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God Help Ye, Merry Gentlemen

When half the building wants spruce and the other half likes plastic Santas, the lobby is a battleground.

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T wo years ago, a fracas in a quiet Jane Street co-op cast a pall on the holiday season. A board member was offended by the bright, and arguably festive, ornamentation in the entryway. “He called it white noise,” says publicist Stephen Larkin, then one of the building’s board members and now its president. “He wanted a more finished look … [like] Currier and Ives.” But he wasn’t in control. The decorating committee consisted of the building’s beloved super and his wife, so the squeaky wheel was silenced—and, some time later, quit the board altogether.

Much ado about mistletoe? Sometimes it’s unavoidable. First, there’s the question of how thoroughly to decorate in the first place—a tree and a menorah are only the start. “If you do one thing for one denomination, then you feel like doing it for all the others,” says Prudential Douglas Elliman’s Darren Sukenik. “It all starts looking like a religious museum.” Or, as in that Jane Street building, residents may prefer to make their own design statements instead of conforming to the tastes of the well-meaning, but perhaps design-challenged, building staff. Brokers say decorations can even scuttle a deal. Corcoran’s Jeffrey Gardere once took buyers to an “extremely nice” Washington Heights five-room, but the lobby put them off so thoroughly that they couldn’t see the apartment for the tinsel. “[There] was a huge aluminum Christmas tree, worn boxes from I don’t know how many Christmases ago underneath it, plastic Santa faces all over the walls—the stuff you find in dollar stores,” he remembers. “It felt cheap, which was unfortunate, because it was a beautiful prewar with a marble lobby.”

Perhaps the building wouldn’t have been a good fit, anyway. “If a broker’s client thinks [holiday decorations] are over-the-top, he’s probably looking at the wrong building,” says Paul Gottsegen, director of management for Halstead Management Company. After all, he says, “[decorations] are an indication of the building’s personality.” An impeccable lobby may signal fussiness; an untouched one, neglect. “I’ve gone into a building where the doorman’s mother decorates, and the residents love it,” he says. And sometimes—well, listen to the eminently practical Susan Wiener, who lives in a rental building on the Upper West Side. “I doubt anybody really cares,” says Wiener, adding that she’s way more concerned over whether everything in the building works year-round. “The lobby’s never that nice, so why should they expect it to be nice now?”


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