The Wild Card and the Sweater
The 41-unit apartment house at 680 West 204th Street doesn’t have a name, but it does have a distinct identity. It was designed and built in 1936 in the Inwood section of northern Manhattan, the largest enclave of Art Deco apartment houses in the borough (also one of the largest Art Deco architecture concentrations in the United States). Generally, five or six stories high, these buildings feature corner steel casement windows, rounded masonry corners, curved metal fire escapes, geometric parapets, and simple but decorative brickwork, with lobbies featuring marble or other stone, hand-painted murals, custom lighting, and terrazzo floors. Matt Higgins, an actor who served on the board at 680 for five years, has lived there since 2005 and talked with us about his experiences in the co-op.
How did you come to live at 680 West 204th Street?
My wife Tracy and I had to move out of our rental apartment, and I had a friend who lived near Inwood who said, “Come up to my neighborhood.” He had bought an apartment for a song and suggested I buy up there. But I thought it was a dangerous area. He said it wasn’t and said, “Come up here at midnight and meet me in Inwood Hill Park. You’ll see how safe it is.” I brought Tracy up there at midnight, and we met him in the park, and he had a giant dog with him. And he mugged me! [Laughs] No, he didn’t. But it turned out it was safe, and we loved the neighborhood.
You joined the board about a year after you moved in. Why did you want to serve?
At the time, the owner occupancy rate in our building was not that high – it was around 40 percent – and the sponsor had control of the building. But some people asked me to sit on the board, and within a few years the sponsor had sold enough so that we were in charge.
Did you have any previous experience in running a building?
No. It was just an education in everything from, you know, purchasing oil to being conscious in weighing decisions about being green and also at the same time being economical and trying to do the right thing. We tried not to raise maintenance if at all possible and tried to be creative about ways to pay for things like a new elevator and stuff like that. On the board, I was something of a wild card. I didn’t know anything about the real estate business. The price of heating oil went up, and I said, “Can’t we use less heating oil by not turning on the heat? I’m okay wearing a sweater.” But then you realize you can’t do that because, at the time, we had a lot of elderly people in the building, and we had to watch out for them.
What were the board meetings like?
We pretty much had consensus on most issues. Our president at the time was a former Broadway stage manager. What more do I need say? He was organized and smart.
What’s the makeup of your building?
We actually have a lot of theatrical people living here. We have opera singers, we had an artist, a choreographer on our floor who teaches in our building, a journalist, and doctors. There was a doctor who lived here who delivered a child. A woman went into labor, and he just ran upstairs to her apartment and delivered the child.
You have a mural in your lobby.
Yes, it’s wonderful. It was painted by Ralph Lauren’s father, Frank Lifshitz. It’s painted in what I believe is called the “Hudson River style.” We figured this was just an amazing piece of art. But it was starting to chip, so we had another artist come in and paint over it just to preserve it. It’s still there, under the surface. So we were very conscientious about preserving the real art.
How do the residents get involved?
Some join or even form committees. For example, in the back of our building a group of people got together who love to garden. They went to Home Depot, and they bought this big gardening set – wooden dirt boxes – and they planted tomato bushes and herbs and flowers and things like that. They invite anybody who wants to do it to join them; they’ll give you a spot. There’s a nice picnic table out there, and then they also bought a small sandbox for kids to play in. It’s a nice little gathering spot, and on our chalkboard in the basement you can sign up and say that you want to use it; you’re having a birthday party and you need it on such and such a date. People are really cool about it. Every summer we have a party there.
Why did you step down?
My daughter had just been born, and I wanted to spend more time with her. I also felt like there are just a lot of really good and smart people in our building, and I wanted to allow them the opportunity to do it. It was difficult because I didn’t want to let go at first, but the neighborhood has changed a lot, and our building has changed a lot, too. Younger people have moved in.
What advice would you give them if they were going to serve on the board?
If you’re curious about it, jump in. Go for it.