Currents: Shows: Exhibition: ‘Rescued, Restored, Reimagined: New York’s Landmark Interiors’


Credit Left: Larry Lederman; right: T. Whitney Cox

Fifty years ago, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Law was enacted to ensure that important buildings survived the whims, greed or cultural indifference of developers and city officials. Among the 31,000 properties designated as landmarks, only 117 are interiors, like City Hall, left, and the New Amsterdam Theater, right. This small fraction gets special treatment in “Rescued, Restored, Reimagined: New York’s Landmark Interiors,” a show opening on Friday at the New York School of Interior Design.

Why so few? “It’s all about the complexity of use,” said Hugh Hardy, an architect and one of the show’s curators. When Scribner’s Beaux-Arts bookstore turns into a Benetton (it’s now a Sephora), or a bank becomes a catering hall, design changes must be made inside to serve the needs of the current establishment. Outside, all that’s required is a new sign. Radio City Music Hall’s interiors are a landmark, he added, “because Radio City is still used the same way it was in 1932.”

The exhibition, for which admission is free, runs through April 24;

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Shopping With Antonino Buzzetta: Stylish Bedside Clocks

And as for the price? “It feels like you’re holding $40,000,” he said, reluctantly relinquishing it.

Online, he found a considerably less expensive option: the RabLabs Cele clock, made of a slice of agate. “I love stones, crystals and gems,” he said, and “this is a sculptural object that would look great on your night stand, as opposed to a piece of plastic.”

And the QwlockTwo Touch received high marks for its deceptive simplicity. “It’s fantastic how they are able to figure out how to arrange the letters in those columns so they spell everything out,” Mr. Buzzetta said. “That’s a complex layout, but when you look at it, it seems so simple in its design.”

An added bonus, he noted, was the light it emits: bright enough to read the time in the dark, but not so bright as to disrupt your sleep.

Another good option for the light-averse, he suggested, was the Kikkerland block clock, an “unobtrusive” plain wood block that doesn’t show the time unless you clap. “If it’s on a stack of books on your night stand or desktop,” Mr. Buzzetta said, “you don’t know what it is.”

But would you really be willing to clap whenever you needed to check the time, something that calls up images of the much-parodied commercials for the Clapper?

Mr. Buzzetta paused and then answered decisively: “I would clap.”

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Q&A: ‘Wilma’s World,’ a New Book by Rae Dunn

I was looking though the pen of brown ones, and they were very rambunctious. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw in the next pen this black, smooth-coat dog just sitting there observing everything. She was very pensive and docile, and we just connected.

How did the photos begin?

When I took her home, she was smaller than a Beanie Baby. She was teeny. So of course I took a picture of her. She would sit there and look at the camera, very still, and just pose. So I started accumulating thousands of pictures of her, because she was so easy to photograph.

What did you see in the photos that suggested a book?

I never intended to do a book of Wilma. I started a blog for her, just because I had so many pictures. However, I had always wanted to write and illustrate a children’s book.


The cover of Wilma’s book. “Wilma teaches me to see the world in a very simple, childlike way,” Ms. Dunn said.

I started looking at the pictures of Wilma on my computer, because there are a million of them, and I thought maybe I could use photographs instead of illustrations. I printed out my favorite ones and was trying to make a story out of them. But the more I looked at them, the more I realized that each picture had its own message.

So it began as a book for children?

I thought it would be perfect for kids, because it would be life lessons from a dog. I made a mock-up and presented it to Chronicle Books. They liked it immediately but said: “This is not a children’s book. It’s a grown-up book.” Now I realize children already do all these things in the book. It’s grown-ups who need to be reminded to act more like children.

Why do you say that?

The world is so complicated these days, and there’s so much information coming at us, that it’s sensory overload. Wilma teaches me to see the world in a very simple, childlike way, and to home in on the details. People miss so much beauty in the world because they’re not observing. They’re just busy going from place to place, walking down the street and looking at their cellphones.

Are the photos a mix of candid and posed shots?

Ninety percent of the pictures were taken because I always have a camera, we’re always together and we just stumble upon things. We go to Vermont every summer, so there are a lot of shots from there — like there’s a tractor we found, and I just put her on it.

A few of them, where I wanted a message, I intentionally set it up. There’s one where she’s painting on the beach, and I posed her for that. There are also a few of her with costumes on. I would never buy a costume for her, but I have a friend in Hong Kong who sends me dog clothes because she thinks they’re funny, and I always take a picture.

Has Wilma influenced your ceramics?

Definitely, but it’s hard to explain. I’ve always been very simple and minimal, and Wilma is like that, too. I did a series of Wilma work that had big polka dots, because she has these amazing organic polka dots on her back. She’s my muse. She seems enlightened, and has definitely changed my life. A lot of people say that a dog takes on the personality of its owner; but with me, I want to take on her personality.

Is that why she’s listed as the book’s author?

She basically wrote the book. It’s what Wilma and I experience as we go through the world together. There’s one shot in there of her with a pair of eyeglasses that I found on the street, and it says, “Take a closer look.” That’s the main message. There’s so much beauty and inspiration if you just look and notice the small things in life.

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Market Ready: Should I Remove Sports Memorabilia Before Showing My Home?

Jan Poulain, who owns Perfectly Placed for You, a home-staging company in Middlesex County, Mass., with Liz Larson, likened sports to religion, noting that objects associated with either could be problematic when you’re trying to sell because they’re so emotionally charged.

At the very least, Ms. Larson said, “you need to edit, edit, edit,” so that sports-related pictures, jerseys, pennants, balls and bobbleheads don’t overpower the room. Leave only a few key pieces, if you must, she said, and use them in the same way you would use art to decorate the walls.

A better idea is to store everything. If you have other options for artwork with more universal appeal, Ms. Poulain said, “use them.”

When deciding how far to go with your cleanout, consider where the room is in your home. If it’s in the basement or on the second floor, Ms. Poulain said, it will likely have less influence on a buyer’s overall perception of the property.

On the other hand, if the office is visible from the foyer, it will have a bigger impact. “In a first-impression space,” she said. “You want to be very selective of what you put in it.”

Another advantage to packing up sports memorabilia before putting your home on the market is that it may help ensure your prized possessions make it safely to their new home.

“If any of it is valuable, such as signed pieces,” Ms. Larson said, “we’d suggest removing those things for security reasons.”

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Design Notebook: The Furniture Maker Scott McGlasson

At the moment, the black walnut tiles were all Mr. McGlasson had — that and a pencil sketch on a piece of quarter-inch hardboard. Last Monday found him laying out his high-tech design kit: a free pencil from Youngblood Lumber, a 4-foot-long straight edge, a Starrett square, a bevel, a punched metal disc and a Pink Pearl eraser.

The eraser was getting the heaviest use. He hadn’t liked the hardboard template when he first drew it four months ago. And it hadn’t improved through desuetude.

Ideally, when the chair was completed, it would be well proportioned, impeccably finished and sustainably sourced. It would express Mr. McGlasson’s personal vision as a craftsman.

Practically, the piece needed to be something he could build with about $200 to $300 worth of materials.

And while the test model could take 40 hours to assemble, he would budget just half that time for the production version. (The chaise longue, by comparison, consumed 120 hours.)

Mr. McGlasson also obeyed an overarching imperative: The chair needed to make a profit, and a decent one at that.

“I get hassled on price sometimes,” he said. “Some people will say, ‘Really, isn’t that a little much?’ And I’m like, ‘What do you make?’ I’m sure my hourly rate is a lot lower than theirs.”

Mr. McGlasson estimates that his hourly rate is $85. But Woodsport is a one-man studio (at least until he hires a new assistant).

This means that he spends hours of every workday answering sales inquiries, shipping finished work and posting promotional images on Instagram. In a sense, his hourly rate for this work is zero. “The only time I’m actually making money is when I’m standing at the lathe,” Mr. McGlasson said.

That lathe, by the way, cost $4,000.

This is the perverse economy of furniture making. A completed set of six chairs could run $10,800. The federal poverty guideline for a one-person household is only $1,000 more.

“That kind of money is kind of insane,” Mr. McGlasson said. “People say that to me all the time: ‘I love your stuff. I wish I could afford it.’ And I say, ‘I wish I could, too.’ ”

At these prices, it’s hard to believe that a high-end woodworker would cut corners. But, in a literal sense, cutting corners on a bandsaw is the definition of the job.

The question is what kind of corners a designer chooses to cut. Should the legs be straight or tapered? Should the wood tiles be beveled or flat? Should the back slats be solid or laminated, straight or bowed?

The chair he was imagining would be 36 inches tall, with a ladder-back up the spine. How many rungs should there be? “Two or three,” Mr. McGlasson said.

Each of these choices determines the labor that he needs to put into executing a piece. The easy chair had masculine arms, but the dining room version would go armless. “Arms? It’s a pain,” he said. “I have a price in mind for this chair. The bigger the pain, the more time it takes me. And the more I need to charge for it.”

He added: “I also think it might look more elegant and clean without it.”

Mr. McGlasson sometimes characterizes his style, with its unfussy geometry and clean appearance, as “rustic modern.” It’s furniture he wants to make and furniture he can sell. And these two priorities are not necessarily in competition.

For example, he likes to use logs that he collects with a local sawyer, a weathered maverick named Vince Von Vett — “Triple V” for short.

These are blowdowns from the lake country suburbs. It’s environmentally sustainable, which makes a good story for the Woodsport website. And the harvesting gets him outside during the summer, which is where he wants to be.

These are also the cheapest boards you can find. At the lumberyard, select-and-better-grade walnut costs $6 to $8 a board-foot. Triple V mills the trees for a quarter of that price. (Mr. McGlasson’s own backbreaking labor is free.)

The tiles for the new dining chair came from field trips with the sawyer. And the fetching curls and burls in the grain looked like prisms under bright light.

Another way to put this thought is that if your aesthetic doesn’t jibe with your pricing, you’re not a furniture maker. You’re a contractor, spending half your workweek installing kitchen cabinets and constructing office tables off someone else’s blueprints. Or you’re a hobbyist.

Mr. McGlasson practiced both of those occupations. And before that he, too, was a hobbyist. These were honorable pursuits.

“I’ve had bad jobs,” Mr. McGlasson said. “I scraped the sides and painted houses in the summer heat. I drove an ice cream truck that made no money. I ran the in-school suspension room in a junior high.”

At that time, in his 20s, he was training to be a teacher. A perk of the job: free classes in the district’s adult vo-tech program. “I had no idea how a door was made,” he said.

His tastes were simple from the start. “I liked Donald Judd,” he said, referring to the conceptual artist known for his boxes. “When your skills aren’t that great, it’s easy to look at Donald Judd and say, I can do that.”

He built a bedroom set for himself and his wife, and then a crib. “I was sort of burning out on working with kids,” he said. “I was having kids of my own.”

Then he met a Minneapolis architect who began giving him jobs in custom millwork and fabrication. He assembled reception desks (ramparts for corporate headquarters) and built-ins for condo conversions.

Mr. McGlasson didn’t quit this trade so much as the trade quit him. “When the economy went in the tank, it really made me stop doing things the way I was working, building whatever came along,” he said.

For $25 a week, he set up a table at the Mill City Farmers Market, above the Mississippi riverfront. And he started hawking his original bowls, benches and cutting boards.

Today, some of these early designs fill a showroom in his new wood shop. This is a five-room suite in a hulking old can-spraying factory, which he splits with four other woodworkers. A shopmate flies a remote-control plane under the blast-safe windows that cross the 28-foot ceiling. Mr. McGlasson bikes to the bathroom across the factory floor.

For 5,300 square feet, the wood shop pays $2,000 a month, on a 10-year lease. Mr. McGlasson’s share works out to $600 a month.

An industrial shelving unit on the north wall holds his templates and forms. The key to profitable furniture is replication. He has learned to turn down commissions for one-offs. “If someone called me up and said, ‘Can you make a bathroom vanity?’ I wouldn’t do it.”

This standard would guide the model chair, too. On Tuesday, he redrew the jig (or template), raising the seat by three-quarters of an inch and chopping the top by almost two inches. Coming off the bandsaw, it looked like a lowercase letter h, in Helvetica backslant bold.

“Yesterday, I might have been mired in a little self-doubt,” Mr. McGlasson said. “And today I thought, that’s the chair. Why is there always this effort to change it, to make it something it’s not?”

The back slats would come from walnut he’d milled down to 1/16th-inch veneers. The concept was to laminate them with a very slight curve. He glued these sheets together and clamped them to a solid wood form. Next, he placed the form in a 5-by-5-foot vacuum-sealer: a sous-vide bag for a side of elephant steak. The device cost $1,000.

“This is a ton of work for a stupid little detail,” Mr. McGlasson said. “The piece of wood that comes out of this is a lot stronger than if it was solid wood. So it can be thinner. It’s a detail I like.”

Mr. McGlasson had selected the walnut boards he would be using for the frame. He began to trace the template in three parts: a back leg and post; a seat rail; and a front leg. The plan was to cut them out, join them, then tape the rough outline to the jig and rout the edges.

A router is a violent machine, Mr. McGlasson said. And it makes a mess. The wood shavings will go in a two-cubic-yard Dumpster, with a haulage cost of $100 a month.

If the chair were to enter his furniture line, Mr. McGlasson could farm out these parts to a CNC shop, a computer-controlled router that makes quick, cheap, identical cuts. But then Mr. McGlasson held strong preferences about how the figure of the wood should lie. And he wanted to avoid the imperfections.

You can’t pay a computer to care about knots.

Mr. McGlasson relies on other mechanical shortcuts without apology. “Machines are golden and they’re expensive,” he said. He swears by his timesaver: a belt sander he bought for $4,500.

And the lathe, he added, “took me from a dude in a shop making whatever came along to a designer who was producing original work that people sought out to purchase.” This machine is where he turns his popular tables and lamps, whose voluptuous bases suggest the bust mannequins at Lane Bryant.

An earlier generation of woodworkers was almost religious about hand tools. In the movement called Studio Craft, an artisan expressed an individual credo through consummate skill and strenuous human effort. You could see it in the hand-planing, the subtle gouges and rips.

Building a chest of drawers this way could take four to six weeks, said Peter Korn, an author and the executive director of the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, a woodworking school in Rockport, Me.

“When I was a self-employed furniture maker, I made every mortise and tenon by hand,” Mr. Korn said. “Because I enjoyed it, and it was about integrity. And I starved.”

Students can still study that art at the center. Sometimes it’s the best method for the job. But they also practice joinery with a machine called a Festool Domino. A few years ago, Mr. McGlasson bought his own, despite the $900 price tag. “I wanted to hate it,” he said.

Mr. McGlasson runs across plenty of Studio Craft furniture at American Craft Council shows, where he sometimes rents a booth. He can appreciate the technical proficiency that goes into melding six types of wood into a single table. He calls it “extreme woodworking” or “woodworking for woodworkers.”

But woodworkers are not his clientele. To reach his niche, he is paying $5,800 for perhaps 100 square feet of floor space at the Architectural Digest expo. Kiki Dennis, who runs Kiki Dennis Interiors, in Brooklyn, sourced a Woodsport credenza for a Park Slope client who attended last year’s show.

“Her style was sort of minimal, and she loves beautiful wood and an organic sensibility,” Ms. Dennis said. “And I think that’s definitely evident in his pieces.”

The credenza is one of Mr. McGlasson’s best-sellers: a four-panel rectangular box on a stark steel or bronze frame. The corner door-pulls follow the natural wane, or curve, of the tree. The credenzas cost $4,000 to $7,000.

“Furniture is expensive,” Ms. Dennis said. “Even not-especially-well-made furniture or not-solid-wood furniture.” Mr. McGlasson’s minimalist designs and unfussy workmanship could match a new dining room set a decade from now, she added.

Finishing credenza doors with a timesaver, in other words, leads to the appearance of timelessness.

On Friday morning, the riddle still plagued him: two slats or three? “That’s one of the things I’ll get hung up on,” Mr. McGlasson said. “It seems so simple, but that’s the tricky stuff.”

The chair was standing on the concrete floor, clamped and dry-fitted. He had trimmed the seat rail and lowered the back leg, lending the chair a bit of a louche slouch. “Now I like the proportions of it,” he said.

This posture tilted the sitter toward the slats, though. The two-rung version recalled an ex-husband after an amicable divorce: He may appear supportive, but he doesn’t actually have your back.

Mr. McGlasson clamped on a third rung, sat down, and then stood up again and took in the profile. He had his verdict: “Two is better than three. It looks a little more mod. You put the third on there, and it looks like it’s built for comfort.”

As beer o’clock rolled around, it was time — past time — to finalize the chair. “I’ll make a spec piece every once in a while,” he said (that is, a design with no committed buyer). “I’ll knock a week off my schedule. But it’s sort of stolen time, and I’ll start getting really antsy. I’ve got to get back to making money.”

Mr. McGlasson finally punched insertion holes with the Domino and chiseled the seat back slats. Glue, sandpaper, rope, oil. By noon on Saturday, the chair was done.

Correction: by noon on Saturday, the chair was finished, but still not done. The design was fine from the leg down. But to Mr. McGlasson’s eye, the top felt homey, the equivalent of a Rockette wearing a sweater-vest.

By necessity, he had moved on to turning four tables and four lamps. But he wanted a do-over with the chair. “If I had a little more time, I’d make another one right now,” he said. The seat-stays, he realized, should be shaped slabs of walnut, as thick as the back rail.

A week ago, he’d woken up in a fit of anxiety about piloting his Ford F-150 through the Lincoln Tunnel on the way to the home show. “This is not part of the furniture maker’s skill set,” he said. He was thinking of leaving the RB dining chair back home in St. Paul. If someone in New York tried to order it, what would he say?

Designing a sublime piece of wood furniture was an achievement. But at the end of 40 hours, Mr. McGlasson had managed something even rarer. At $85 an hour for labor and $250 in materials, he’d lost $3,650 on a $1,600 chair.

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The Wassaic Project: A Festival, a ‘Beautiful’ Flood and Now Art

Last year’s festival drew 5,000 attendees. There’s a print shop, a bar and a pizza restaurant (with pies created by a Roberta’s of Bushwick alumnus) and perhaps, next year, a brewery.

They already have the equipment to start one, stored in the barn near the lunch counter where they’ve worked “performing” pancake breakfasts. The other day, the chilly space was brightened by a row of vintage aprons on wall pegs.

The Wassaic Project is a toothsome example of how artists schooled in social practice — that is, art that combines education, community engagement and social activism — can re-energize not just structures but entire towns like this tiny hamlet of just over 1,500 people that is the last stop on the Metro-North Harlem line.

One snow-flecked morning last week, Ms. Zunino and her husband, Jeff Barnett-Winsby, 35, drove a reporter through the eerie campus of the former Wassaic Developmental Center, a 1930s-era institution that was decommissioned a few years ago, half of which may some day — if the labyrinthine ways of Albany can be untangled — hold Wassaic Project offshoots, including housing.

“We’d like to make this place fertile,” said Mr. Barnett-Winsby, an energetic man with a stupendous beard. “Continue the energy of what we’ve been able to do in Wassaic.”

Ms. Zunino was in her first year of graduate school when her father, Tony Zunino, and Richard Berry, longtime preservationists and builders whose company, the Zuberry Development Corporation, has developed historic properties in the South Street Seaport, among other areas, finished stabilizing the old Maxon Mills in Wassaic, which they had bought as an act of preservation.

Mr. Zunino has a house in nearby Kent, Conn., and he loved the stately, wildly vertical structure, his daughter said.

At the time, Ms. Zunino and Ms. Biddle, who had done community work in Providence, R.I., were contemplating life after graduate school.

“We were reflecting on what communities were generous communities,” Ms. Zunino said. “I had grown up going to music festivals like Bonaroo. I wasn’t remotely a fan of the music, but I loved the spirit. People camping and sharing their food. So that was the inspiration. If we created a festival where the art wasn’t hippy stuff but serious contemporary art, could we create that kind of generous spirit, too?”

At the first Wassaic Project festival, 40 artists in various disciplines made installations among the grain bins and conveyor belts of the mill, and 15 bands played on a borrowed semitrailer truck. It was free (it still is), and drew more than 500 people. “We went door to door,” Ms. Zunino said, “handing out fliers.”

For the second festival, 2,500 people came, many camping on the rectangle of lawn in front of the old barn and livestock auction house that Zuberry had also bought.

At this point, Ms. Zunino and Mr. Barnett-Winsby, a fine-art photographer who had gone to Rhode Island School of Design as well and was also doing work that was not gallery-bound — documenting the lives of prisoners, shooting in a school for the blind — had fallen in love and were living in Providence, R.I.

A neighbor of Mr. Zunino’s who had donated some furniture to the Project offered them some advice along with his donation: “If you’re really going to do this,” he told Ms. Zunino and Mr. Barnett-Winsby, “you are going to have to live it.”

The first winter was punishing. Ms. Zunino, Mr. Barnett-Winsby and Dana Bunker, an artist who had finished a residency with them, began shoring up and readying the unheated auction barn for the following summer, living among a few buildings that Zuberry had bought to add to the Wassaic portfolio. (The Project rents the barn and the mill from Zuberry for $1 a year; the other properties, four houses including a former schoolhouse, rent for $1,000 to $2,000 each.)

Ms. Bunker’s boyfriend, Angelo Womack, a chef at Roberta’s in Bushwick, helped out, too, as did Lauren Was and Adam Eckstrom, married art collaborators who work under the name Ghost of a Dream. (Mr. Womack and Ms. Bunker left a few years ago to open a pizza restaurant in California.)

As the Project picked up steam, Zuberry bought the Lantern building, a century-old former hotel and still-running bar. (Ms. Bogarin, who started that first festival with Ms. Zunino and Ms. Biddle, had left early on to work on film projects; Ms. Biddle, still a co-director, works winters in Brooklyn and spends her summers in Wassaic.)

In the spring of 2011, a drenching rainstorm hit the frozen ground, and the hamlet was flooded. Mr. Barnett-Winby and Mr. Eckstrom of Ghost of Dream bought every pump they could find at Home Depot, and after they had pumped out the Wassaic Project’s nine buildings, they began pumping out the rest of the town.

It was a watershed moment, if you’ll pardon the expression. It took almost a week to drain the town, and the pumps that Mr. Barnett-Winsby bought ran continually, as he and Mr. Eckstrom worked in shifts with their neighbors.

“Everyone in town suffered,” Mr. Barnett-Winsby said. “And I think people started to see us as people, not just weekenders or what have you. That was really important.”

Ms. Was and Mr. Eckstrom, who have made installations and “paintings” out of used lottery tickets and the covers of romance novels, which look like exotic quilts or mosaics, kept most of their material in the basement of the Wassaic Project’s schoolhouse, where they were renting.

Lost in the flood were bags and bags of paper, including some of the stubs donated by the son of a man who had lost everything to a gambling addiction. “He wanted some good to come out of his father’s addiction,” Mr. Eckstom said.

“It was a beautiful flood,” Ms. Zunino added.

Nonetheless, that summer, Mr. Eckstrom and Ms. Was bought a house here, too, a 1934 cottage for just under $125,000.

Real estate prices are part of the calculus that may make Wassaic work as an artists’ community. Costs still range “from the mid-100s to the mid-200s,” said Arleen Shepley, a broker in the Millerton office of Elyse Harney Real Estate.

The Lantern building has been completely renovated, its upstairs reconfigured into two modern, airy apartments designed by Damian and Britt Zunino, Ms. Zunino’s brother and sister-in-law, who have a design-build company called Studio DB.

Ms. Zunino and Mr. Barnett-Winsby now live in one side. But there was a point, she said, when she, Mr. Barnett-Winsby, Mr. Eckstrom and Ms. Was, Ms. Bunker and Mr. Womack, and Scott Anderson, the Project’s music director, and Jeila Gueramian, the artist responsible for the Project’s haunted house, their two children and four dogs, were living in the unrenovated space, with plastic tarp where the exterior walls had been and just one bathroom.

They were in the weeds last spring, too, when their second daughter, Fenner, was born.

The Lantern restaurant was up and running, with Mr. Barnett-Winsby cooking and managing, at the same time he was project-managing the Zuberry and Wassaic Project’s buildings. He, Ms. Zunino and Ms. Biddle, who still works from Brooklyn, would seem to have vast reserves of energy.

“We’ve gotten better about taking some time to exercise, or be with the kids,” he said. “There’s a lot to deal with. Running the bar is my compensation,” by which he means the profits, if any, accrue to him, and he and Ms. Zunino live rent-free. “The restaurant is a wash, but not for the long term. We’re trying to create the place we want to be in. We don’t want to lose money, but we’re all willing to make a long-term commitment to this place. Logically, financially, maybe it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But that comes back to social practice. We are doing things that are interesting and dynamic. Art is not completely rational, and that defines a lot of this.”

Art can be magical, said Nato Thompson, chief curator at Creative Time, an organization devoted to public and social practice art. (Last year’s collaboration with the Weeksville Heritage Center, at which artists opened health clinics and made other community-based work, is a good example.)

“It’s magical to experience things as a community together,” he said. “Even when the art goes, the relationships stay around. I think of the arts as a complex ecosystem. Social practice is a nice eddy in there. Wassaic may be just close enough to New York to survive. And I think what they’re doing is fantastic.”

Linda Gregory, 54, grew up in the area and runs the local auto repair shop with her husband, Jack. Ms. Zunino, Mr. Barnett-Winsby and their collaborators, she said, “have been such a positive influence. It’s been a beautiful transition of bringing buildings back to life.”

Last year, Zuberry bought half of the former institution from the architect Allan Shope, who had owned it for 10 years and had hoped to do some sort of sustainable housing there.

He grew tired, Mr. Zunino said, of waiting out Albany. At issue, he explained, is what the state is planning for the half it still owns: “There was talk they would put a prison up, and the last thing I’ve heard is they want to see some economic development up there. It’s all hearsay. We can’t find anyone to talk to, and nobody has been able to introduce us to anyone that will talk to us.”

He added: “We bought it to protect the investment we had already made in Wassaic. We didn’t want the campus there to become something that would compromise what we had done.”

Zuberry’s half (200 acres and 25 buildings) cost about $1.4 million, he said. “Maybe we’ll start piecemeal and organically, like Wassaic. Stabilize one building, and see what might work in there.”

“It was our dream that something like this would happen,” Mr. Zunino said of the Wassaic Project. “Left to our own devices, I don’t think my partner and I could have pulled it off. Their energy, that’s the magic they bring. The heart of any revitalization is not superimposing your vision, but engaging a community and working within the existing framework of what’s there.”

It was freezing in the mill last week as Ms. Zunino and Mr. Barnett-Winsby climbed the seven stories to one of the topmost grain-bin galleries.

In one, Manuel H. Márquez, an artist-in-residence from Mexico, had used the climate to his advantage, spraying water on moody black-and-white photographs so that they were frozen to the walls and embellished with glistening icicles. Ice chunks were displayed like sculptures on shelves hammered between the exposed studs.

It was a fine expression of adaptive reuse, this reporter thought. Ms. Zunino grinned.

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On Location: Where Howard Hughes Was Underfoot

Built in 1926 for a wealthy socialite by the architect Roland Coate, the house was first rented and later bought by Mr. Hughes, who was drawn in part by the Wilshire Country Club’s golf course (its manicured fairways run right past the backyard).

The decade or so that Mr. Hughes lived here was a pivotal time: He produced the films “Hell’s Angels” and “Scarface,” set a transcontinental airspeed record and romanced Katharine Hepburn.

As much as Mr. Shah, 47, a former movie producer turned restaurateur, was intrigued by the Hollywood lore, he and his wife had a more prosaic attraction to the house: with three children and another on the way, they needed space.

The couple were living in Beverly Hills when Ms. Shah, now 35, remembered an acquaintance telling them that his house was too big for him and he was considering a move. “So I emailed saying, ‘Would you sell me said house?’ ” she recalled. “I hadn’t even seen it. It just all came together in my head.”

It came together on paper, too. In 2011, the couple paid $6.3 million for the roughly 9,000-square-foot house and embarked on an extensive renovation that included a small addition and cost around $300 a square foot.

The chief problem, as they saw it, was the outdated, chopped-up floor plan, with old-fashioned servants’ quarters that were removed from the main living spaces. “We couldn’t be an entire half-acre away from our children,” Ms. Shah said. “And we entertain a lot, so we wanted to make the common spaces a little more open. We just modernized it and tried to make it a little brighter.”

When it came to furnishing the rooms, they also favored their own eclectic tastes rather than trying to conform to the historic style. The couple transformed a pool room into a ’70s-style plywood rec room and redid Mr. Hughes’s former wood-paneled study in striking black lacquer. “We’re fun people,” Ms. Shah said. “That sort of old Spanish dark woods didn’t go with us.”

They turned the adjoining living room into a showcase of midcentury design, with a pair of Kaare Klint safari chairs, a Maison Charles glass-and-brass coffee table and custom leather couches in the style of Edward Wormley’s classic Gondola sofas. Laura Adams, a Los Angeles-based interior designer, helped choose and arrange the décor — not that she needed to do much directing.

“They have great taste, and they’re into beautiful midcentury pieces,” Ms. Adams said. “I helped them use those pieces with more-functional pieces that are kid-friendly.”

Many of those vintage furnishings, like a cool Lindner Tilting Wing grand piano, came from Ms. Shah’s restless midnight searches of online antiques and design marketplaces. “Some people look at porn at night,” she said. “I look at 1stdibs.”

Occasionally, her decorating suggestions, like a bright yellow sofa for the children or kitchen counters made of brass (there is much gold throughout the house), clashed with her husband’s subdued style.

“I’m more of a purist and she’s more of a risk taker,” Mr. Shah said.

To which Ms. Shah retorted: “I’m young, he’s old.”

The couple had “serious fights about tiles,” Ms. Shah added. But now that the house is finished (and she got her gold Ann Sacks kitchen tiles), they both said they feel very lucky. They have a home with plenty of space in a genteel neighborhood, a large front yard for their children and a backyard gate that opens onto the exclusive golf course that drew Mr. Hughes. And they have his vault.

It’s not much of a sight, really, just a little concrete-walled room that has been converted into a wine cellar. But the original steel door is still there, along with the enticing mystery of what Mr. Hughes may have stored behind it.

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