How do you breathe new life into an Art Deco masterpiece — especially one designed by Shreve, Lamb and Harmon, the architecture firm responsible for the Empire State Building?
The answer, according to TF Cornerstone, is to turn things over to the latest generation of talented designers.
When the development firm began marketing 99 John Art Deco Lofts, a landmarked condo tower in the Financial District, several years ago, it changed the color scheme in the hallways from pink to brown to match the gold leaf ceilings in the elevator banks, and added a swanky lounge and courtyard.
Then — in the spirit of the building’s unique decor, like terrazzo floors and an 80-year-old mural in the lobby depicting lower Manhattan street life — it teamed up with brokerage firm Nest Seekers International to host an interior design competition.
When the contest kicked off last fall, 50 decorators, including Laura Weatherbee, a chemical engineer-turned-designer with an office several blocks away on Nassau Street, applied for the chance to furnish a model unit.
The list was narrowed down to 15 contestants, then five. The top three semifinalists were given four weeks, and $5,000, to decorate a randomly selected apartment.
“It was all about what you can do on a modest budget,” said Scott Walsh, director of sales at the 442-unit building, which was converted from offices to rentals over a decade ago, and then condos in 2008.
That meant multiple visits to Ikea, vintage shops, and even Craigslist for the designers, who were also given access to a storage room filled with rugs, coffee tables, and other furnishings. “They each got a few things,” said Walsh. “Nobody was so enamored with the storage items.”
Prospective buyers voted on their favorite designs in the sales office and on Facebook, but the winner was ultimately chosen by celebrity decorator Jamie Drake, who furnished Gracie Mansion.
Manhattan designer Jacquelyn Moore-Hill, who won by popular vote with a selection of funky artwork (including a pop art painting of red-lipped mouths) was awarded an iPad.
Drake preferred Weatherbee’s cheerful yet clean aesthetic — she placed a yellow sofa, bright red lamp, chalkboard wallpaper, and a colorful photograph of a parking lot in the living room — and handed her the first-place prize of $5,000.
A longtime resident of lower Manhattan, Weatherbee herself brought buzz to the building, which is now about 50% sold. (Prices range from $499,000 for studios to $2.65 million for a four-bedroom triplex penthouse.) “She’s an advocate for the Financial District,” said Walsh. “The biggest concern is people think it’s not active at night. The streets are a lot busier than a couple of years ago.”
Residents of conversions like 20 Pine, a condo building with amenity spaces built into a historic bank vault, and 2 Gold Street, a 51-story rental tower also developed by TF Cornerstone, are out and about after work hours, grabbing drinks or dinner at the neighborhood’s dozens of bars.
And now that FiDi is a bona fide residential community, basic amenities abound, like the 24-hour Jubilee supermarket and Duane Reade at the base of 99 John.
But even if that weren’t the case, Walsh could sell the Financial District on value and convenience alone: apartments there are 16 to 20% cheaper than comparable ones in trendy neighborhoods to the north, he said, and are located where many of the city’s subway lines converge — a bonus for couples that work on opposite sides of town.
“Whether you work on the east side of Midtown or the west side of Midtown, it’s easy to get to,” he explained. Of course, Wall Street types, who make up the bulk of 99 John’s buyers, have the most desirable commute of all: a five to ten minute walk.
“People who worked in the Financial District were pioneers” in the neighborhood, Walsh said, recalling the days when South Bridge Towers, a middle-income housing project on Beekman Street, was the lone residential complex among a sea of office buildings.
Bankers hoping for less harried mornings snapped up units at 45 Wall Street, the first condo conversion in the neighborhood, in 1997, around the same time that some of the city’s hottest neighborhoods were still colonized by artists.
Painters and sculptors have since migrated out of Tribeca and Chelsea for the outer boroughs, but creative types like Weatherbee occasionally make their way into the Financial District. “In Chelsea, you can’t even get a hole in the wall for the amount you’d spend at 99 John,” Walsh said.