When Calamity Strikes at an Open House
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When Calamity Strikes at an Open House

Real-estate agents recall crashing framed art, sick babies, sick cats, sharks—then the doorbell rings.

By Amy Gamerman
Wed, Nov 10, 2021 10:21amGrey Clock 4 min

Q: Ever had a showing that turned into a scene from a disaster movie?

Vickey Barron

Associate real-estate broker, Compass, New York City

It was the first showing of a two-bedroom penthouse with an 79sqm  terrace on the Upper East Side, near Carnegie Hill. The owners had adopted a baby and they had two little boys. When I first saw the place, they had a section of a sectional sofa—not the whole sofa, just a section—toys everywhere, not one piece of art on the walls; nothing from an interior-design standpoint. The owner said, “It’s not my forte.” I told her, “I will go shopping with you.”

Every day there would be a rug delivered, a coffee table, accessories. I reorganised her closets. We got beautiful, framed photographs of New York and had them hung in a hallway.

By the time we had our first showing, the place looked exquisite. It was about six o’clock at night and it was snowing outside. I had lighted candles on the dining table, there were flowers on the coffee table. It was a really pretty wintertime scene. But right before the showing, the owner came running into the penthouse with the baby and one of the older boys. The baby was crying. She said, “I’m so sorry, I have to change the baby. She has horrible diarrhea.” While she was in the bedroom with the baby, who was crying nonstop, her son ran onto the terrace and started spinning in the snow, catching it in his hands. I asked him to please come in, and he did—tracking soppy snow through the apartment. Then he saw the candles burning on the table, went over and blew them out. Wax spattered all over the table. That startled him. He went running down the hall to his mother, and knocked down one of the framed photographs on the wall. It slid down the wall and just shattered—glass everywhere. Luckily he didn’t get hurt.

I ran to get a broom to sweep up the glass. While I was getting the broom, I saw that the cat had eaten the flowers on the coffee table. It was obvious from the pile of vomit.

While I was sweeping up the glass, the buzzer went off. It was the doorman, saying, “Hi, your people are here. They are on their way up on the elevator.” The baby was crying, the cat was vomiting and then the doorbell rang. I opened the door to the buyers and said, “Hi, can you give me just one moment?” The mom sneaked out the back door with her son and the baby. I finished sweeping up the glass, dumped it in the trash, got the cat vomit up, got in there with the air freshener.

When the buyers were walking through, they said, “Everything looks so beautiful.” I said, “Don’t pay attention to the wax.” It sold at full ask—$1.8 million.

Pam Jackson

Real-estate agent, The Corcoran Group, Southampton, N.Y.

I have a waterfront listing on Shinnecock Bay. The house was built in 1938. It’s darling, with all these old touches, but admittedly the house needs work. We listed it at $1.35 million, then did a price reduction to $1.25 million. It’s on the water, but the buyer would have to spend $800,000 to either demolish it or gut it to the studs.

There are three viewing spots of the bay, including a sun deck overlooking the water, about 50 or 60 feet from the house. The deck is built over the ground where it slopes toward the water. The ground is uneven, so at one end the deck is only a foot or so off the ground, but at the far end overlooking the bay, it’s about 8 feet above the ground. Back in the day, there were steps that went down from the deck to the water and a long dock, but those had both been washed away. It’s a very sweet spot. You see this vast expanse of water and boats going by and paddle boarders.

I had a very tall family come to see the house, two girls and a boy in their mid-20s, with their parents. We went out to the deck and we’re all talking. One of the daughters says, “I see a shark!” I’m thinking, “It’s not a shark, this is the bay,” but everybody goes to the edge of the deck to look. Then all of a sudden we hear this crunching noise and the deck drops a few inches toward the water. The platform had pulled away from the pilings that were sunk in the ground.

What happened next was all kind of a blur. I didn’t even see the mom and the three kids jump off the deck onto the lawn, but they did. The deck dropped another few inches. The father and I are side by side and he starts to jump, then reaches back for my hand and we jump off the widening divide between the deck and the lawn, 3 feet to the ground. It was an Indiana Jones moment.

My heart was racing. I tried to keep it light. I walked the family to their car and thanked them and said, “You’re going to have plenty to talk about at dinner tonight!”

It was at the end of the open house, thank God. They let me know it wasn’t a project they wanted to entertain at the moment. I called the owners and they had the deck removed that week.


Reprinted by permission of The Wall Street Journal, Copyright 2021 Dow Jones & Company. Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide. Original date of publication: November 9, 2021


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But as house prices increase across the country, the conversation has started to shift from size for the sake of it towards more flexible, well-designed spaces better suited to contemporary living.

For the owners of this 1920s weatherboard workers’ cottage in Fremantle, the emphasis was less on having an abundance of room and more about creating cohesive environments that could still maintain their own distinct moods. Key to achieving this was manipulating the floorplan in such a way that it could draw in light, giving the impression at least of a larger footprint. 

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Positioned on a site that fell three metres from street level, the humble four-room residence had been added to over the years. First order of business for local architect Philip Stejskal was to strip the house back to its original state.

“In this case, they were not quality additions,” Stejskal says. “Sometimes it is important to make sure later additions are not lean-tos.”

The decision to demolish was not taken lightly. 

“Sometimes they can be as historically significant as the original building and need to be considered — I wouldn’t want people to demolish our addition in 50 years’ time.”

Northern light hits the site diagonally, so the design solution was to open up the side of the house via a spacious courtyard to maximise opportunities to draw natural light in. However, this had a knock-on effect.

A central courtyard captures northern light. Image: Bo Wong

“We had to make space in the middle of the site to get light in,” Stejskal says. “That was one of the first moves, but that created another issue because we would be looking onto the back of the neighbouring building at less appealing things, like their aircon unit.”

To draw attention away from the undesirable view, Stejskal designed a modern-day ‘folly’.

“It’s a chimney and lookout and it was created to give us something nice to look at in the living space and in the kitchen,” Stejskal says. 

“With a growing family, the idea was to create a space where people could find a bit of solitude. It does have views to the wider locality but you can also see the port and you can connect to the street as well.”

A garden tap has also been installed to allow for a herb garden at the top of the steps.

“That’s the plan anyway,”  he says. 

A modern day ‘folly’ provides an unexpected breakout space with room for a rooftop herb garden. Image: Bo Wong

Conjuring up space has been at the core of this project, from the basement-style garaging to the use of the central courtyard to create a pavilion-like addition.

The original cottage now consists of two bedrooms, with a central hallway leading onto a spacious reception and living area. Here, the large kitchen and dining spaces wrap around the courtyard, offering easy access to outdoor spaces via large sliding doors.

Moments of solitude and privacy have been secreted throughout the floorplan, with clever placement of built-in window seats and the crow’s nest lookout on the roof, ideal for morning coffee and sunset drinks.

The house has three bedrooms, including a spacious master suite with walk-in robe and ensuite overlooking the back garden. Adjustable blades on the bedroom windows allow for the control of light, as well as privacy. Although the house was designed pre COVID, it offers the sensibility so many sought through that time — sanctuary, comfort and retreat.

Adjustable blades allow the owners to control light on the upper floor. Image: Bo Wong

“When the clients came to us, they wanted a house that was flexible enough to cater for the unknown and changes in the family into the future,” Stejskal says. “We gave the owners a series of spaces and a certain variety or moods, regardless of the occasion. We wanted it to be a space that would support that.”

Mood has also been manipulated through the choice of materials. Stejskal has used common materials such as timber and brick, but in unexpected ways to create spaces that are at once sumptuous but also in keeping with the origins of the existing building.

Externally, the brickwork has been finished in beaded pointing, a style of bricklaying that has a softening effect on the varied colours of bricks. For the flooring, crazy paving in the courtyard contrasts with the controlled lines of tiles laid in a stack bond pattern. Close attention has also been paid to the use of veneer on select joinery in the house, championing the beauty of Australian timbers with a lustrous finish. 

“The joinery is finished in spotted gum veneer that has been rotary cut,” says Stejskal. “It is peeled off the log like you peel an apple to give you this different grain.”

Rotary cut timber reveals the beauty of the natural grain in the kitchen joinery. Image: Bo Wong

Even the laundry has been carefully considered.

“The laundry is like a zen space with bare stone,” he says. “We wanted these different moods and the landscape of rooms. We wanted to create a rich tapestry in this house.”

The owners now each experience the house differently, highlighting separate aspects of the building as their favourite parts. It’s quite an achievement when the site is not enormous. Maybe it’s not size that matters so much after all.

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