Living in History

The Bernstein family home on Central Park West in 1975Photo: Richard Avedon

You know who used to live here?

In the 1984 movie The Brother From Another Planet, an empathetic, mute alien lands in New York. One of his supernatural gifts is the ability to draw history out of buildings; in the first scene, he puts his hands on the walls of Ellis Island and feels every person who’s brushed up against those same bricks.

This home-design issue has a similar premise. Who hasn’t put a hand to that freshly painted wall and wondered, Who used to live here? Every dwelling is saturated with past lives, some mundane, some extraordinary. We have a look at the apartments of New Yorkers from James Dean in his humble West Side digs to the Steinbergs in full Reagan-era opulence.

For the contemporary ghosts, we found four apartments and one house with exceptional lineage. The Bernstein family home was a magnificent hodgepodge, according to Bernstein’s daughter; its current tenant, an architect, has preserved its lush spirit but in a far more controlled and curated way. The owner of architect Paul Rudolph’s beautiful and famously defiant glass apartment on Beekman Place has made it shine again (with modifications for a family). An avid art collector installed her 250 pairs of designer shoes in a glossy black bachelorette pad built over the men’s locker room of an old YMCA. A documentary filmmaker now lives in the Washington Mews carriage house once occupied by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. And on Staten Island, a self-taught historian has spent eleven years (and counting) meticulously restoring a pre–Revolutionary War house where he lives with minimal modern invasions. If any ghosts show up in his living room, they’ll be carrying muskets.

Living in History