I come from a family where "impossible" is viewed as an exciting challenge. My parents bought the house I grew up in when I was two, a two-family farmhouse in Vermont that came with over-grown lawns, dilapidated barns, leaks everywhere and an older couple living in the spacious apartment attached (we called it the West Wing). The house was (and is) a continual work in progress. My parents hired people for the major work but did as much as they could by themselves. On weekends and during the summers they landscaped gardens, took down walls, changed windows, and slowly filled the house with furniture and art. Throughout the years the various people living in the West Wing became a part of our extended family. We hosted weekend feasts with friends and family at the giant picnic table that our dad built and celebrated winter holidays with family who came through the snow from New York and Canada. It was the sort of place you never want to leave. Except that very soon, I did.
A dancer since age three, at twelve I lucked into a spot at a ballet school in New York City. Every summer after that, and nearly once a month during the school year, I was in the city dancing. At home in Vermont, unable to fall asleep, I would lay in bed with my eyes closed, furnishing apartments and imagining my fabulous life in New York. As beautiful and nurturing as my home was, all I could do was think about leaving.
A month after I turned sixteen I was offered a job in a ballet company in NYC, and my parents didn't hesitate to let me go. Within two weeks, I moved to the city. A year later, when I proposed the idea of buying a studio instead of renting, my parents were skeptical, but not dismissive. Just a few months later I was a high school senior with a full-time job and my own apartment.
My home for over eleven years was a 250 square foot doll-sized apartment, with high ceilings and a giant window overlooking Broadway. My mom designed a brilliant loft with built-in cupboards and a boat-sized kitchen. There was a bed, a couch and space on the floor. It was tiny, but somehow my parents were able to stay with me when work brought them into the city, and my sister spent several summers there. Friends stayed for days at a time. Just like at the rambling house in Vermont, there was almost always room.
But there wasn't room for parties at the apartment, so for several years I used the bar where I bartended part-time as if it were my living room. Those Motown-scored evenings in the West Village with friends, cousins, aunts and my parents were my approximation of the gatherings hosted at the Vermont house.
I loved my life in that tiny studio, and then, at some point, I fell out of love with it. Because I was juggling a full-time job and freelance dance gigs I hadn't worked at a bar in several years, and I missed orchestrating those fun evenings. I began to dread the rare unscheduled day, because after a couple of waking hours in my apartment I felt claustrophobic and had to get out. It got to the point where I didn't want to be there unless I was sleeping. My apartment was in such an amazing location (blocks from Lincoln Center!) and my family had put so much into making it beautiful and functional that I felt guilty about wanting more. How could I -- how dare I -- say that it wasn't enough?
I daydreamed about a home with space for dinners, parties and lazy afternoons; a place where we could gather together our friends and family, expanding the incredible hub that our parents established in Vermont. Around the same time, my sister was struggling to find an affordable apartment to rent and was weary from moving at least once a year; she wanted a place where she could unpack and throw away the boxes for good. We emailed listings for two-bedroom apartments back and forth, but we were so busy with our careers and lives that we never followed through. Occasionally we fantasized about buying a whole brownstone, in the way that people talk about winning the lotto.
But by last winter I just couldn't take it anymore. I started looking at buildings for sale, jotting down expense estimates late into the night, figuring out how many roommates it would take to make each building affordable. Very quickly my parents and sister got on board, and we started seriously investigating the idea. As a team we discussed priorities, made spreadsheets and went to open houses. Within a few months my apartment was sold, and I found a room in a two-bedroom where I could live until we found a house. Our team expanded to include my sister's boyfriend, a skilled carpenter with extensive construction experience, and a dear friend of mine. After only a few months of searching, we found our home.
The process of making that home ours was intense. The previous residents left a lot of stuff behind -- it took over two days just to clean and sort through the downstairs kitchen. There were slap-texture ceilings, wall-to-wall carpeting in several rooms, shoddy electric work. But we had a lot of help -- some paid, some volunteered. A friend of mine was trying to figure out what to do with her life, and I half-jokingly brought up the idea that she should live in the house and help with renovations. She moved in and worked hard, as if it was her own home; her enthusiasm was just as valuable as her elbow grease. My sister and I had jobs to go to during the week, so after work and on weekends we joined the rest of the team, working until we couldn't keep our eyes open. We had sore shoulders, bloody knuckles, aching backs and were constantly filthy. We dealt with water in the basement and a gas leak. But we discovered hidden windows and treasures amongst the junk that was left behind. We laughed a lot. It was one of the best times of my life.
We moved in with the generous help of several friends and our parents the day after Hurricane Irene passed through New York. For a few weeks we lived among boxes and construction supplies, stepping carefully around trays of paint and tools. Gradually the walls were painted and furniture shifted into place. We hung out in the backyard with friends, cooked group meals, and watched the day end while sitting on the stoop, and the house began to feel like home. We had an informal housewarming party the same weekend as my parent's 38th wedding anniversary. The house, now known as Witkem, was filled with old friends, new friends and people I had never met. It was exactly what I always wanted.
We still have no dryer ... we've got some carpet left to rip up, walls to paint, and some major projects to finish before the snow comes. Our to-do list is infinite and this house will be a perpetual work in progress. We wouldn't have it any other way.
Kyla Ernst-Alper blogs about the new house at houseonbrooklyn.tumblr.com.
PHOTOS: The House Becomes A Home