Mark Ellison stood on the raw plywood floor, staring up into the gutted nineteenth-century town house. Above him, joists, beams, and electrical conduits crisscrossed in the half-light like a demented spider’s web. He still wasn’t sure how to build this thing. According to the architect’s plans, this room was to be the master bath—a cocoon of curving plaster shimmering with pinprick lights. But the ceiling made no sense. One half of it was a barrel vault, like the inside of a Roman basilica; the other half was a groin vault, like the nave of a cathedral. On paper, the rounded curves of one vault flowed smoothly into the elliptical curves of the other. But getting them to do so in three dimensions was a nightmare. “I showed the drawings to the bass player in my band,” Ellison said. “He’s a physicist, so I asked him, ‘Could you do the calculus for this?’ He said, ‘No.’ ”
Straight lines are easy, curves are hard. Most houses are just collections of boxes, Ellison says. We stack them side by side or on top of one another, like toddlers playing with blocks. Add a triangular roof and it’s done. When buildings were still made by hand, the process would yield the occasional curve—igloos, mud huts, wigwams, yurts—and master builders earned their keep with arches and domes. But flat shapes are cheaper to mass-produce, and every sawmill and factory spits them out in uniform sizes: bricks, boards, drywall, tile. It’s the tyranny of the orthogonal, Ellison says.
“I can’t do the calculus on this, either,” he added, shrugging. “But I can build it.” Ellison is a carpenter—the best carpenter in New York, by some accounts, though that hardly covers it. Depending on the job, Ellison is also a welder, a sculptor, a contractor, a cabinetmaker, an inventor, and an industrial designer. He’s a carpenter the way Filippo Brunelleschi, the architect of the great dome of the Florence Cathedral, was an engineer. He’s a man who gets hired to build impossible things.
A floor below us, workers were shouldering sheets of plywood up a set of temporary stairs, sidestepping the half-finished tilework in the entryway. Ducts and wires were going in here on the third floor, snaking under joists and along floorboards, while sections of a staircase were hoisted through a window on the fourth. A team of metalworkers was welding them into place, sending foot-long sparks into the air. On the fifth floor, under the soaring ceiling of a skylit studio, some exposed steel beams were getting a coat of paint, while carpenters built a bulkhead on the roof and stoneworkers scuttled by on scaffolds outside, restoring the brick-and-brownstone façade. It was the ordinary chaos of a construction site. What seemed haphazard was in fact an intricate choreography of skilled workers and parts, scheduled months in advance and now brought together in a preordained sequence. What looked like butchery was reconstructive surgery, the building’s bones and organs and circulatory system splayed open like a patient on an operating table. It’s always a mess before the drywall goes up, Ellison said. In a couple of months, I wouldn’t recognize it.
He walked out into the middle of the hall and stood there like a boulder in rapids, directing the flow without moving. Ellison is fifty-eight and has been working as a carpenter for almost forty years. He is a big man with heavy, sloped shoulders. He has thick wrists and meaty paws, a bald head and fleshy lips that protrude over a ragged beard. There is a bone-deep competence about him that reads as solidity: he seems built of denser stuff than other people. With his gruff voice and wide-set, watchful eyes, he can seem like a character out of Tolkien or Wagner: the clever Nibelung, fabricator of treasures. He loves machines and fire and precious metals. He loves wood and brass and stone. He bought a cement mixer and was obsessed with it for two years—couldn’t stop using it. What draws him to a project, he says, is the potential for magic, the unexpected thing. The glimmer of gems that veins the mundane.
“Nobody ever hires me to do a conventional building,” he said. “Billionaires don’t want the same old thing. They want better than the last. They want something that no one has done before, that’s specific to their apartment, and that might even be ill-advised.” Sometimes this gives rise to wonders; more often it doesn’t. Ellison has worked on homes for David Bowie, Woody Allen, Robin Williams, and dozens of others he’s not allowed to name. His least expensive projects cost around five million dollars, but others can swell to fifty million or more. “If they want Downton Abbey, I can give them Downton Abbey,” he said. “If they want a Roman bath, I’ll build that. I’ve done some hideous places—I mean, disturbingly hideous. But I don’t have a pony in the race. If they want Studio 54, I’ll build that. But it’ll be the best Studio 54 they’ve ever seen—and it’ll have some extra Studio 56 thrown in.”
High-end New York real estate exists in its own microcosm, reliant on strange, nonlinear math. It’s as divorced from ordinary constraints as the needle towers that have risen to contain it. Even in the depths of the financial crisis, in 2008, the ultra-rich kept on building. They bought properties at cut-rate prices and turned them into luxury rentals. Or let them stand empty, assuming the market would recover. Or acquired them from China or Saudi Arabia, sight unseen, thinking the city was still a safe place to park a few million. Or just ignored the economy altogether, believing it could do them no harm. In the early months of the pandemic, there was much talk of wealthy New Yorkers fleeing the city. The market was down over all, but by fall the luxury market was rebounding: one firm sold twenty homes for more than four million dollars in the last week of September alone. “Nothing about what we do is sensible,” Ellison said. “No one does what we do to an apartment for value or resale. No one needs it. They just want it.”
New York may be the hardest place in the world to do construction. There’s too little room to build anything and too much money with which to build it, and the combined pressure, like an architectural geyser, sends glass towers, Gothic skyscrapers, Egyptian temples, and Bauhaus slabs rocketing into the air. If anything, their interiors are even more exotic—strange crystals formed when the pressure is turned inward. Ride a private elevator up a Park Avenue residence and the doors could open onto a French Country parlor or an English hunting lodge, a minimalist loft or a Byzantine library, its ceiling crowded with saints and martyrs. No logic leads from one space to the next. No zoning law or building tradition connects the rajah’s palace on twelve to the Shinto shrine on twenty-four. Their owners just like the way they look.
“I couldn’t be employed in most cities in America,” Ellison told me. “This job doesn’t exist there. It’s too idiosyncratic.” New York has its share of cookie-cutter apartments and high-rises, but even those may be lodged in landmark buildings or wedged into odd-shaped lots, set wobbling on sandbox foundations or perched on stilts a quarter mile high. After four centuries of building and razing, almost every block is a crazy quilt of structures and styles, and every era has its problems. Colonial houses are handsome but frail. Their wood wasn’t kiln-dried, so any original boards will be warped, rotten, or split. Town houses from the eighteen-hundreds are good for their shells and not much else. Their walls may be one brick thick, the mortar washed out by rain. Prewar buildings can be nearly bombproof, but their cast-iron sewers are full of corrosion, their brass plumbing brittle and cracked. “If you build in Kansas, you don’t have to give a shit about any of this,” Ellison says.
A mid-century building may be the most reliable, but watch out for those built after 1970. Construction was a free-for-all in the eighties. The crews and work sites were often run by the Mafia. “If you wanted to pass your job inspection, a guy would call from a pay phone and you’d walk down with an envelope of two hundred and fifty dollars,” Ellison recalls. New buildings can be just as bad. In the luxury apartment house in Gramercy Park where Karl Lagerfeld owned a unit, the façade leaked so badly that some of the floors rippled like potato chips. But the very worst, in Ellison’s experience, was Trump Tower. In an apartment he renovated there, the windows howled and had no weather stripping, and the electrical circuits seemed patched together with extension-cord wire. The floors were so out of level, he told me, you could drop a marble and watch it roll.
Learning the flaws and foibles of every era is a lifetime’s work. There’s no doctoral degree in high-end construction. No Cordon Bleu for carpenters. It’s the closest thing in America to a medieval guild, with a long and haphazard apprenticeship. It takes fifteen years to become a good carpenter, Ellison estimates, and another fifteen to do the style of project he does. “Most people just aren’t up for it. It’s too weird and hard,” he says. Even demolition can be a refined skill in New York. In most cities, a crew can just whale away with crowbars and sledgehammers and toss the debris into dumpsters. But in buildings filled with wealthy, finicky owners, the crews have to work with surgical stealth. Any dirt or noise could prompt a call to City Hall, and a single busted water pipe could ruin a Degas. So the walls have to be carefully dismantled, the pieces packed into rolling containers or fifty-five-gallon drums, sprayed down to settle the dust, and sealed in plastic. Just gutting an apartment can cost a third of a million dollars.
A lot of co-ops and luxury condominiums insist on “summer rules.” They allow construction only between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when owners are off in Tuscany or the Hamptons. This ratchets up the already enormous logistical challenges. There’s no driveway, back yard, or empty lot to leave materials. The sidewalk is narrow, the stairwell dim and cramped, the elevator a tight squeeze for three people. It’s like building a ship in a bottle. When the truck arrives with a load of drywall, it gets stuck behind a moving van. Soon traffic is backed up, horns blaring, and the police are handing out tickets. Then the neighbor files a complaint and the site gets shut down. Even if the permits are in order, the building codes are a labyrinth of shifting passages. Two buildings explode in East Harlem, begetting stricter gas inspections. A parapet crumbles at Columbia and kills a student, triggering new façade standards. A small boy falls from the fifty-third floor and henceforth windows in all apartments with children may open no more than four and a half inches. “There’s an old saying that building code is written in blood,” Ellison told me. “It’s also written in annoying letters.” When Cindy Crawford threw one too many parties a few years ago, new noise covenants were born.
And all this time, as crews navigate the city’s pop-up obstacles and the end of summer hurries near, the owners are revising their plans, piling on complexities. Last year, Ellison completed a three-year, forty-two-million-dollar renovation of a penthouse on Seventy-second Street. The apartment had six floors and twenty thousand square feet. Before he was done, he had to design and build more than fifty custom furnishings and mechanical devices for it—from a retractable television above an outdoor fireplace to an origami-like childproof gate. A commercial firm might have taken years to develop and test each piece. Ellison had a few weeks. “We don’t have time to prototype,” he says. “These people are desperate to get into the place. So I get one chance. We build the prototype and then they live in it.”
Ellison and his partner, Adam Marelli, were sitting at a makeshift plywood table at the town house, going over the day’s schedule. Ellison usually works as an independent contractor, hired to build specific parts of a project. But he and Marelli have lately teamed up to manage entire renovations. Ellison was in charge of this building’s structures and finishes—the walls, stairs, cabinets, tiles, and woodwork—while Marelli oversaw its inner workings: the plumbing, electricity, sprinklers, and ventilation. Marelli, who is forty, trained as a fine artist at N.Y.U. He divides his time among painting, construction, photography, and surfing the breaks in Lavallette, New Jersey. With his longish brown curls and slender-hipped downtown style, he can seem an odd match for Ellison and his crew—a whippet among pit bulls. But he shares Ellison’s obsession with craft. As they worked, their talk pinged amiably between blueprints and elevations, the Napoleonic Code and the stepwells of Rajasthan, with side discussions of Japanese temples and Greek vernacular architecture. “It’s all about ellipses and irrational numbers,” Ellison said. “It’s the language of music and art. It’s like life: nothing ever works out on its own.”
This was their first week back at the site in three months. The last time I saw Ellison, in late February, when he was wrestling with the bathroom ceiling, he hoped to finish the job by summer. Then everything crashed to a halt. When the pandemic began, New York had forty thousand active construction sites—almost twice the number of restaurants in the city. At first, the sites were kept open as essential businesses. On some projects with confirmed COVID cases, the crews had no choice but to come to work and ride packed elevators up twenty floors or more. It was only in late March, after protests by workers, that close to ninety per cent of the job sites were finally shut down. Even indoors, you could sense the absence, like the sudden lack of traffic noise. The sound of buildings going up is the city’s ostinato—its thrumming, hammering heartbeat. Now it was dead silent.
Ellison spent the spring alone in his studio in Newburgh, an hour up the Hudson. He made parts for the town house and kept tabs on his subcontractors. All told, thirty-three companies were slated to work on the project, from roofers and tilers to ironmongers and concrete fabricators. He had no idea how many would return from quarantine. Renovation jobs tend to lag two years behind the economy. The owner gets a Christmas bonus, hires an architect and a contractor, then waits around for drawings to be done, permits to be issued, and crews to shake free. By the time construction starts, it’s usually too late to stop. But now office buildings were emptying out across Manhattan and co-op boards were banning all new construction for the foreseeable future. “They don’t want a bunch of grubby, Covid-carrying workers walking around,” Ellison said.
When the city resumed construction, on June 8th, it set strict limits and protocols, backed by five-thousand-dollar fines. Workers had to take their temperatures and answer health questionnaires, wear masks and keep their distance—the state limited sites to one worker for every two hundred and fifty square feet. A site like this one, with seven thousand square feet, could have no more than twenty-eight people on the premises. Today, there were seventeen. Some of the crew were still reluctant to leave quarantine. “The cabinetmakers, custom metalworkers, and finish carpenters fall into that camp,” Ellison said. “They’re a little better off, own their businesses, have workshops in Connecticut.” The prissier trades, he called them, jokingly. Marelli laughed: “Those with college degrees from art schools tend to be made of softer tissues.” Others had left town weeks ago. “The steel guy went back to Ecuador,” Ellison said. “He says he’s coming back in two weeks, but he’s in Guayaquil and he brought his wife with him.”