Staging the Scene: The Story Behind the New York Times Story

Each Sunday, The New York Times’ Real Estate section showcases a city residence. The feature is called “Habitat” and the articles don’t merely profile a residence; rather, the stories discuss how the space suits the people who live there. When my husband, Joe Stanko, and I learned that the New York Times was interested in featuring our apartment, one question came to our minds: Where in God’s name would we stash our stuff?

If you’ve never lived in New York City, you don’t know what I’m talking about. Space is always an issue in New York City apartments. When Joe first moved in here, I cleared out a drawer for him. Imagine my dismay when, like Oliver Twist, he asked for more. “More?” I repeated, certain I couldn’t possibly have heard him right. “Did I hear you say you wanted ‘More’?” For the record, over the years he has negotiated like a hard-nosed diplomat and now controls roughly 40 percent of available storage space for his own use.

When I visit friends who live in the suburbs or in the country, people with “normal-sized” houses, I often stand in their kitchens and stare at their cupboards, experiencing what I call storage envy. This is a real and chronic condition. Joe has storage-envy, too, but manages his condition better than I do. Don’t get me wrong , I love living in Manhattan. Our apartment is beautiful. But there’s so little room to store things, it’s painful. Joe has said that if we bring in anything else, it’s living at the end of the bed. You think I’m joking. I’m not. Recently, Joe and I were at someone’s house for the first time. Nice people. Heck, great people. They have a beautiful home in Connecticut. They showed us around, you know a house tour. (As an aside, have you ever thought about house tours? It’s a pretty strange tradition. And a relatively new one. People two or three generations ago didn’t tour one another’s houses. I’m not sure how the new tradition got started. Curiosity out in the open, perhaps.)

In any event, their master bathroom wasn’t a bathroom; it was a suite. They called it the “master bathroom suite.” It was comprised of a dressing room—complete with make-up table and Hollywood lights—and a valet room (a man’s version of a dressing room), a toilet room, and I guess what could be called a bathing room, or a cleaning room, maybe. The bathing room had a spa tub as large as most people’s powder rooms and a shower big enough for two with built-in seats and two shower heads. And a vanity with two sinks. Some of you are shaking your heads wondering what cave I’ve been living in. You know that almost all newly constructed houses have nice master bathroom suites. Fair enough. Welcome to Manhattan.

Manhattan is tiny. If I recall correctly, the island is about 13 miles long and 2 ½ miles wide at its widest point (which by the way, is 14th Street). More than 1.6 million people live here. Space is an issue for almost all of us. While we were in our friend’s master bathroom suite, I turned to Joe and whispered, “In New York, this would be called a one-bedroom and rent for about $1,800 a month.” I wasn’t joking. When I first moved to New York in the mid-1980s, I toured what’s called a “junior two.” A junior two refers to a one-bedroom unit large enough to be reconfigured to add a second bedroom, usually by adding a wall in the living room to create a separate room.

The alleged 2-bedroom rental that I toured some 20-plus years ago was in the trendy Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea. It was a newly renovated railroad apartment—a long, skinny unit in a brownstone or tenement that runs from front to back. It had mellow brick walls in the living room, a kitchenette with new, albeit small, appliances, one bathroom, and a view from the main bedroom of the alley. (No one could have called that bedroom a master with a straight face.) The second bedroom was a walk-in closet. Really. Yes, it’s illegal to call a room a bedroom if it doesn’t have a window. They did it anyway. I didn’t rent that unit, but I got a good chuckle out of the experience.

You know that house in Connecticut that I mentioned... the one with the master bathroom suite... there were three windows in the bathroom suite. Three. And three closets. The dressing room, which some people might call a walk-in closet had a closet. The closet had a closet. I stared it for a long time. (Sigh, sigh, sigh.) Never mind. I was just experiencing a momentary flash of storage envy; it’s passed.

When I say storage is an issue for Joe and me, I mean it. As an example, our cereal lives under the wing chair. We say things like, it’s too bad we can’t stock up on cereal while it’s on sale, but the wing chair is full. Which brings me to the day Debby Baldwin, the New York Times reporter called and said she was considering doing an article on our apartment. Joe and I looked at one another, dismay evident in both our expressions. How, we wondered, were we going to make the apartment article-worthy and photo-ready? The apartment is gorgeous... the apartment itself wasn’t the issue... it was our stuff. Clearly, we needed to stage the apartment. Luckily I’m an HGTV fan so I know all about staging. De-clutter. Neutralize. De-clutter. Limit the number and kinds of personal items out and about. De-clutter. De-clutter. De-clutter. Check.

We had two weeks. Joe and I spent several days thinking about what to keep on display and what to spirit away into hiding. And then we gave up. Oh, my God. I spent about a year (okay, a day) cleaning out my office. I threw away two huge trash bags full of papers and materials I no longer expected to need. Joe cleaned out his allotted space. If you’ve never done this, you have no concept how painful the process is. It’s awful. Even after we were done, there was too much stuff. That meant there was only one alternative. We had to fit everything else into the closet.

Can you believe this closet? What you can’t see is that it goes back three feet or so, and every inch was solidly packed. Note the wicker magazine holder perched at a crazy angle toward the top. When everything was in, Joe and I looked at one another. Then we quickly closed the door.

The writer and photographer came and did their work. And the next day, we took everything out of the closet and placed it back where it belonged. Out. Visible. In our lives. After all, it is our stuff.

And that’s the story behind the story.

To view the photos for this blog go to http://www.janecleland.net/htm/blog/blog.htm

As always, I welcome your comments.

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