From the Introduction to The Perfect $100,000 House: A Trip Across America and Back in Pursuit of a Place to Call Home
When I began my search, I had only owned one piece of real estate in my life, a 720 square foot coop apartment at the corner of Third Avenue and Fourteenth Street in Manhattan. It was, when I bought it, a space with all the charm and character of a room at the Holiday Inn. But it had a view I liked of a particularly rakish streetscape: the Variety Photoplay Theater (which had gone from showing porn to being a respectable off-Broadway theater), the Faith and Hope Mission and the Pitstop, a biker bar that eventually morphed into an NYU student hangout. My apartment had standard issue parquet floors, a daffodil yellow kitchen that I planned to someday paint and renovate, and lots of closets. On one of the completely featureless eight-foot-tall living room walls, I had a furniture maker build a 17-foot long shelving unit which accommodated most of my books, my collection of oversized magazines, and my files. In the corner nearest the window, I had a desk that wrapped around and gave me a view of the ceaseless flow of traffic – so many fire engines, so many buses –careening (or crawling) down Third Avenue. This spot by the window where I would sometimes sit all day, writing, making phone calls, thinking, this spot was as close as I’ve ever been to home.
I thought I would live there forever.
In 1999, I was a professional urbanist. I was the architecture critic for New York Magazine and my life was about exploring and understanding the city outside my window. I would look out my window as I’d begin my workday and nod to the Con Ed clock tower across Fourteenth Street or ride the elevator to the roof and take inventory, inspecting New York’s skyline as if it were my job to make sure that each of the buildings was in its proper place (a chore that was then, happily, entirely unnecessary).
My greatest pleasure was gaining access to the secret or off-limits portions of big buildings; the attic of the Chrysler Building, the corporate dining rooms atop the Chase Manhattan tower, the roof of the still under construction Condé Nast headquarters in Times Square. One time I accepted an offer to climb the rigging to the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal, when it was being cleaned and restored. As I stood on the scaffolding immediately below the station’s starry ceiling, I rediscovered a long dormant fear of heights. But even though my knees were shaking, I was happy to be up there, cultivating an intimacy with one of New York’s signature buildings.
Then I was offered a job as the founding editor of a new magazine about modern residential design. Taking the job would mean moving to San Francisco and devoting myself to thinking about small buildings, single family homes. Instead of being led by architects and developers through their most ambitious creations, I would learn about building at a more personal scale. Homeowners and designers would point out the fabulous European showerhead, or the cleverly secreted storage space. I was making a headlong plunge into the nature and culture of domesticity. And, to do so, I had to lose my home.
Okay, I didn’t have to lose it. I made a choice. Because the price that the real estate agent told me I could get for my New York apartment in late 1999 was so much higher than what I originally paid for it, I decided to sell. It made a certain amount of sense. I thought the dotcom boom that was driving real estate prices higher couldn’t last. I thought I might want to stay on the west coast. I thought I might want ultimately to buy a place somewhere else. I fantasized that I would buy a beach house somewhere in Marin.
It was all semi-rational.
What I didn’t understand at the time was that I was selling my home. What I didn’t understand was how much having a home meant to me.
The irony doesn’t escape me. I had sacrificed my own home to launch a magazine that was all about other people’s homes.
Early in the process of developing Dwell, we gave it a tagline: “At Home in the Modern World.” Meanwhile, I was Adrift in the Modern World. I rented a large, elegant, art deco San Francisco apartment, overlooking the bay from a Pacific Heights hilltop. With its sunken bathtub and sun filled living room, it was more beautiful than any apartment in which I’d ever lived, but it wasn’t home. I missed the Variety Photoplay sign and the roar of Third Avenue.
All told, I lived for three years in a city in which I felt myself to be, in some deep, existential way, homeless.
During that period I dedicated myself to learning about every single architect, designer, developer or homeowner in America who was doing something amazing with the design, economics, technology or aesthetics of home. That was my goal for the magazine, to showcase every new idea in residential design. And my personal goal was to figure out how avant-garde designs could be built for a price that any homebuyer could afford. Even me. Especially me.
What I quickly learned is that commercial home builders, the companies that routinely bulldozed open desert and plopped down a brand new subdivision of Spanish or Colonial or Tudor homes knew how to build cheap. One of their houses might, depending on the location, easily go for $100,000 or less. But custom homes, the kind of architect designed places that a magazine generally publishes, almost always went for upwards of half a million dollars. And often much, much more. It occurred to me that there was no challenge in building an aesthetically perfect palace if you could spend a million dollars on it. The trick was getting results for a tenth of that price.
The other thing I came to believe was that the home owners who took risks and the architects who they hired were, in their own ways, more daring than the New York architects who built multi-million dollar towers and their clients. They were experimenting with their own lives, testing how much architecture a typical suburban neighborhood would tolerate, jeopardizing their net worth to try something the lenders couldn’t understand: a fabric roof, a lacquered concrete floor, walls that slide all the way open in summer.
After nearly three years in San Francisco I left. Why? The short answer is 9-11. The events of that day turned my homesickness for New York, my sense of displacement, into a fever, a condition that colored my waking thoughts and actions. The long answer is that the situation at my magazine became more complex and contentious. Day to day life was beginning to require Machiavellian skills. I could stay in San Francisco and spend my life maneuvering and manipulating, or I could go home.
One evening, after a particularly long day at the office, I went to see the movie Spider-Man. Late in the film, there’s a scene where the villain, the Green Goblin, does battle with the hero in the airspace adjacent to the Queensboro Bridge. Just as the Green Goblin gains the upper hand, a group of ur-New Yorkers, who have congregated on the bridge, begin to throw bricks and stones at him. One of them yells something like, “Hey Goblin. Leave Spiduhman alone. Yuh mess wid one New Yawkuh, yuh mess wid all of us.”
The scene made me cry. I took this as a sign.
Later, when I told a friend about this moment, he labeled it “the Spiderman epiphany.” The next day, I walked out on a particularly aggravating meeting with the magazine’s publisher. I walked out because I was angry. I’d been angry at plenty meetings, but I’d never before gotten up and left. This was the end. I could no longer live in a beautiful city I didn’t love and I couldn’t spend my life being angry. I was going home.
Several months later, after the movers came and loaded up my belongings into a truck destined for a warehouse in New Jersey , after I handed off my cat temporarily to my regular cat-sitter’s brother-in-law, a sadsack who lived in the Tenderloin, I felt completely and utterly drained. At that moment I had no place to live, not in San Francisco and not in New York. I got in my car and drove to Bolinas, a small town on the Point Reyes peninsula in Marin County. The town is regarded as one of the last repositories of the 1960s counter culture. The small, seedy downtown is full of old hippies, young surfers, and the few tourists who find their way in despite the fact that the locals routinely remove the directional signs from Highway 1. It is a sort of rag tag Shangri-La (with astronomical real estate values). In Bolinas, I stayed for a few days in a borrowed house, resting up for the long drive back to the east coast. The house belonged to an archetypal hippie couple, but a friend of mine, a New York graphic designer, had been living there for a few years.
The house was shaped like a half moon, a kitchen at one end of a long curving room, and a bathroom at the far end. In between was a living room/studio and a sleeping area. The convex curve of the building was mostly glass, looking out over a patio, a flower garden and, beyond, an uninterrupted vista of coastal meadows. The house was small, but it didn’t feel that way in part because of the daylight pouring in, and in part because of the intimate connection between indoors and outdoors, a defining feature of California architecture. In this house in Bolinas I was happy for the first time in months, maybe in years. There I relaxed, I read, I thought. I pulled a novel off a shelf, “Bee Season,” and read it cover to cover without interruption. Friends came one day and cooked me an elaborate lunch. We sat outside, ate, and drank wine and watched the light change as the afternoon progressed.
Confronted with the long drive ahead of me, a return to New York where I had no job and no apartment (aside from a dubious sublet), California felt pretty good. When I was packing up my San Francisco apartment, sorting through my clothing, I came to a drawer in my dresser that I hadn’t opened in months. It was my sock drawer. The pairs of socks in this drawer, all rolled into balls, looked to me like some sort of pupae. Did I ever wear these things? . In California, I didn’t. Suddenly I didn’t want to go back to my old, sock-wearing life. I dreaded returning to a place with winter. I didn’t want to leave Bolinas. To my surprise, this little house suddenly represented everything I wanted in the world.
Reluctantly, I began my drive east. I stopped for a night in Tahoe City, on the California/Nevada border. In the morning, I filled my tank at a self-service gas pump. When the pump’s LED display asked me a question that required a yes or no answer, I thought it was asking if I wanted a receipt so I pushed “yes.” Actually, it was selling me a car wash. I didn’t want a car wash. I went inside to try and get a refund and the girl behind the counter was rude and snotty. “You should learn to read, “ she told me. At that moment, all the anger that I’d accumulated in my last six months of Machiavellian fray and all the anxiety I had about returning to New York came bursting out. I began to yell at the girl and didn’t stop yelling until some guy standing near the counter intervened. “Get the fuck out of here you tourist!” he said. I had two thoughts: “This is why it’s a good thing I don’t own a gun” and “He just might.” I quickly left.
Then, gradually, as I drove across the empty mid-section of Nevada on route 50, “The Loneliest Highway in America,” where the scenery mostly consisted of mirage lakes and dead cattle, I began to calm down. As I drove, mile after mile, state after state, listening to the radio, visiting friends, seeing the sights, the anger leached out of me. I began to realize that long distance driving was for me a form of meditation.
This book grew out of those two experiences, my stay in Bolinas and my San Francisco-to-New York drive. I wanted a place of my own where I would feel the way I did in that little half moon house. Surely everything and everyone I knew from my years at Dwell could help me create such a place. And, if I had to embark on an epic road trip to accomplish my goal, so much the better….