Build incredible mansions
The rich in New York can spend more than 300,000 US dollars on renovations just to demolish the old ones. Where does the sky-high renovation fee come from? Hear from veteran carpenter and independent contractor Mark Ellison.
| Chaotic Renovation |
Mark Ellison stands on the plywood floor, staring at the ceiling. It was a dilapidated 19th-century townhouse, with joists and beams and wires crisscrossing his head like a punctured spider web. He hasn’t figured out how to pretend yet. The designer plans to convert this into a master bathroom, which will have a haven-like feel when finished, with curved plaster lines and soft lighting. However, the ceiling design is too outrageous, half the barrel vault of the Roman church, half the groin vault of the cathedral nave. On the drawings, the circular curves of the barrel vault transitioned naturally to the elliptical curves of the side vaults, but translating the two-dimensional pattern into the three-dimensional world was a nightmare. “I took the blueprint to my physicist friend and asked if he could figure out how to do it for me, and he said ‘no way,'” says
Ellison. Straight lines are easier than curves, Ellison told me. Most houses are actually made up of boxes, and we either put the boxes next to each other, or stack one box on top of the other, like a child playing with blocks. Finally, we add a triangular roof on the top and you’re done. In an age when people built houses by hand, there were occasional curves, huts, earthen huts, igloos and yurts all had curves, and master builders built domes and arches for a living. But it is much cheaper to mass-produce flat-shaped building materials in factories and sawmills that produce standard-sized building materials such as bricks, planks, drywall and tiles. Now is the “era of the right angle,” Ellison said.
”I don’t know how to count,” Ellison shrugged, “but I know how to do it.” Ellison is the best carpenter in New York, and he can also be a welder, sculptor, contractor, Cabinet maker, inventor and industrial designer. Filippo Brunelleschi was both the builder of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore and an engineer. From this perspective, Ellison is the same kind of person as the master. People ask Ellison to challenge the impossible.
On the temporary stairs downstairs, workers are carrying plywood up. On the third floor where we were, workers were installing plumbing and wiring. Upstairs, a section of the lifted staircase entered the room through the window. Then, the staircase was moved to the designated position. The welder started the machine, and dazzling sparks could be seen at the welding place. On the fifth floor, beneath the soaring roof, painters were painting the steel beams, carpenters were making clapboards on the roof, and masons were repairing the exterior walls on scaffolding outside the walls. This is the chaotic daily life of the construction site. However, it only looks chaotic here. In fact, everyone has a clear division of labor, who should do what, how to do it, and the order of work. It was decided a few months ago. This group of people seemed to be dismantling the building, but in fact, they were performing a reconstruction operation. The building’s “bones”, “organs” and “circulatory system” were all spread out on the operating table. Ellison said the drywall was always a mess until it was erected, but within a few months the house would look so different that I would be surprised.
He walked out of the room and stood in the middle of the corridor, like a boulder standing in a torrent, standing still but changing the flow of water. Ellison, 58, has been a carpenter for nearly 40 years. He was a tall, hunched, bald man with a ragged beard, a deep, hoarse voice, and piercing eyes. He loves machinery, fire, and precious metals. He had bought a cement mixer before and was obsessed with it for two years. Whether a project attracts him depends on whether there are unexpected elements in it. What he wants is a gem hidden in the ordinary.
”No one would hire me for a home that’s not that bad,” Ellison said. “Billionaires don’t want the same old thing, it’s better than the last, and they want their house to be in a certain location.” It’s one-of-a-kind.” Ellison has worked for celebrities including David Bowie, Woody Allen and Robin Williams. The cheapest projects cost $5 million, and the most expensive ones can reach $50 million or more.
|The high-end real estate market in New York that “rolls” to the skyline|
The high-end real estate market in New York has its own rules of the game, which cannot be deduced by common sense. General difficulties will not have much impact on it. Even the financial crisis in 2008, the rich did not stop buying houses. They took advantage of low prices to buy houses and land, and then renovated the houses into luxury houses and rented them out. Some people let the room be empty after buying it, thinking that the market will always recover; some will invest millions to buy a house in Saudi Arabia, thinking that this can spread the risk; No matter how bad the situation is, it won’t affect him much. “Our job has nothing to do with rationality,” Ellison said. “It’s definitely not about adding value or reselling a house like this. Homeowners don’t need that, and they don’t want it.”
The land in New York is probably the tightest in the world. The land is too tight, but the money is too much. The result of the combination of the two is that the glass buildings, Gothic skyscrapers and Bauhaus buildings are taller than each other. If you walk in, you will find that the exotic atmosphere inside is more obvious than outside. Take a private elevator to a mansion on Park Avenue, and the door opens to reveal a French country living room or an English hunting lodge, a minimalist apartment or a Byzantine library. The 12-story Lord’s Palace and the 24-story Shrine are irreconcilable, but as long as the respective owners are willing, the two can coexist in one building.
”I can’t find a job in most cities in the United States.” Ellison said, “My job is too niche, and there is no such demand in those cities.” For four centuries, New York has been building houses. Today, Buildings of various structures and styles can be seen in almost every neighborhood. These different periods of architecture also have their own problems: the colonial houses are beautiful but not strong; the 18th century townhouses have a good shell but nothing else; and problems with broken brass pipes.
Houses built in the middle of the last century may be the most reliable, but houses built after the 1970s are unreliable, because many construction sites were controlled by gangsters at that time. The newly built house is not necessarily good. Ellison renovated a house in Trump Tower. Ellison’s life’s work has been to understand the flaws of buildings of all periods. Renovation does not have a Ph.D., and carpenters do not have a chef’s Le Cordon Bleu, but to achieve Ellison’s level, it is no less difficult than getting a Ph.D. or a Le Cordon Bleu.
In most cities, construction crews rely on crowbars and sledgehammers to do the demolition work, and then haul construction debris to dumps when they’re done. In New York, even renovation and demolition projects are delicate work. Picky rich people live in high-end New York neighborhoods, a little dust or noise can be called to complain, and a burst water pipe can ruin an original Edgar Degas painting. Therefore, the construction team must carefully carry out the demolition work, and the construction waste is usually packed into cylinders, sealed with plastic, and then carefully transported out. Renovation and demolition projects for a high-end home can cost upwards of $300,000.
Many high-end communities also have strict requirements for construction time, and can only be constructed between Labor Day and Memorial Day. Many homeowners are vacationing abroad during this time. Getting building materials into the house was also quite a challenge. There are no driveways, no backyards, and no open spaces to store items. The sidewalks are narrow, the stairwells are dark and cramped, and the elevator can only squeeze three people in. The trucks transport building materials to the downstairs. If they get stuck on the road, the horns of the cars behind will sound soon, and the neighbors will call to complain, and the construction may be stopped because of this. The ever-changing building codes are also a headache: If a house explodes, gas regulations will become extremely strict; if a parapet falls down and kills a passing student, the code for the exterior wall will be adjusted accordingly.
In addition to these difficulties, the homeowner will continue to adjust the plan or put forward new requirements throughout the construction period from beginning to end. In 2019, Ellison completed the renovation of a penthouse suite, which took three years and cost as much as $42 million. He custom-made more than 50 sets of furniture and mechanisms for the suite. “We didn’t have time to do samples,” he said. “The owners were in a rush to move in, so I only had one chance, and we installed it and they would move in.”
| Ellison’s Masterpiece: Water Lilies |
Adam Marelli IS Ellison’s partner. Ellison has been an independent contractor in the past, but he recently decided to team up with Marelli to do the renovation together, with him doing the walls, stairs, cabinets, flooring and carpentry, while Marelli did the plumbing, electrical, fire sprinklers and ventilation system.
One afternoon in late July 2020, Ellison and Marelli took me to a house near the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The ten-room suite was originally built in 1901, and Ellison renovated the home 17 years ago. From the outside, this house is decorated in a conservative classical style, but when I walked in, it naturally transitioned to an Art Nouveau style, and I felt as if I had walked into a water lily. “This is the closest I’ve come to a masterpiece,” Ellison said.
A century ago, if a craftsman wanted to decorate a house like this, he must have extraordinary craftsmanship. Today, the handmade tradition is declining, and some building materials are becoming more and more difficult to find, making it even more difficult. Secondly, houses in the past were decorated with all kinds of decorations, but now they are high-tech products. Natural gas, electrical wiring, fiber optics, smoke alarms, motion sensors, climate control systems, automatic lighting systems, fire sprinklers, it all has to go in. Houses are so complicated now that we might have to hire a full-time housekeeper to understand them. Ellison said: “I have renovated so many houses, I am afraid that none of the customers have really used all the functions of the house.”
Renovation can determine whether a person is a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Decorating such a house probably involves more choices than assembling a space shuttle, from the color and shape of the handle to where the siren should be installed. Some homeowners really don’t want to choose after the selection, so they let go; some go to the other extreme and have to customize everything.
Ellison took me around one by one, opening some hidden compartments, wiring boards, medicine boxes, drawers…everything was delicately integrated with the wall or woodwork. He said that one of the difficulties in this industry is finding space, that is, how to pack so many things into a limited space. Suburban houses don’t have to worry about this. If the air handling unit can’t fit in the ceiling, it can be placed in the attic or basement, but New York’s house is not so forgiving. “Attics? There are no attics here!” said Marelli. “New Yorkers don’t miss a centimeter.”
Ellison’s projects rarely cost less than $1,500 a square foot, and some can be as expensive as twice that. Prices start at $150,000 for a new kitchen and more for a master bathroom. The longer the construction period, the higher the price will generally be. “I’ve never seen a ready-to-use plan,” Marelli told me. “It’s either incomplete, or it violates common sense in physics, or there are many ideas, but there are no drawings to explain how to implement them.” Fang The Lord sets a budget, but the desired effect often exceeds the budget. Designers habitually overpromise and contractors habitually underbid. A one-year project at $1,000 per square foot turns into a two-year project at $2,000 per square foot, and everyone blames each other. “It’s a whimsical game,” says Ellison, “and it’s a bad practice in the industry.” Renovation is like building a car engine. It must be considered from the inside out, and every layer must fit just right.
|”Peak” and “Sky Apartment”|
If Ellison can only work on one more project before retiring, it will probably be the penthouse suite in the Woolworth Building. Architect Cass Gilbert’s masterpiece, the Woolworth Building, was completed in 1913 and was the tallest skyscraper in the world at the time. The suite occupies the top five floors of the building, and the developer Alchemy Real Estate has a unique name for this suite: Pinnacle.
Ellison first heard about the project from designer David Hotson. The two often collaborate, and Hortson hopes to connect the floors with a beautiful staircase. He said: “The ideal effect is that whoever gets here, every time they go up, they will be amazed.”
Hortson, 61, is a thin, white-haired man who wears a gray shirt, gray trousers and black leather shoes. On the day of the tour of the suite, he went with him. We took the elevator to the 15th floor and then took the stairs into the suite lobby, which was two stories high with windows all around and a great view. Looking to the east, you can see a lower building with a green tile roof and a huge angel statue at each corner on the top. The space on the top four floors of that building is a suite called “Tianyu”. Before that, Hortson and Ellison worked together to decorate the suite, which can be regarded as making full preparations for the “peak” decoration without knowing it.
In 2015, “Interior Design” magazine selected “Tianyu” as the most beautiful residence in the decade. “Tianyu” is not a pile of boxes at all. Walking into “Tianyu” is like walking into a diamond. “Hotson announced the death of the rectangle in his annoying Yale style,” Ellison said. However, “Tianyu” does not make you feel that the designer is deliberately making things difficult for others, but is full of interesting ingenuity and small surprises everywhere. The four floors are connected by a tubular slide made of German stainless steel. Hortson sometimes worries, is the slide too high-profile and distracting? In contrast, he is more satisfied with the interior stairs made of white nano glass. At first, he drew up the drawings, worried that no one would be able to make the stairs to his standards, but seeing Ellison, he felt that everything was stable. “This guy makes people feel very reliable.” Hortson told me, “Just looking at the picture, he can know how to realize these things in the three-dimensional world.” Compared with “Tianyu”, “Peak” has only two floors where elevators can be built , according to Hotson’s design, there are seven stairs to go up and down the stairs, which means that the design of “Peak” is more difficult.
When Gilbert designed the Woolworth Building, he didn’t intend for the top floors to be inhabited. In 1911, a fire broke out in the triangle underwear factory. Therefore, when he designed the building, he paid more attention to how to prevent fire. When the building first came out, the uppermost floors had neither windows nor tenants, and their only function was to place high-powered blowers to provide fresh air to the office areas below. However, in today’s metropolis, people’s pursuit of wealth and status has no limit, so naturally these layers of space cannot be wasted. The price of “Peak” is 79 million US dollars, and it will take more than 1,000 years for ordinary American families to earn it, but for the real rich, if the stock market is good, they can earn it in a quarter.
No matter how expensive the house is, Ellison will not think too much about it. Renaissance court architects had jobs that depended on the rich, and so did he. A few years ago, he was renovating the living room of a mansion in Palm Beach, and the owner wanted English brown oak throughout. Such oak is extremely rare and can only be found in English forests. “They ended up finding a batch of English brown oak in the basement of the Boston Public Library that had been there for years,” said
Ellison, who has spent his life helping people build dream homes, but has yet to I didn’t live in the house I wanted. “I don’t want to live like them at all.” He wishes he could live in a house like a firehouse. The place where the fire truck is parked on the first floor can be transformed into a studio, and the second floor can be transformed into a living room and a greenhouse for playing guitar and growing roses. “Who doesn’t want to live in a fire station?” he said. “Every man must have had such a dream when he was seven years old.
” It’s a dizzying little balcony with the spiers of a building on one side. As the sun sets, everything is bathed in soft sunlight. Before long, street lights, billboards, bridges, and yachts in the harbor are all lit up. The magnificent scenery in front of you even makes people forget the high housing prices. Hortson said: “Standing here, the entire summit of New York seems to have become your pocket.”