Richard Devine was born in the Bronx, and though his family moved around a lot when he was younger, his roots were always firmly planted in New York City. He returned about 20 years ago, this time determined to stay in the city for good. He rented for years in neighborhoods like the East Village, Chelsea, and Washington Heights, but eventually, he decided he wanted his own space.
Of course, the hunt was the tricky part. Rich looked at dozens of places, traversing the city from Harlem to Bushwick to Bed-Stuy, all to no avail. A promising lead on a three-bedroom house in Crown Heights turned into a dead end when he couldn't make an open house; the listing was already gone by the next day. The search resumed.
But three months later, while on a job in Washington Heights, Rich got a call from the realtor on the Crown Heights house. The financing for the buyer had fallen through. Would he like to come and check out the space?, the realtor asked. Rich jumped at the offer. "It was pouring and gross out and I walked in the front door and I just said, "I want this house,"' he explains now. "The broker asked me if I was kidding, but I just fell in love with it."
But it was a steep, uphill climb from there. The house wasn't in the best condition. Built in 1930, the owner who had been living there at the time was a 20+ year resident of the house. And there were plenty of elements that Rich found unappealing. The house had drop ceilings, the floors had ancient carpeting (some of which had been embedded on the wooden floors), and amidst the disrepair there was also an undiscovered skylight, which Rich saw as an added bonus.
But why did he still choose this house and why did he remain undeterred? Well, for one, taking things apart and building them is part of what Rich does for a living. He works as a set decorator, and his job informs his design aesthetic at home.
Here's what the house looked like when Rich first moved in:
But there was a lot going for the place, too. "I saw the big front yard, and the long stoop, and all the lovely detailing, " he says. "I loved all the woodwork, and even under all the crap you could see how beautiful the house really was. Simple, but really beautiful."
And so the work began. At one point while he was working on the front yard, his neighbor told him, "You have to slow down. The house will always be there." That was 12 years ago.
Ten years ago, Rich met his future husband, Sean O'Toole. Sean moved in five years ago, and brought some changes to the house. "I've been collecting furniture and artwork for the past 25 years, right since when I was in college," says Rich. "Sean refers to my hoarding, but I like to think of it as something more polite."
Sean's response: "I like to refer to it as relaxed eclectic. The strength of this place is that it's designed, but it feels very relaxed and comfortable."
Pieces of furniture come and go, according to the couple, with Sean getting the veto power at the end of the day (or he'll just place an item out of sight). "Most of the stuff I really like," says Sean. "[Rich has] got such a good eye. I know things constantly move around and come and go, so if I’m not crazy about something I know, it won’t stay very long."
"It helps that we have our own spaces too," Sean continues, referring to the sun room adjacent to the guest room on the second floor, which was converted to a study after Sean moved in.
Most of the furniture and the artwork in the house comes almost exclusively from two places hundreds of miles apart. Rich has long purchased pieces from John Koch Antiques from the Upper West Side and Anastacia's Antiques in Philadelphia. The latter was a place he was introduced to while in college. The first piece of furniture he ever bought— a bed—is something he still owns, and is used in the guest bedroom of the townhouse to this day.
There's also stuff collected from thrift stores and Target, not to mention items Rich has procured from sales on the sets of productions he's worked on. But what are the pieces that stand out to the couple?
For starters, the large Milo Baughman dining table in the living room. "We had a more stuffy one before, but this is more inviting," Sean says. Rich loves a goatskin lacquered chest of drawers from the 1980s that sits next to the dining table. There's also a chair from the turn of the 20th century. "Somebody probably hipped it up in the ’60s by adding red vinyl on it," Rich said referring to its upholstery.
And then there's the rooster, a family heirloom that Rich inherited from his grandmother. It's something of a touchy subject for the couple: One morning, Sean accidentally dropped it, and the precious token shattered into tiny pieces. "It was the only thing of my grandmother I have," Rich explains. "I was heartbroken."
But Sean was determined to put it back to together. "It was touch and go, but the surgery was a success," he says, and today it sits on a ledge in the kitchen.
The couple hasn't made many structural changes to the house. Rich had to do a lot of technical work when he moved in, including sorting out out the electric and mechanical aspects of the house, but they've never had the desire to the change the structure itself.
But they did make one addition: they added a door that leads to the backyard where a window was once placed. That was for their wedding last August, which included a reception held in their backyard. To make the space fit for a party, they took down the window, spruced up the yard, and added a deck.
They still see their home as a work in progress. They want to renovate the bathroom, and redo the kitchen, but that'll happen in good time. They don't intend to leave; in fact, despite the changes that've come to the neighborhood in the past few years, they feel that their street in particular has fended off the steamroller of gentrification so far. "It's like a neighborhood within a neighborhood," Sean says.
Most of the houses on the street are owner-occupied, and the couple gets along great with their neighbors. That sense of trust and community has also contributed to the people continuing to want to live in that area. "If you go into a neighborhood, and you embrace the neighborhood, and you embrace the people, and you’re friendly, and you smile, the people will respond in kind," Rich says. "They just want to know that you’re a good neighbor and they want to know you’re a good person."
- House Calls Archives [Curbed]