Three local artists will have their original artwork installed at the Clairmont Adventure Park as part of the County of Grande Prairie’s Art for the Park project.
The winners are Daelyn Biendarra for her entry titled “Dream View,” Cassidy Guenther with “Skateboarder.png” and Quinn Goldberg with “Fox Mountain.”
“We’re excited about bringing a splash of colour to the park and also encouraging the community to take pride in their park because it’s very much central to the hamlet of Clairmont,” said Christine Rawlins, parks and recreation manager with the County of Grande Prairie.
Developed in 2014, the Clairmont Adventure Park is home to a skate park, spray park, outdoor exercise equipment and greenspace. The Clairmont Agricultural Society operated the venue, with county funding totaling $640,000, until the county took over operations early 2020.
In May, the county called on submissions from young artists to help beautify the park.
“We just felt that it had a lot of potential to be a multi-generational community hub, but it needed a little bit of TLC (tender loving care) and some further investment, I guess, of time and creativity because it looks very industrial at first glance,” Rawlins said.
“We felt there was a lot of potential there for the community to take pride in the park, so we thought this was one of the first initiatives that we could launch to help meet that goal.”
A panel of judges chose the three submissions for Site 1, which is along the wooden residential fences on the park’s east boundary.
“They wanted to select pieces that represented different, some that were sort of modern or more futuristic, some that were something a little bit more traditional,” Rawlins said.
“We were looking for some diversity in what would actually be posted there.”
Artists also submitted concepts/ideas to be developed into an art for installation at Site 2, which is along the fences around the Clairmont Adventure Park. Goldberg was also the Site 2 winner for her of a Honeybee Conservation Education Project.
Her idea involves placing cut outs of bees—likely to be made out of wood—and other important pollinators along the chain link fence at the park. Residents will eventually have an opportunity to contribute to the project by painting individual components.
The county is now in the process of printing the three winning art pieces onto boards, which will be installed in the park this summer. Rawlins stated that there was no specific timeline for the Honeybee Conservation Education Project, but noted it would be an ongoing project.
All artists who submitted work were entered in a draw to win a $100 gift card. The draw winners are Christina Read, Douglas Rieger, Daelyn Biendarra and Chaney Tidd.
The public is asked to follow the county’s social media should they want to contribute or participate in the art projects for the Clairmont Adventure Park.
Since the middle of March, when the pandemic shut everything down, I’ve tried to go for a walk each day. First, it was around the block. Then, a few blocks. Now, I’ll regularly find myself wandering neighbourhoods I didn’t know existed. While my partner and I made astonishingly quick work of Vanderpump Rules and a dozen seasons of Below Deck, the streets and trails around our apartment have become a sort of entertainment that’s just about impossible for me to exhaust. That’s because every time I step out, I discover something new. Maybe it’s a funny piece of graffiti, or a gargoyle scupper wearing a dopey look. One day, it was a small community of birdhouses built into a roof gable that caught my attention; another time, a pair of security cameras that looked like googly eyes. I take pictures of my findings. They become like private landmarks. The discoveries are generally small and often fleeting, but the enjoyment they spark is genuine.
For the past seven years, Port Moody, B.C.-based artist Sara Graham has catalogued such moments of curiosity, wonder and playfulness found within the urban environment. Her project, Sculptureaday (or SAD for short), shares one daily photograph featuring a peculiar form, gesture or assemblage spotted outside of the gallery setting that appears sculptural nevertheless. One recent post, for example, pictures a pumpkin-shaped mound of spent tape and packing paper left after a paint job. Another shows a weaving made from crisscrossing pipes. About 100 Canadian artists have contributed to the project, including Graham herself, who also curates submissions. Sculptureaday exhibits what rewards we can find by looking more closely at the world around us. It is a gallery dedicated to tiny, everyday marvels.
The project began as an office gag with her colleague, the writer and editor Bryne McLaughlin. The pair brought the idea online as Sculptureaday in 2013 and began inviting artist friends to participate. SAD’s “accidental art” premise seemed to have its own gravity, and a small community of contributors and fans developed around the project. When her co-founder stepped away, Graham continued to steward the project solo. A Paintingaday blog followed almost naturally, collecting kindred discoveries of a more two-dimensional variety. Graham operates both daily. New contributors get sent into the wild with this definition: “(A SAD) is a found sculptural circumstance, a spontaneous constructed intervention or an unexpected observation in the urban world.” Though the target may sound vague, with a little practice, Graham says, you’ll know a SAD right when you see one.
Oakville, Ont.-based artist Steven Laurie is a frequent Sculptureaday contributor. He characterizes the subjects of his photography as the “subtle,” “poetic,” and sometimes “spectacular” moments found in ad hoc repairs and the decision-making special to everyday handyworkers. A broken emergency button at Toronto’s Union Station made an early muse; it had been repeatedly but unsuccessfully affixed with tape to a cinder block wall. A more recent photo shows a neighbour’s carefully manicured evergreen, which looks remarkably like the artist Paul McCarthy’s famous sculpture, “Tree” (which is also to say: it looks like a sex toy). Another image — lit dramatically by the moon, nearby highway lamps and some fog — pictures a break area with a pair of picnic tables fenced in on three sides.
The same wonder, curiosity and playfulness we find in the gallery is all around us.
Before Sculptureaday, Laurie was an artist who made intricate and highly-fabricated machines. His observational photography originated as study work to inspire future sculptures — but a new house and a young family meant the long hours demanded for the design and manufacture of precise machinery “kind of went away.” He had begun submitting some of these shots to Sculptureaday, and slowly, the picture-taking became his focus. “If it wasn’t for Sculptureaday,” Laurie says, “I wouldn’t have gotten into photography in the same way.” Through this platform, he’s overhauled his artmaking and refined a distinct photographic voice.
East Vancouver artist Greg Snider is another one of the project’s longest-running contributors. The Simon Fraser University professor emeritus says a good SAD sometimes exhibits a tic he recognizes from art history; other times, he’s struck by something he cannot categorize, other than to say: “That’s a thing! That’s it! That’s Sculptureaday!” One submission he points out roughly summarizes the whole endeavour for him. On a damp day, he found a glasses case that had been mashed into the asphalt of the street. In the photograph he made, some text printed on the case is still quite legible. It says: “Better vision for everyone.” Sculptureaday has “sharpened” his vision, he says. He pays closer attention to where he is. He’s seated better in the moment.
Another contributor, the Chicoutimi, Que.-based artist James Partaik, feels like he’s “grown new antennas,” a new “sensory input device” tuned acutely to his environment. Graham herself describes the Sculptureaday effect as a sort of mindfulness: “It causes you to be aware of your surroundings,” she says, “but also to be aware that you are a part of your surroundings. As well as being an observer, you’re participating in this moment.”
The project trains us to bring the same close, critical and careful eye that we use to look at art to look at our everyday. If we can learn to do that, Graham says, we’ll find that the same wonder, curiosity and playfulness we find in the gallery is all around us. So long as she and at least a few friends continue to encounter these moments so exciting that they demand a photograph, Sculptureaday will also continue — every day and maybe for the rest of our days.
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.”
Like many crews in the city, Ellison and Marelli’s were filled with first-generation immigrants: Russian plumbers, Hungarian floorers, Guyanese electricians, Bangladeshi stone carvers. The nationalities and the trades tended to go together. When Ellison first moved to New York, in the seventies, the carpenters all seemed to be Irish. Then they went home in the boom years of the Celtic Tiger and were replaced by waves of Serbs, Albanians, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Colombians, and Ecuadoreans. You could track the world’s conflicts and collapses by the men on New York scaffolds. Some came with advanced degrees of no use to them here. Others were fleeing death squads, drug cartels, or previous disease outbreaks: cholera, Ebola, meningitis, yellow fever. “If you’re looking for a place to work when shit goes wrong, New York isn’t a terrible place to land,” Marelli said. “You’re not on bamboo scaffolding, you won’t get beat up or cheated by a criminal state, and a Hispanic guy can fold right into a Nepalese crew. If you can follow masonry marks, you can work all day.”
This spring was a frightening exception. But construction is a dangerous business in any season. Despite OSHA mandates and safety inspections, a thousand workers die on the job every year in the United States—more than in any other industry. They die of electrocution and exploding gas, toxic fumes and ruptured steam pipes; they get pinned by forklifts, caught in machinery, and buried in debris; they tumble from rooftops, I-beams, ladders, and cranes. Most of Ellison’s accidents have happened while biking to sites. (The first broke a wrist and two ribs; the second, a hip; the third, his jaw and two teeth.) But he has a thick scar on his left hand where he nearly sawed his hand off, and he’s seen three arms lopped off at job sites. Even Marelli, who mostly sticks to management, almost lost an eye a few years ago. He was standing near a crew that was cutting some steel studs with a chop saw when three splinters shot out and pierced his right eyeball. That was on Friday. On Saturday, he had an ophthalmologist extract the splinters and clean out the rust. By Monday, he was back at work.
One afternoon in late July, I met Ellison and Marelli on the Upper East Side, on a leafy side street around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We were visiting an apartment that Ellison had worked on seventeen years earlier. A ten-room triplex in a town house built in 1901, it was owned by an entrepreneur and Broadway producer named James Fantaci and his wife, Anna. (They sold it in 2015 for nearly twenty million dollars.) Seen from the street, the building had a starchy, Beaux-Arts elegance, with limestone pediments and wrought-iron grillwork. But, once we were inside, its renovated lines began to soften into Art Nouveau, the walls and woodwork bending and folding around us. It was like stepping into a water lily. The door to the great room was shaped like a curling leaf, framing a swirling oval staircase behind it. Ellison had helped build both, and made sure that they matched each other curve for curve. The mantelpieces were made of solid cherry, based on models sculpted by the architect, Angela Dirks. The dining room had a glass catwalk, with nickel-plated railings and tulip-blossom finials that Ellison carved. Even the wine cellar had a vaulted pearwood ceiling. “It’s the nearest I ever got to everything being gorgeous,” Ellison said.
A century ago in Paris, building a residence like this took extraordinary skill. Today, it’s much harder. It’s not just that those craft traditions are almost gone, and with them many of the most beautiful materials—Spanish mahogany, Carpathian elm, pure white Thassos marble. It’s that the rooms themselves have been reinvented. What were once decorated boxes are now complex machines. The plaster is just a thin scrim hiding a welter of gas, electric, fibre-optic, and cable lines, smoke detectors, motion sensors, stereo systems, and security cameras, Wi-Fi routers, climate-control systems, and the transformers and housings for automated lights and sprinklers. The result is a house so complicated that it may need a full-time staff to maintain it. “I don’t think I’ve ever built a home for a client who was qualified to live there,” Ellison told me.
Home building has become the domain of the obsessive-compulsive. An apartment like this one could entail more choices than the space shuttle—from the shape and patina of each hinge and handle to the location of every window alarm. Some clients get decision fatigue. They just can’t bring themselves to decide on another remote sensor. Others insist on customizing everything. The granite slabs long ubiquitous on kitchen counters have spread, like a geological mold, to cabinets and appliances. To carry the weight of the rock and keep the doors from tearing off, Ellison has to redesign all the hardware. In one apartment, on Twentieth Street, the front door was so heavy that the only hinges that could hold it were meant for a jail cell.
As we walked through the apartment, Ellison kept popping open hidden compartments—access panels, breaker boxes, secret drawers, and medicine cabinets—each one cleverly fitted into the plaster or woodwork. One of the hardest parts of this job, he said, was finding space. Where to shoehorn all that complexity? A suburban house is full of convenient voids. If an air handler won’t fit in the ceiling, stuff it in the attic or the basement. But New York apartments aren’t so forgiving. “Attic? What the fuck’s an attic?” Marelli said. “People in this city are fighting over half an inch.” Between the plaster and the studs in these walls lay hundreds of miles of wire and pipe, wound as tight as a circuit board. The tolerances weren’t that different from those in the yachting industry.
“It’s like solving a giant puzzle,” Angela Dirks said. “Just figuring out how to design all the ductwork without driving down the ceiling or taking out crazy chunks of it—it’s torture.” Dirks, who is fifty-two, trained at Columbia and Princeton and specializes in residential interiors. In twenty-five years as an architect, she said, she’d had only four projects of this scale that allowed such attention to detail. At one point, a client even tracked her down to a cruise ship off the coast of Alaska. The towel rods in the bathrooms were being installed that day, she said. Could Dirks approve the locations?
Most owners can’t wait for an architect to untangle every kink in the ductwork. They have two mortgages to carry until the renovation is done. Ellison’s projects rarely cost less than fifteen hundred dollars a square foot these days, and sometimes twice that much. New kitchens start at a hundred and fifty thousand; master baths can run even more. And the prices tend to go up the longer the project lasts. “I’ve never seen a set of plans that were buildable as presented,” Marelli told me. “They either weren’t complete, defied physics, or had ambitions that the drawings didn’t explain how to achieve.” And so a familiar cycle begins. Owners set a budget but ask for more than they can afford. Architects overpromise and contractors underbid, knowing the plans are somewhat notional. Construction starts and a blizzard of change orders ensues. A project scheduled to take a year and cost a thousand dollars per square foot balloons to twice the length and price, and everyone blames everyone else. If it’s off by only a third, they call it a success.
“It’s just a crackpot system,” Ellison told me. “The whole game is set up so that everyone’s motivations are at cross purposes. It’s habit and bad habit.” For most of his career, he kept clear of the big decisions. He was just a hired gun, working for an hourly wage. But some projects are too complex for piecemeal work. They’re more like car engines than like houses: they have to be designed from the inside out, layer by layer, each component fitted exactly to the next. When the final coat of plaster is laid, the warren of ducts and wires beneath it has to sit perfectly flat, plumb to within a sixteenth of an inch over ten feet. Yet every trade works to different tolerances: steelworkers aim to be accurate within half an inch, carpenters a quarter of an inch, Sheetrockers an eighth of an inch, and stoneworkers a sixteenth. It’s Ellison’s job to get them all on the same page.
Dirks remembers walking in on him one day after he’d been brought on to coördinate the project. The apartment had been stripped to the studs and he’d spent a week alone in the gutted space. He’d taken measurements, laid center lines, and visualized every fixture, outlet, and piece of panelling. He’d done hundreds of drawings by hand on graph paper, isolating problem spots and explaining how to fix them. There were minute cross-sections of doorframes and railings, of the structural steel around the stairs, of vents hidden behind crown moldings and motorized shades tucked into window pockets, all gathered into an enormous black ring binder. “This is why everyone wants Mark or a clone of Mark,” Dirks told me. “This is the document that says, ‘I know not only what happens here but in every space, in every discipline.’ ”
The effect of all that planning was more felt than seen. In the kitchen and the bathrooms, for instance, the walls and floors were both unremarkable and somehow perfect. It was only after you stared at them for a while that you noticed the reason: every tile in every row was complete; there were no awkward joints or truncated borders. Ellison had built the room with these exact final dimensions in mind. Not a single tile had to be cut. “I have this memory of Mark sitting there when I came in,” Dirks said. “I asked what he was doing, and he looked up at me and said, ‘I think I’m done.’ It was just an empty shell, but it was all in Mark’s brain.”
Ellison’s own home sits across from an abandoned chemical factory in downtown Newburgh. Built in 1849 as a school for boys, it’s a plain brick box set square to the curb with a worn wooden portico out front. Downstairs is Ellison’s workshop, where the boys used to learn metalwork and wood joinery. Upstairs is his apartment, a lofty, barnlike space filled with guitars, amplifiers, a Hammond organ, and other band equipment. The walls are hung with art his mother lent him—mostly Hudson River vistas and some watercolors she painted of scenes from samurai life, including one of a warrior decapitating his foe. For many years, the building was claimed by squatters and stray dogs. It was renovated in 2016, not long before Ellison moved in, but the neighborhood is still fairly rough. There have been four murders within two blocks in the past two years.
Ellison has had nicer places: a town house in Brooklyn; a six-bedroom Victorian that he restored on Staten Island; a farmhouse on the Hudson. But divorce has landed him here, on the blue-collar side of the river, across the bridge from his ex-wife in upscale Beacon, and the change seems to suit him. He’s learning to Lindy Hop, plays in a honky-tonk band, and consorts with artists and builders too offbeat or impecunious to live in New York. Last January, an old firehouse came up for sale a few blocks from Ellison’s place. At six hundred thousand dollars, it found no takers, then the price dropped to five hundred thousand, and he bit. With a little renovation, he thinks, it might be a good place to retire. “I love Newburgh,” he told me, when I visited him there. “It’s full of weirdos. It hasn’t arrived—it’s becoming.”
One morning after breakfast, we stopped in at a hardware store to buy a blade for his table saw. Ellison likes to keep his tools simple and multipurpose. His workshop has a steampunk quality—almost but not quite identical to one from the nineteen-forties—and his social life has a similar hybrid vigor. “After all these years, I speak, like, seventeen different languages,” he told me. “I speak millworker. I speak glass dude. I speak stone guy. I speak engineer. The beauty of this thing is that you start by digging holes in the dirt and finish by taking six-thousand-grit sandpaper and polishing up the last bit of brass. To me, everything is cool.”
As a boy growing up in Pittsburgh in the mid-sixties, he got an immersion course in code-switching. This was in the Steel City days, when the factories were filled with Greeks, Italians, Scots, Irish, Germans, Eastern Europeans, and Southern Blacks who’d come north in the Great Migration. They worked together at open hearths and blast furnaces, then headed to their own watering holes on Friday night. It was a dingy, bare-knuckle town, where so many fish floated belly-up in the Monongahela that Ellison thought that was just what fish did. “The smell of coal smoke and steam and oil—that’s the smell of my childhood,” he told me. “You could drive down to the river at night and there were just miles of steel mills that never stopped running, and they would glow and shoot sparks and smoke into the air. These giant monsters that were eating everyone alive, they just didn’t know it.”
His family’s house was halfway up the city’s terraced flanks, on the red line between Black neighborhoods and white, uphill and down. His father was a sociologist and a former chaplain—he’d studied at Union Theological Seminary when Reinhold Niebuhr was there. His mother was in medical school, training to be a pediatric neurologist while raising four small children. Mark was the second youngest. In the mornings, he went to an experimental school run by the University of Pittsburgh, with modular classrooms and hippie teachers. In the afternoons, he joined packs of kids on banana-seat bikes, popping wheelies and jumping curbs, careering through empty lots and scrubby woods like clouds of stinging flies. Every once in a while, he’d get mugged or thrown into a hedge. Still, it was paradise.
When we got back to his apartment from the hardware store, he played me a song he’d written after a recent trip to the old neighborhood. It was his first time there in nearly fifty years. Ellison’s singing voice is a raw, lumbering thing, but his words can be disarmingly tender. “Takes eighteen years to grow a man / Another few to make him sound,” he sang. “A hundred years to grow a city / Just one day to tear it down / Last time I left Pittsburgh / They’d built a city where that city used to be / Other folks might find their way back / But not me.”
When he was ten, his mother took a residency in Albany and that was it for Pittsburgh. Ellison spent the next four years at local schools “basically designed so that dullards might excel.” Then he experienced a different sort of misery in high school, at Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts. Socially, it was a training ground for the American gentry: John F. Kennedy, Jr., was there at the time. Intellectually, it was rigorous but hidebound. Ellison had always been a hands-on thinker. He could spend hours deducing the effects of the earth’s magnetism on the flight patterns of birds, but pure formula rarely sank in. “It was abundantly evident that I didn’t belong,” he says.
He did learn how to talk to rich people—a useful skill. And, despite time off as a dishwasher at a Howard Johnson’s, a tree planter in Georgia, a zoo worker in Arizona, and an apprentice carpenter in Boston, he managed to make it to senior year. Still, he fell one credit short of graduating. When Columbia accepted him anyway, he dropped out after six weeks, realizing that it was more of the same. He found a cheap apartment in Harlem, put up mimeographed signs offering to build lofts and bookcases, and found part-time jobs to fill the gaps. While his classmates became lawyers, brokers, and hedge-fund traders—his future clients—he unloaded trucks, learned the banjo, worked in a bindery, scooped ice cream, and slowly wound his way around to mastering a trade. Straight lines are easy, curves are hard.
Ellison has been at this job for so long by now that its tricks are second nature to him. They can make his competence seem like eccentricity, even recklessness. I saw a good example of this one day in Newburgh, when he was building the staircase for the town house. Staircases are Ellison’s signature projects. They’re the most complicated structures in most homes—they have to both stand on their own and move through space—and even small errors can accumulate disastrously. If each step is just a thirty-second of an inch too low, the stairs may wind up three inches short of the uppermost landing. “A staircase that’s wrong is recognizably wrong,” Marelli says.
Yet stairs are also designed to call attention to themselves. At mansions like the Breakers, the Vanderbilts’ summer home in Newport, built in 1895, the staircase was like a curtain rising. When guests arrived, it drew their eyes up from the entrance hall toward the glamorous hostess posed in her gown at the railing. The steps were built deliberately low—with a six-inch rise rather than the customary seven and a half—the better to let her glide weightlessly down to join the party.
The architect Santiago Calatrava once called a staircase that Ellison built for him a masterpiece. This one wasn’t quite up to that standard—Ellison was convinced from the start that it had to be redesigned. The drawings called for each flight to be made of a single sheet of perforated steel, bent to form the steps. But the steel was less than an eighth of an inch thick, nearly half of it holes. If a few people went up the staircase at once, Ellison calculated, it would flex like a saw blade. Worse, the steel would develop stress fractures and serrated edges along the perforations. “It basically becomes a human cheese grater,” he said. That was the best-case scenario. If the next owner decided to have a grand piano carried to the top floor, the whole structure might collapse.
“People pay me a lot of money to make the obvious clear,” Ellison said. But the alternative was less than straightforward. Quarter-inch steel would be strong enough, but the metal still tore when he bent it. So Ellison went a step further. He blasted the steel with a blowtorch until it glowed a dull orange, then let it cool slowly. This technique, known as annealing, realigned the atoms and relaxed their bonds, making the metal more ductile. When he bent the steel again, there was no tearing.
The stringers posed a different sort of problem. These were the boards that ran alongside the steps. In the drawings, they were made of poplar and twisted like seamless ribbons from floor to floor. But how to cut flat boards into curves? A router and a jig could do the job but would take forever. A computer-controlled shaper would work, but a new one cost three thousand dollars. Ellison decided to use a table saw, but there was a catch: a table saw doesn’t cut curves. Its flat, spinning blade is designed to slice straight across a board. It can be tilted left or right to make angled cuts, but that’s about it.
“This is one of those ‘Don’t try this at home, kids!’ things,” he said. He was standing by the table saw, showing his neighbor and sometime apprentice, Caine Budelman, how to do the job. Budelman is forty-one: an English major turned metalworker with a blond man bun and a loose, athletic bearing. He left a foundry job in nearby Rock Tavern after burning a hole in his foot with a glob of molten aluminum and figured carpentry for a safer skill. Ellison wasn’t so sure. His own father lost six fingers to an electric saw—three on two occasions. “A lot of people would have taken the first time as a lesson,” he said.
The trick to cutting curves with a table saw, Ellison explained, is to use the saw the wrong way. He grabbed a poplar board from a stack on his bench. Instead of placing it in front of the saw’s teeth, as most carpenters would, he laid it alongside them. Then, as the baffled Budelman looked on, he set the circular blade spinning and calmly pushed the board into its side. A few seconds later, the board had a smooth, half-moon shape carved into it.
“That is so cool,” Budelman said.
“It’s fun, right?”
“I’ve never used a saw like that.”
“You’re not supposed to. It seems psychotic. But it makes a beautiful curve.”
Ellison was in a groove now, passing the board through the saw again and again, eyes locking focus and moving on, as the blade spun inches from his hands. While he worked, he kept up a steady patter of anecdotes, asides, and explanations to Budelman. What Ellison loves most about carpentry, he’d told me, is how it gives rein to the body’s physical intelligence. As a kid watching the Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium, he used to marvel at how Roberto Clemente knew just where a fly ball would go. He seemed to calculate its exact arc and acceleration the second it left the bat. It wasn’t so much muscle memory as embodied analysis. “Your body just knows how to do it,” he said. “It understands weight and leverage and space in a way that your brain would take forever to figure out.” It was the same sense that told Ellison where to set a chisel or if another millimetre of wood had to come off. “I know this carpenter named Steve Allen,” he said. “He turned to me one day and he said, ‘I don’t get it. When I do this work, I have to concentrate, and you’re just talking your fool head off all day long.’ The secret is, I don’t think. I figure something out and then I’m done thinking. I don’t bother with my brain anymore.”
This was a silly way to build a staircase, he admitted, and he planned never to do it again. “I don’t want to be known as the perforated-stair guy.” Still, if done well, it would have that element of magic which he loved. The stringers and the steps would be painted white, with no visible seams or screws. The handrail would be oiled oak. As the sun passed over the skylight above the stairs, it would send needles of light streaming through the holes in the steps. The staircase would seem to dematerialize in space. “This is not a house you should drop acid in,” Ellison said. “Everyone is laying bets on whether the owner’s dog will walk on it. Because dogs are smarter than people.”
If Ellison could work on just one more project before he retires, it would probably be the penthouse we visited in October. It’s one of the last great unclaimed spaces in New York and also one of the first: the top of the Woolworth Building. When it opened, in 1913, the Woolworth was the tallest skyscraper in the world. It may still be the most beautiful. Designed by the architect Cass Gilbert, it’s draped in glazed white terra-cotta, embellished with neo-Gothic arches and tracery, and rises nearly eight hundred feet above lower Manhattan. The space we visited took up the top five floors, from the terrace above the building’s last setback to the observatory in the spire. The developer, Alchemy Properties, had taken to calling it the Pinnacle.
Ellison first heard about it last year from David Hotson, an architect with whom he’s often collaborated. Hotson had been hired to draw up some plans and 3-D models for the Pinnacle after another design, by Thierry Despont, failed to attract buyers. To Hotson, the problem was obvious. Despont had envisaged a kind of town house in the sky, with parquet floors, chandeliers, and a wood-panelled library. The rooms were beautiful but stodgy—they could have been in any building, not this giddy, hundred-foot-tall tip of a skyscraper. So Hotson blew them up. In his drawings, every floor opens out into the next, spiralling up through a series of ever more spectacular staircases. “It should elicit gasps at every ascent to every floor,” Hotson told me. “And when you get back down to Broadway you won’t even understand what you just saw.”
Hotson, who is sixty-one, is as lean and angular as the spaces he designs, and he tends to come clad in the same monochromes: white hair, gray shirt, gray pants, black shoes. When he joined Ellison and me at the Pinnacle, he still seemed in awe of its possibilities—like a chamber-music conductor given the baton of the New York Philharmonic. An elevator took us to a private lobby on the fiftieth floor, then a staircase led up into the great room. In most modern buildings, the elevator-and-staircase core would have extended all the way to the top, taking up most of the floor. But this room was completely open. The ceiling was two stories high; the windows gave vaulting views across the city on every side. You could see the Palisades and the Throgs Neck Bridge to the north, Sandy Hook and the shores of Galilee, New Jersey, to the south. It was just a raw white space with some steel girders stretched across it, but it was still astonishing.
Down below us to the east, we could see the green tiled roof of Hotson and Ellison’s previous project. Known as the Sky House, it was a four-story penthouse on top of a Romanesque high-rise built for a religious publisher in 1895. A gigantic angel stood watch at each corner. By 2007, when the space was sold for six and a half million dollars—a record for the financial district at the time—it had stood empty for decades. There was almost no plumbing or electricity, just a few leftover sets from scenes shot there for Spike Lee’s “Inside Man” and Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York.” The apartment that Hotson designed was both a playpen for adults and a dizzyingly high-minded piece of sculpture—the perfect warmup for the Pinnacle. In 2015, Interior Design named it the Best Apartment of the Decade.
The Sky House is anything but a collection of boxes. It’s full of splintered, refracted spaces, as if you were walking inside a diamond. “David, in his annoying Yale way, was singing the death of rectangles,” Ellison told me. Yet the apartment feels less cerebral than exuberant, full of little jokes and surprises. The white floors give way to glass panels here and there, suspending you in the air. The steel girder that holds up the living-room ceiling is also a climbing pole, with a harness so guests can rappel down. The walls in the master bedroom and bath have tunnels hidden behind them, so the owners’ cats can crawl around and pop their heads through small openings. And all four floors are connected by a huge tubular slide, made of polished German stainless steel. At the top, cashmere blankets are provided to insure a fast, frictionless ride.
Hotson sometimes worries that the slide is too flashy—it gets most of the attention. But he loves the staircase that Ellison built. Unlike the slide, which bullies through the apartment like a giant intestine, the staircase seems to crystallize the spaces it’s in. Built of white nanoglass—an opaque and extremely hard synthetic stone—it twists up through the building in precisely organized shards, offering sudden glimpses through the rooms unfolding around it. When Hotson finished his plans, he wasn’t sure they could be built to the standard he imagined. Then Ellison arrived. “There was just a sense that this guy’s got it,” Hotson told me. “In fact, he’s got it better than you do. He can see these three-dimensional processes better than an architect can.” There is a picture of Ellison when the staircase was being built, working out its geometry on the wall with a Sharpie. The owner called it one of his “ ‘Beautiful Mind’ moments.”
The Pinnacle would require many more such moments. “It would be an endless, epic challenge from start to finish,” Ellison told me. The apartment has a private elevator, but it goes up only two floors. Most of the circulation, in Hotson’s design, is through seven sets of stairs. That may be a sticking point for some buyers, as is the asking price: seventy-nine million dollars for the raw space alone. “People who buy apartments like this are usually clubby,” Kenneth Horn, the president of Alchemy Properties, told me. “They want to live in a building with similar folks who have similar money.” The Pinnacle needs more of an iconoclast, he said—someone who could appreciate both its seigneurial grandeur and the challenges of “cylindrical living,” as he put it. “It’s like a castle on top of the world. They just need some guidance in how to live in it.”
When the Woolworth Building was constructed, Cass Gilbert didn’t intend for people to live this high. He was more concerned with fireproofing the steel to prevent another Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The top floors had hardly any windows when they were built—Alchemy had them cut for the new apartment—and no tenants. They were filled with giant fans to pump fresh air into the offices below. But, in the modern city, the scramble for wealth and status never hits a ceiling. Seventy-nine million dollars is a lot of money to most people: the average American household would need more than a thousand years to earn it. But to the right client it’s one good quarter on the stock market. “We have some very interesting people circling,” Stan Ponte, a sales adviser from Sotheby’s, which is handling the property for Alchemy, told me. “We’ve had the top brokers in the world in here.”
Ellison knows better than to question the finances. Like the court architects of the Renaissance, he owes his living to unreasonable wealth. Years ago, he told me, he helped build the drawing room for a mansion in Palm Beach. The room was thirty-five feet long, with carved Corinthian pilasters, and the owner wanted it built entirely of English brown oak. This was like asking for a coat of dodo feathers. English brown oak comes from oaks that have been infected by the beefsteak fungus, Fistulina hepatica, which turns their heartwood brown. It grows mostly in British forests and is extremely hard to source, in any significant quantity, in the United States. “They found one stash in the basement of the Boston Public Library,” Ellison recalls. “They’d been hoarding it for years.”
Late one night, Ellison was standing on a scaffold installing some crown molding when the owner walked in wearing a bathrobe and smoking a cigar. He stopped in front of one of the pilasters, which had been French-polished to a dusky glow, and shook his head. “God, that’s gorgeous!” he said. “Remind me what’s so special about that wood?” When Ellison told him, the owner just smiled and walked away. “It was as if he’d shot the last white tiger,” Ellison said.
He shook his head. He’d spent his life building other people’s dream homes, but he had yet to work on one that he’d like to own. “There is nothing about this style of living that I want,” he said. He’d much rather have his firehouse. He was thinking of putting a workshop downstairs, he said, where the horse-drawn fire trucks used to park, with a recording studio behind it. He’d blow out the back wall on the second floor and build a huge greenhouse and deck, so that he could sit with his guitars and tend to his roses. He might even put in a fireman’s pole. “I mean, who doesn’t want to live in a firehouse?” he said. “It’s every seven-year-old boy’s dream.”
We walked up the last flights of the Pinnacle, past the empty spaces where the art gallery and the private library might go. When we reached the top and stepped out into the open air, we were standing on the observatory: a vertiginous little balcony that hugged the bottom of the spire. The late-fall sun was low in the sky, flooding the streets with a softening light. Soon the city would flicker on around us, the street lamps and billboards and bridges strung like Christmas trees, the cruise ships and tankers and small craft glimmering in the harbor, and the great curve of the earth glowing beyond them. The view was almost enough to make you forget the cost. “You have this sense of possessing the whole summit of New York,” Hotson had said downstairs. “It’s like you’re living in the chandelier on top of the city.” ♦
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