NEW YORK—Just where Fulton and Front streets intersect in Lower Manhattan, the city transforms into the 19th-century-era, historic South Street Seaport.
Few people live in this part of town. Despite the proximity to public transportation and basic amenities, the cobblestone streets and nearby East River waterfront create the illusion of isolation.
At night, many of the empty upper story windows of the 150-year-old four- and five-floor brick buildings are dark.
The pitch-black glass eerily recalls New York’s past, when the buildings were mostly occupied by a maritime community.
The handful of businesses and restaurants that are open are nestled on the ground floors of the district’s buildings. Still smarting from the impact of Superstorm Sandy, many stores in this commercial district remain closed. Others are locked in limbo over development deals, competing interests, and changes with the South Street Seaport Museum.
Along South Street, a row of mostly sad-looking, shuttered mixed-use brick buildings that date to the early 1800’s face the East River. Metal doors are covered with graffiti and peeling paint where the rowhouses are joined. Many were once owned by people associated with the Fulton Fish Market. Today, about half of the 10 buildings have fallen into disrepair; a few are partially occupied.
To the casual observer, there is little here aside from the area’s history to draw them in, especially as a place to live.
But at 115 South Street, one man’s dream of a truly unique lifestyle led him to restore one of the rowhouse buildings, making it modern and classy.
This is where former architect Marco Pasanella, now the owner of Pasanella and Son Vintners, rescued two rowhouses that were connected in the 1880s. Built in 1839 for ship chandlers Slate, Gardiner, and Howell, the buildings were combined in 1882 into one to make space for a bar with an upstairs brothel. Later, it was used to store tens of thousands of pounds of fish in freezers.
“I thought it was a diamond in the rough,” said Pasanella at his fifth-floor loft-style apartment on the top floor of the walkup. He said when they bought the building for $1.85 million in 2002, it was covered with graffiti and the surrounding area was full of drug dealers. It wasn’t the typical dream home, but for Pasanella, it was full of unrealized potential.
Not everyone found the plan to be brilliant.
“I think my in-laws thought we were nuts,” said Pasanella, who had been on the hunt for just such a project, and held his ground in the face of naysayers. “I thought it was a jewel that had been passed over.”
So Marco and his wife, Rebecca Robertson Pasanella—a former home and decorating editor at Martha Stewart Living—began the daunting task of renovating their gem from the top down, one floor at a time. They started with their own apartment so they could move out of their rental in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District. The other floors would be for renting tenants who would fund ongoing renovations.
“The idea was to get a little money, spend it, and try not to go bankrupt,” said Pasanella.
More than a decade later, they still haven’t the finished restoration work, but their pet project is a far cry from the graffiti-covered fish market building that they acquired not long after 9/11.
The main staircase is steep and narrow, but the worn wood of the steps and the handrail are vintage treasures.
On the ground floor, the Pasanella and Son wine and spirits shop is full of over 400 rich-looking bottles of drink surrounded by the textured red of exposed brick walls. A back room that leads to a small private garden is used for wine-tastings and private events. Though the shop, which opened in 2006, wasn’t originally part of the plan, it has worked out well.
When the fish market left in 2005, taking with it many building tenants, the wine shop became key to paying the bills.
“My master plan was to have some mythical and perfect tenant—and deep-pocketed, like Prada,” said Pasanella.
Today, the second, third, and fourth floors each have two loft-style apartments with tenants who each pay an average of $4,000 a month in rent. They include a writer, an art dealer, and a Belgian couple.
“The only common thread is that they’re nice people you’d like to live next to,” he said.
Pasanella says he has no idea how much they have spent to date on restoration work, but he does say that certain pieces have been extremely expensive, tricky, and time-consuming. When they bought the building, he said “everything was rusting and falling apart,” including the fire escape, which had to be completely replaced.
One of the priciest steps was to replace the structure’s 36 front, rear, and side windows. The front and rear building facade also had to be carefully attended to. Over the course of nine months, the masonry filling between the joints of all the bricks had to be renewed in a process called repointing.
Inside their own home, the Pasanellas refinished the original wood flooring not once, but twice. After an enamel paint job began to peel, they “pickled” the antique wood. The wide, uneven, and knotted boards were sanded, bleached, rubbed with lime, and sealed into a semi-transparent white finish. A row of large, rough-hewn wood pillars that resemble pier pilings line the middle of the main room; a remnant of what was once the dividing line between neighboring buildings.
Like most renovations, there is a story behind almost everything.
An antique hoist consumes one corner of the apartment’s main room, while a lamp shade dangles from its end.
Other parts of the home were introduced from the surrounding historic district.
A large kitchen island is made from reclaimed wood that was found in a nearby dumpster. The wood proved too large to get through the front door, so the Pasanellas found a willing crane operator who would take the job, but insisted on being paid in cash. As the night wore on and the crane operator was repeatedly delayed, they ultimately ended up hoisting the wood through the window at 2 a.m.
These days their renovations challenges are a bit less dramatic, but the schemes are just as grand. Future plans include a rooftop garden that will provide sustenance, charm, and much-needed insulation.
Pasanella hopes that his dream of living on the East River in an historic building will be embraced by others who want a unique life. He admits, though, that its position at the edge of Manhattan’s action makes it feel a bit remote.
“Psychologically, it feels like it’s off the grid.”
But more residents is precisely what he thinks the area needs.
“A lot of businesses in the area are struggling,” said Pasanella. “And they’re struggling because there’s not enough people living here.”