I can’t afford to follow through on my ideas for bringing this house into maximum 2011 efficiency,” says kitchen-design specialist Jeff Blum, 45. “But the dreams will keep coming.”
Jeff resides primarily in a 1,600 square-foot loft in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where he has lived for two decades.
In 2004, with money inherited from his father, Blum paid $180,000 for a 1965 two-bedroom, one-bath ranch-style tract-house on half an acre in Saugerties’ Blue Mountain section. Although he’s finessed every inch of the petite swankienda—adding a cedar deck—it’s worth about that much today. Far from a tragedy, but less than a thrilling investment.
Thus after seven years, Blum’s love affair with his mod turquoise ranch has cooled. He’d bought thinking it would be his starter country place. He also imagined that adding a dose of upstate suburbia would change his personal life in a way which hasn’t yet materialized. He was introduced to the area via his Brooklyn landlord, who owns a mansion on Albany Avenue in Kingston.
As a design professional, Blum finds it gnawingly irritating he can’t justify radically renovating the original kitchen and bathroom, which are neutral, inoffensive, and clean-lined. “I just look at those angled pulls on the kitchen cabinets and think what I could do if only I had the money,” he says.
The Evanston, Illinois native has also discovered he hates kayaking—“you can’t move your legs and there’s so many insects”—but loves to barbecue sausages marinated in beer that he buys at Smoke House of the Catskills.
In a sign of the times, Blum’s abandoned his former preoccupation with canvassing estate sales and low-end antiques stores for the name-dropper gems of mid-century modern art and furniture that fill both residences. Bargains are only slightly less scarce than deep-pocketed buyers. Myriad people scavenge for items to resell on eBay, and certain television shows have elevated owners’ valuation expectations, he said. “I’m not going to pick the low-end,” he says. “I’ve always been one for go big or go home.” Kitchen Design Work Has Slowed
As the owner of SixZero6 Design, Jeff’s known for designing kitchens considered an aid to seduction. But that niche contracted sharply three years ago.
In 2008, Blum was halfway through creating a fantasy kitchen for a Wall Street executive when Lehman Brothers collapsed. The client went from insisting on the best of everything to requiring make-a-case-for-it approval of Blum’s tightwad purchase of a fixture costing $200 at a sample sale. “It’s frustrating. I make houses pretty. That’s really what I do best,” he says.
Blum’s still getting work, and job budgets—$70,000 to $200,000—are the same, if pace is slow. People just aren’t pouring money into their apartments the way they used to. Bruin Drive As Memory Lane
Blum’s proud of the now-tall birch tree he planted in the front yard as a novice homeowner, and he still digs the time-warp vibe of the middle-class family neighborhood.
It reminds him of his happy childhood in Evanston, where his family owned a formal colonial. His father’s best friend, a dermatologist, had a sprawling modern place with lots of glass, which Blum loved, but his mother regarded as “awful.”
Bruin Drive—just off Harry Wells Road in West Saugerties—is little-changed for almost 50 years, when the McLaughlin clan built four kit houses, of which Blum’s is one. Their family compound launched the neighborhood’s development into a miniature Levittown. Half-acre lots contribute to a uniform look yet site the houses fairly closely together. And the kids who played basketball outside when Blum bought the house grew up.
“Nothing is like I imagined it would be,” confides Blum. “I built a nest and nobody came.”
In reality, many people have come. They’ve just been tenants. Blum’s stories about his experiences owning, sharing, and renting the house channel a Neil Simon comedy. He’s known as “the bachelor” on a very provincial street. Nothing he does goes unnoticed. Ever the perfectionist, Blum’s discovered his neighbors don’t share his opinions on yard clutter or leaving the television on all night with the windows open. Tenants Showed Blum How To Enjoy His House
Comically candid about midlife angst, Blum’s current agita with owning a weekend place is shared by many New Yorkers, who bought when they were relatively flush and real-estate prices were climbing.
Mostly, Blum’s just tired of the carrying costs associated with “responsibly” owning a proper suburban home on a “Leave It To Beaver” street. What seemed like an affordable and easy-care entry-level getaway in 2004 today feels a burden. He’s not a deferred-maintenance sort of guy.
To make ends meet, Blum has a roommate in Brooklyn and rents his Saugerties place to select tenants. For two summers, he leased the whole house to an Argentinian couple with whom he became quite friendly. Right now, he’s renting a bedroom to a personal trainer at a local gym. Blum comes up sporadically. “Lots of interesting people have passed through,” said Blum. “It took strangers to show me the way to just enjoy the house.”
The house feels much more spacious than its 1,000 square-foot main-floor footprint. Unlike many ranch houses, this one’s filled with light, thanks to a dramatic front corner with 16 windows. The exterior paint has crackled into an artisanal patina. There’s an above-ground pool. The basement and garage conceal “ugly” tools and supplies.
Outside, there’s a wrap-around stacked-slab marble planter and chimney. A huge boulder juts dramatically from the front lawn, forming a uniquely Catskills backdrop to the mailbox, which stills reads McLaughlin. Champagne Taste On A Poland Spring Budget
Even if Blum had the money, taking home improvements to the next level wouldn’t make sense in the current market. While he can’t sell his place at a profit right now, it’s quite appealing as an affordable rental. So Blum’s in better shape than many who bought speculatively.
Fluent in the decorative vernacular of the cheap fix that isn’t a misstep, Blum’s painted and patched every room to photogenic perfection except for the bathroom, which still features the original wallpaper, ornate but Urban Outfitters groovy.
In the den—Blum’s favorite room since it’s wholly updated—he installed a black slate floor and covered the acoustic-tile ceiling with thin strips of cedar closet-planking. Cheerfully oddball furniture in patterned lime and lemon lend the den a Doris Day perkiness. He’s glad he splurged on top-quality audio-visual equipment at the outset.
Since polyurethane yellows with age, the next improvement Jeff plans is to sand down the kitchen cabinets and blanch them to a birch-like finish. He’ll add some glass, too. “But what you learn about owning a home is that vinyl windows make sense,” says Blum, relieved he did not buy a rundown $39,000 six-bedroom in Newburgh, an earlier scheme.
Blum claims he’d now be happier with an off-the-grid—except for cable television—one-room “shack” in the outright wilderness, outfitted with statement pieces meticulously curated from his collection.
Blum’s large abstract canvases were painted by Lee Reynolds, a prolific commercial artist of the 1960s. The wicker sofa is a rare Harvey Probber style. The credenza, with travertine marble insets in an argyle pattern, is Mastercraft before the company was absorbed by Baker.
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