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A Manhattan Medici at Home

A Manhattan Medici at Home


What I Love

For Andrew Solomon, whose book “Far From the Tree” inspired a new documentary, a Greenwich Village brownstone untouched by time proved too much to resist.

Sixteen years ago, Andrew Solomon went to Afghanistan on assignment for The New York Times. A sedulous reporter — Mr. Solomon’s acclaimed books include “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression,” in part a memoir of his own struggle with the disorder — he came back with compelling stories.

He also came back with a tile panel and a piece of calligraphy.

“My husband teased me about that,” recalled Mr. Solomon, 54, whose book “Far From the Tree,” about parents with exceptional children, inspired a documentary of the same name that is due out July 20.

“He said, ‘It takes some doing to turn a trip to Afghanistan into a shopping expedition.’”

Really, it was classic Andrew Solomon. A Manhattan Medici, he lives with his husband, John Habich Solomon, a freelance editor, and their 9-year-old son, George, in an imposing Greenwich Village brownstone that was once the residence of the poet Emma Lazarus. (Between them, the couple have three other children who live elsewhere but visit regularly.)

It is four sweeping flights up to the jewel-of-a-rooftop bower, the province of Mr. Habich Solomon, a perfervid gardener. The interior space is mainly cultivated by Mr. Solomon.

The house is decorated with confident and refined theatricality: custom-designed brocade-and-velvet sofas; a domed dining nook with a mosaic ceiling; a double-height library with a wrought-iron catwalk of gossamer delicacy; abundant antiques, bibelots, contemporary artworks and a few flea-market flourishes. And it provides evidence both of a passport that has been stamped frequently and a conviction, borrowed from Tennyson, that “I am a part of all that I have seen.”

“And if it’s part of me, it’s part of my house and the way I live in it,” Mr. Solomon said.

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The double-height library is Mr. Solomon’s favorite room. “It really speaks to who I am,” he said. “Books are sort of my life.”CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

A part of him, yes, and a reflection of him. “The house is a little bit grand, but it’s not meant to intimidate,” he said. “I want it to be warm and welcoming.

“I don’t know if I’m a little bit grand,” he added. “That’s kind of your call. But I do try to be embracing, and the people who come to visit say it feels like a very warm house.”

For the record, there are many, many visitors; some unpack their bags, put up their feet and stay for a good long while. No problem.

In 1992, not long after the assisted suicide of his mother, Carolyn, who had terminal cancer, Mr. Solomon got a call from the woman who had been her best friend, a psychologist turned real estate agent. A brownstone, part of an estate sale, had come up on Mr. Solomon’s favorite block.

It was, she assured him, the house he was going to live in for the rest of his life.

“I told her I wasn’t even sure I was going to stay in New York,” said Mr. Solomon, who has long had a residence in London, and is a dual national. “But she said that once I saw it I would stay in New York.”




Untouched for years, the house redefined squalor. But it had also escaped unsympathetic modernizing. Much of the period detail — fireplaces, woodwork, inlaid floors — remained. Mr. Solomon wanted in. One of two bidders at the probate sale, he prevailed, though it would be four years before renovations were completed and he moved in, and another five before he felt that he fully inhabited the property.

Soon after Mr. Solomon took possession of the house, he turned to the architect and interior designer Robert Couturier for guidance and direction on rebuilding and refurbishing.

“The challenge of the house is that it’s very deep and there’s a middle area that doesn’t get a huge amount of light, and we had to figure that out,” Mr. Solomon said.

In the case of the long, narrow, railroad-car-like living room, Mr. Couturier’s solution was to create a pair of arched doorways to open up the space to the front hall. And it was Mr. Couturier who devised the domed room and the catwalk in the library, Mr. Solomon’s favorite room. “It really speaks to who I am,” he said. “Books are sort of my life.”

The souvenirs of his many journeys are everywhere: on surfaces, on walls and, as with the antique Iznik tiles from Turkey, in walls. Two carved-wood panels from a Beijing flea market were incorporated into the design of the Chinese wedding bed in the master bedroom. A hunting cup from Kazakhstan is on display in the library. A pair of war clubs from the Solomon Islands sits peacefully on a chest in the living room.

The massive dining table, bought at an antiques shop in London, was made in 1927, so Mr. Solomon was told, as an audition piece by an English company eager to secure the commission to do the cabinetry for the Cunard Line. Austrian Biedermeier chairs from the early 19th century now circle the table.

The enormous (and unaffordable) dining table stood in the window of an antiques shop in London for a year before Mr. Solomon walked in one day and offered half the price, to be paid on the spot. Sold!CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

“I like the feeling of various styles and periods coming together,” said Mr. Solomon, who had intended the table for his London house. “But though the top comes off, the base was still too large to fit.”

Into storage it went.

“When I settled in New York, my father dryly remarked, ‘I see you’ve found a house to go with that table of yours.’”

Mr. Solomon will tell you that he has enough internal chaos not to welcome external chaos. Nonetheless, he cherishes a certain dissonance in the décor, at least — the furniture and oddments from his grandmother, like the shawl on the piano, that do not quite fit with their sophisticated surroundings.

“I didn’t want the house to be pompous,” Mr. Solomon said. “I think that often in New York big houses are done up in a way that seems a little too perfect to me.”

When he moved in, he said, he was overwhelmed. “I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’” he recalled. Within a month, he had a complete collapse, his second. And as with the first breakdown, he moved in for a time with his father.

“But I grew accustomed to the house,” Mr. Solomon said. “And it feels very safe to me. And now that I’m married and have a child, and it’s usually full of hustle and bustle, it’s come to feel like a joyful, exuberant place to be.”

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