in crawlspace under hall/bed/bath and joists are dripping with condensation…not good.