The Dutch are known for thrift; Germans for capable engineering; photographers for vision; and Canadian beauty queens for accessorizing a cute shorts-and-parka outfit with a Robertson screwdriver.
Meet Peter and Elsje Brandt, postwar European immigrants to Canada who moved to Manhattan where they bought a 3,000-square-foot loft in an 11-story Beaux Arts building near Union Square in 1982. “It was needle park back then!” exclaims Elsje. As Miss Laval West in the 1967 Miss Canada pageant, Elsje roomed with Miss Montreal, Dayle Haddon, the ageless L’Oreal spokesmodel.
After 27 years, the Brandts sold their loft in October 2008, two weeks after Lehman Brothers tanked, for “more than they’d ever imagined.” While a matter of public record, for discretion’s sake, just think well into seven figures.
Elsje was born in Amsterdam; Peter was born in Hamburg. Witnessing the waste-nothing scramble as their native countries rebuilt after WWII lent insight into the comparative wealth of lower Manhattan. Both Brandts were acutely aware of the intrinsic value of ripped-out “vintage” construction materials cluttering Manhattan’s curbs as garbage before “mix old with new” became the third millennium’s mantra.
The resourceful pair scavenged Manhattan for castoffs, which they eventually used to build their mountain getaway. Elsje, like many Dutch, enjoys riding bikes; she’d call Peter from grimy pay phones, describing her discoveries. Sometimes she’d stand guard for hours until he could get to her with a pickup truck.
(And in case you didn’t know, a Robertson screwdriver is a uniquely Canadian tool—a square-headed screwdriver that seldom slips. It’s miles above the Phillips as a design.) Monday Morning Surprise!
Their son, Richard, a Fashion Institute of Technology graduate who designs Izola shower curtains, lived with his parents until age 31. The spacious loft was all his most weekends, as his parents dashed off to Bearsville.
When asked about that, the couple begins bickering cheerfully about whether the girl Elsje saw in the hallway “that Monday morning” was “actually entirely naked.” Peter seems to think she was wearing lingerie, or perhaps a towel. “You see, we never drove back on Sunday nights, to avoid the traffic,” says Elsje. Street Fishing’s Glory Days
When they bought their loft on lower Fifth Avenue, Peter was a fashion and advertising photographer. Elsje designed sets.
“Our studio was in front, and our residence was in the back,” said Peter.
The building, a 1906 design by Samuel Sass, later president of the New York Society of Architects, had an American Express branch office as its original anchor tenant. Featuring high ceilings and oak floors, the building was once home to a millinery business where the Brandts’ loft would eventually be. New owners usually gutted their loft’s original cabinetry, fixtures, and paneling.
In the otherwise unused basement, Peter and Elsje were able to store, free of charge, everything collected from their neighbors’ loft renovations, plus whatever else they’d found. As years passed, the construction materials and furniture harvest grew massive, but the real impetus for buying upstate was clean air. When Richard went to scout camp, the quasi-Canadians discovered the Catskills.
About a decade into loft ownership, the Brandts realized they were relatively apartment-rich. Although they continued to live modestly and work hard—with Peter eventually switching to architectural photography—in 1991 they bought a piece of land on Upper West Ohayo Mountain Road.
“Prices at that time were high for terrible buildings,” said Peter. “We were looking for fresh air, and it was just coincidental that we had all that stuff in the basement.”
On an early visit, the Brandts encountered Luke and Ingrid Whyte, both teachers, who were physically building their own home up the road.
“We talked to them, and then we decided, well, if they can do it, we can too,” recalls Elsje. She began studying the magazine Fine Homebuilding
. Twenty years later, the Whytes and Brandts remain friendly neighbors.
Peter and Elsje decided to buy their sloped lot while sitting on its northern boulder, near a chestnut oak, long grown entwined with a hemlock. It felt like home.
“I think our trees have sheltered us,” said Elsje, who met her future husband at an Independent Order of Foresters event at which she was speaking in her capacity as Miss Laval West. “We cut as few as possible.” Excessive Blasting? That’s a Dutch Drain!
In 1992, the Brandts broke ground on a 2,200-square-foot post-and-beam built steeply into the side of Ohayo Mountain. Their excavation contractor, John Beesmer, “overdid” the rock-blasting. The Brandts ended up building a foundation atop the rubble heap. This permits water draining off Ohayo to pass beneath the house, an old-fashioned but effective system ironically known as a “Dutch drain.” It’s an architectural feature found in some of Ulster County’s oldest houses.
After pouring the concrete footing and foundation, the Brandts hired E. F. Bufton, a timber-frame expert from Princeton, Massachusetts—who was renovating music legend Levon Helm’s fire-damaged house at the time—to build their home’s shell. While timber-frame is a centuries-old method of construction, it’s enjoyed a comeback in the past two decades due to its spacious feel, conservative use of materials, and thermal efficiency.
Constructing their country place as inexpensively as possible, entirely with cash, took about a decade. During that period, the Brandts became well acquainted with the reliably and lovably crusty—and now deceased—local building inspector Paul Shultis, a frequent site visitor.
Depending on the weather, the Brandts either camped or rented rooms nearby so they could shower and sleep comfortably.
“We laid the floors ourselves, we sanded the timber frame, Peter did almost all the plumbing and electric,” said Elsje. “It took a while to get a [certificate of occupancy] from Paul Shultis, but when we finalized, he said we did a terrific job.”
By late 1993, they had installed both plumbing and heat. Finally, they could sleep in their new home, still in need of much finish work.
The Brandts remember Shultis fondly. Perhaps because they’d educated themselves adequately, working to near exhaustion each weekend—in the end, Shultis decided the Brandts were a notch above the usual annoying weekend-house buyer.
Most of the Brandts’ fixtures and features—and all of its extravagant details, such as the walnut flooring in Peter’s “digital darkroom”—were salvaged, or purchased inexpensively, from the streets and Dumpsters of New York.
The stainless steel kitchen sink is from a restaurant; the kitchen cabinets were salvaged from another loft at their Fifth Avenue building; the stainless Frigidaire refrigerator was bought from a relocating architect. The second-hand dishwasher’s an older-model Magic Chef Peter claims outperforms a Bosch he once owned. And the kitchen dinner bell once rang at Peter’s childhood home. With the exception of Peter’s photographs, most of the other art and design accessories, including a corner cupboard filled with traditional blue-and-white porcelain, came from yard sales.
Virtually everything which had to be purchased came from big-box retailers: the Olympic matte neutral white paint from Lowe’s; the huge frosted-glass bedroom wardrobe on sale at IKEA for $1,000; the windows came from a now-forgotten out-of-state dealer who offered the lowest price.
After three years of living in Bearsville full-time, the Brandts now seek a pied-à-terre in Manhattan. Thus far, four low-ball offers have been declined.
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