Habitats | West Harlem
Life in the Sunrise Seat
By CONSTANCE ROSENBLUM
The New York Times
March 18, 2012
LUCIE HOLT has come a long way from her childhood home in Battersea, the working-class neighborhood in southwest London where she grew up in the 1960s and ’70s. She and her brother and two sisters lived on the ground floor of a red-brick house framed by gardens.
Despite her English roots, Ms. Holt needs to think for a moment to remember what it was called — “Oh, right, a terraced house,” she said in a lilting accent. She remembers the tub in the kitchen, which when not being used for baths was covered with a tabletop. She remembers the outhouse in the rear garden, a space that overflowed with giant sunflowers.
Ms. Holt’s father, who taught chemistry at the local grammar school, came from Guyana, a former British colony in South America. Her mother, who was English, was a librarian, and the two met when he became her lodger.
Ms. Holt moved to the United States in 1995 when she married an American lawyer, and the couple lived on Long Island. When the marriage ended three years later, she moved to Manhattan and never looked back.
Although she quickly found professional moorings as a broker for Citi Habitats, finding a suitable nest proved more complicated. She spent 18 months in Battery Park City, only to be forced out by the attacks of Sept. 11. Then came a string of rentals in the West Village, followed by her purchase of an apartment in central Harlem, ultimately sold. “That’s how I first discovered Harlem,” said Ms. Holt, who is in her late 40s. “Then everyone said go west, and I discovered that I quite liked West Harlem.”
Today, Ms. Holt occupies a penthouse condominium there, complete with a 200-square-foot terrace, which she bought for $635,000 in 2010, months after the building opened. It is on Frederick Douglass Boulevard, which stretches uptown from the northwest corner of Central Park.
In searching for apartments, Ms. Holt looked at nothing but penthouses. “I wanted a top floor,” she said. “I don’t like feet going boom boom boom on my ceiling.” Being atop a nine-story building, her place offers spectacular easterly views of an expanse of low-slung row houses. Ms. Holt sometimes gets up at 5 in the morning and lies on her sofa to watch the sunrise.
Even in her brief time in the neighborhood, she has come to savor its offerings. She quickly became enamored of a local florist — no surprise given the profusion of orchids, cacti and other succulents in her apartment — along with Bier International, which advertises itself as Harlem’s first beer garden. “Plus we have the best organic supermarket just four blocks away,” she said. “And I’m right near Central Park. How great is that?”
A transplant herself, she appreciates the increasingly international population that has been drawn to the new and retrofitted buildings sprouting along the boulevard. “There are lots of Europeans, people from England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy. It’s amazing to me.”
As befits an apartment in a spanking-new building, the space is relentlessly contemporary, outfitted with gleaming appliances, white marble countertops and 12-foot ceilings punctuated by a deep skylight. The color scheme is largely monochromatic, especially in the living room, which has a white dining table, creamy drapes and a white sofa heaped with matching pillows. There was a snowy white rug until Ms. Holt replaced it.
“My friends told me that the living room looked a little plain,” she said, “and that a brighter rug would add color.”
And speaking of Ms. Holt’s friends, many are present in spirit, among them Holly Fisher, a filmmaker whose new documentary, “Deafening Silence,” examines Myanmar under military dictatorship. Oversized black-and-white images from the movie depicting a moody swirl of palm trees from the Burmese jungle dominate a wall near the terrace. Ms. Holt describes the South African jazz musician Jonathan Butler and his wife, Berri, as also among her close friends, and a photograph of Mr. Butler holding a guitar gazes down from a shelf.
But what especially catches the eye are the distinctly old-fashioned touches from Ms. Holt’s native England. Her apartment looks as if someone had swept through the stalls of the flea market on Portobello Road and brought back cartloads of vintage treasures. By the kitchen window stands a white china container with BREAD written on it in blue lettering, into which she has stuck a small palm. There’s a blue vase that came from a house in Cornwall and, from a shop on the King’s Road, the white stone Balinese dancer on the terrace.
Her coffee table, which is covered with cutouts that resemble tiger paw prints and reflects a more contemporary England, was shipped to New York from Habitat, Terence Conran’s London design store.
And lest anyone have any doubts as to whether a sentimental Englishwoman is in residence, a teapot is emblazoned with the Union Jack, a photograph of Big Ben hangs next to an image of the Statue of Liberty, and biographies of Princess Diana share space with well-loved copies of “Alice in Wonderland” and other Lewis Carroll books from Ms. Holt’s childhood.
Family as well as friends make their presence felt in these rooms, thanks in part to the army of snapshots. Ms. Holt describes herself as a “single mum,” and her collection includes a picture of her daughter, Justine, now a 22-year-old nurse who lives in Tampa, set in a frame wreathed with tiny turquoise stones. Nearby is an image of Ms. Holt and her sisters as girls, along with pictures of their mother, Joycelyn, who died 10 years ago at age 82.
Joycelyn Holt is present in other ways. She loved to paint, and her daughter has one of her still lifes, a small, cheerful work depicting a vase, a banana and two apples. Others paintings are of elephants, creatures that meant a great deal to her mother. In one, a pair playfully entwine their trunks, “as if they’re kissing,” she said.
“My mum was crazy about them, really obsessed,” Ms. Holt said. “I think she saw them as gentle giants.”
Much as Ms. Holt treasures the reminders of the country where she grew up, life in this city has taught her a few lessons about how to deal with limited square footage. A white wooden cabinet, worn from decades of service as a wine stand in some English household, provides a berth for her laptop. “This is New York, after all,” she said.
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Copyright © 2012 The New York Times Company. Reprinted with Permission. Photos by Marcus Yam for The New York Times.