A house made of spare parts

photo by Dion Ogust

Michael Lalicki and Susie Linn purchased their house inKingston’s Rondout at city auction. When they moved in during the summer of 2000, the funky, multi-family structure was a squalid mess. Rotting food, left by the last tenants, oozed from the refrigerator, and the stove was filthy.

“We’d been living in a cute little ranch house in New Paltz,” Linn, an arts administrator, recalled. “It was the hottest summer on record. When we came in, it was disgusting. I just started to cry.”

But now Linn said she wouldn’t trade the 3000-square-foot, three-story house for the world. After a decade of renovation, the couple has comfortably settled in.

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A sculptor working with electrical equipment and transporting hefty materials, Lalacki required a studio on the first floor. The house perfectly met that need. The second-floor apartment was gutted and transformed into a loft-style living, dining and kitchen area; during the ten-year renovation project, the couple lived in the third-floor apartment, now converted to bedrooms.

The house, however, is much more than living quarters and a studio. It’s also a showcase for Lalicki’s talents as a builder and designer and a canvas for his artistic invention.

From the outside, sheathed in pale blue asbestos shingles, the corner building looks solidly working-class, a remnant of the old neighborhood. The exception is the rear garden: planted with tall grasses and punctuated with Lalicki’s sculptures, including a large wooden wheel suspended on a tall base and fanciful painted animals attached to the top of the Tom Sawyer fence, it’s an eye-catcher. (The fence has a few well-positioned holes encouraging passersby to take a peek.)

The sculptures are a clue that magical things are hidden behind the plain house exterior. Entering through the front door and climbing up the enclosed stairway to the second-floor loft, one is pleasantly surprised by the open, art-filled space, whose handmade quality retains a certain roughness, in harmony with the bare-bones vernacular essence of the building.

Everywhere you look, there’s an object of fascination. A deconstructed chair has a section of seat removed, with the piece transformed into a fish speared by a spindle that protrudes from the chair back. A series of keel-like wooden sculptures on high pedestals are arranged on a low table, Overhead, a ship prow fashioned out of lottery tickets dangles from an exposed beam (it’s entitled When My Ship Comes In). A floor lamp sporting a coconut waves its two pliable metal arms like the pistons of a flower, while a cubistic metal sculpture with porthole-like cut-outs and curvy edges sits on a narrow trestle table whose streamlined top is edged with curved wood pieces that extend off the edge like tiny fins.

The plywood walls are hung with Lalicki’s large geometric wood pieces — camouflaged cabinets — and tucked away in nooks and corners are various built-ins: shelves, a long bench under the windows, freestanding storage units. Each is a hand-crafted, streamlined form, with carefully finished details, such as a delicate molding or pattern of shiny fasteners.

 

“As artists, we look at things differently than other people,” says Lalicki, gesturing around the loft. “We’re magicians of sorts, dealing with illusion. I have all these little tricks, involving materials, shape and color.”

His alchemy in many cases involves incorporating or transforming a vernacular material into something chic and glamorous. For example, the kitchen countertops and the sleek, fish-tail-shaped breakfast bar which separates the kitchen from the dining area are made of layers of plywood, stained black. The floor is painted a matte dark gray, a color that upstages the furnishings as if they were set pieces. (Lalicki borrowed the idea from his former job designing and building stage sets for the theater department at SUNY-New Paltz.) The color is impractical — the floor constantly has to be mopped to look good —but Lalicki loves the dramatic effect.  “Every day is a play,” he says.  “The house is a stage set for the way I live. I want to lead people onto that stage and see how they respond.”

Subtle, dynamic structural features lend verve to the space. A bathroom is tucked behind a curved wall, topped with a clerestory window that juts into the living area and was modeled after the boat-shaped kid’s bedroom he built for a client in aNew York Cityloft. The wall behind the kitchen, which extends along the dining area and separates the loft from the stairway, is angled, with a jog to accommodate the laundry room. Along the far end of the wall, which is covered in weathered gray siding and punctuated by three gray doors, a coat closet unabashedly butts into the room. In other instances, however, Lalicki retracts features into the wall, such as the inverted medicine cabinet in the third-floor bathroom, whose small inlaid wooden door is flush with the wall.

In his sculptures, reliefs, assemblages, and furniture, the artist often blurs the line between function and playfulness, utility and art, delighting as much in the frame, box or pedestal as in the art object. The same sensibility plays out in his house, which is treated as a kind of three-dimensional frame.

Lalicki envisions the second floor as eventually becoming a kind of gallery, showcasing his artworks and displaying his skills as a builder and designer. “I have 40 years’ experience making things,” he says. “Somebody can come in and say, I love the idea of the black ceiling in the pantry with the beams hanging down. My house is a selling tool for my talent.”

 

Built in the late nineteenth century when Rondout, then a separate city that had sprung up at the terminus of a canal transporting coal from Pennsylvania, was a booming Hudson River port, the house was originally a one-story gabled brick building. The two top floors were hastily cobbled together at a later date out of used lumber, leaving a somewhat rickety structure.

After Lalicki and Linn moved in, they noticed that the house rocked whenever a truck passed by. To reinforce the building, Lalicki installed the central posts and beam on the second floor, which allow light from the windows to permeate the space. He also stabilized the outer walls by hanging sheets of plywood on them after removing the original lath and plaster and putting in insulation. He replaced the teetering staircase to the second floor with a sturdy new one and took out the second-floor hall to create more space.

Lalicki had previously lived in an industrial loft with twelve-foot-high ceilings, and his original plan was to re-create that space by opening up the ceiling over the second-floor dining area all the way to the roof. But after living in the house for a while, he began seeing its constraints as an intrinsic part of its charm. “It’s a matter of adjusting your perception to what you really need,” he said. (The couple has embraced that value in other areas of their lives: they made a commitment at the beginning of this year not to purchase any products, beyond food and other essentials.)

The ceiling on the second floor, which is barely eight feet high, was uneven and crumbly. Lalicki covered it with pickled pine beadboard, emphasizing the sweep of horizontal space and conjuring up the warmth and coziness of a ship’s cabin. (A native ofLong Islandwho grew up near the ocean, Lalicki says the ship is a favorite motif.) He played up the space’s irregularities by, for example, connecting the slightly different floor levels of the living and dining areas with a ramp. Despite its boxy appearance, the building has no right angles, which meant that every cabinet and shelf had to be customized.

Much of the loft was constructed out of recycled materials, either donated by friends or rescued from the street, including the supporting posts, the wainscoting under the kitchen bar, the barn siding in the stairway, and the wood used in the kitchen cabinets. Besides a matter of economic necessity, incorporating bits and pieces of recycled materials into the building was also a way of honoring its peculiar character as “a house made out of spare parts,” as he puts it.

Lalicki concedes he is naturally drawn to old, tarnished things. “They have a kind of patina and a history,” he explains. “I use them as much as I can until it becomes completely impractical” — and even then, on occasion he’ll put in the extra effort. For example, lath that was rescued from a neighbor’s dumpster was cleaned with a wire brush and painstakingly fitted together to make an exquisite inlaid wood ceiling in the third-floor bathroom.

“Sometimes when you recycle a material, it takes three times as long,” he says. “But it comes out really sweet.”

The semi-enclosed office he created for Linn on the second floor is an anomaly, with its painted dry wall and carpet. “My space is the nice space,” Linn said. Her favorite room, however, is the third-floor bathroom, which has a clawfooted tub, comfy arm chair, and hand-crafted cabinets by Lalicki, along with that wonderful inlaid wood ceiling. After they first moved in, “I would come home from work and he’d be in the tub, washing his toes,” she said. “I’d have a glass of wine and bring up a tray of cheese and crackers, and we’d hang out.”

After living on the third floor for so many years, Lalacki developed an affection for the space and decided to retain the traditional layout. With eleven windows on three sides, the space is flooded with light, and the couple fell in love with the bird’s-eye views of the surrounding rooftops, overshadowed by the suspension bridge that spans the Rondout Creek a few blocks away. Since the house is a story taller than the surrounding buildings, it also offers absolute privacy.

 

The floor now houses the main bath, master bedroom, two guest rooms, and an exercise room. “Up here, the renovation is more cosmetic,” says Lalicki. The traditional layout “was an opportunity to create assemblage-collage things,” such as the inlaid wood pieces set in thresholds of the doors or the faux door to the guest bedroom. Made of a flat panel, it has a wood relief resembling a door with a gridded window on one side, while on the other it’s purely conceptual — simply a depiction of a door, which Lalicki drew on the flat surface.

From April to November, the couple spends much of their time outside in the garden. Lalicki constructed a series of brick paths and low bluestone walls in the back yard, transforming the space into a series of outdoor rooms, with vegetable and herb gardens, a central dining space, and a wood deck with a charcoal grill and built-in bench. The patio area at the very back, against the old wood garage, is transformed into a bar area when the couple hold summer parties.

The geometric layout of small, terraced lawns, bordered by decorative grasses and shrubs, is unified by a diagonal path that leads from the patio to a gate in the rear near the garage, extending the space. While the garden has open areas that connect it to the street, it’s also very much a private oasis with a country feel. “We had a party last summer, and after an excellent dinner, our neighbor said, You know, this is the closest I’ve been toTuscany,” Linn said.

By now very much rooted in their Rondout house, the couple acknowledge that it still is a work in progress. Linn would like to paint the exterior. Lalicki would like to construct a phantom stair from the third-floor landing, which would suggest another floor, forever inaccessible and mysterious. A shift in the couple’s life — such as a live-in family member — leads to a change. New artworks take up residence. A gift or discovery of some new material sparks a sudden inspiration in Lalicki.

“Once I get done with this house, I’m never going to leave,” he says. “I love the flow of the space. It has an interesting balance and out-of-balance character that makes it work …. The ship is about a journey. That’s really the philosophy of what my life is about. It’s the journey, the process of making a thing.”

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