Fred A. Bernstein

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Frank Lloyd Wright on Staten Island

The Cretellas renovate

Published in The New York Times, December 18, 2005

The New York Times
December 18, 2005
Habitats | Lighthouse Hill, Staten Island
Living With Frank Lloyd Wright

HOUSES by famous architects are notoriously impractical. So when Frank and Jeanne Cretella bought the only Frank Lloyd Wright house in New York City three years ago, they were worried that the roof might leak.

As it turned out, "there were more than 50 leaks," Mr. Cretella said of the Staten Island house. "No kidding. We had to put pots under them to catch the water."

"We didn't have enough pots, and we're an Italian family - that's how bad it was," Mr. Cretella added, laughing.

But Mr. Cretella, who is both congenitally cheerful and - luckily for him - the owner of a large construction company, wasn't deterred from the task of renovating the house, which is in the Lighthouse Hill neighborhood.

Raised just a few blocks away, he had admired the building since childhood. "The school bus stopped in front of the house every day, to pick up the Cass girls," he said, speaking of the original owners' children.

Mr. Cretella's wife, Jeanne, a restaurateur, also grew up in Lighthouse Hill. The couple met 35 years ago, when they were 12. She fell off her bike, he helped her up, and neither has ever dated anybody else. Recently, Mr. Cretella led a visitor around the house, which has spectacular views of the eastern shore of Staten Island, while Ms. Cretella cooked lunch in a large, bright kitchen that is nothing like the galley Wright intended for the house.

The Cretellas took down a couple of walls to make room for professional appliances - not, Mr. Cretella pointed out, the pseudo-professional appliances designed for residential use. There are built-in woks and griddles and three prep sinks. The stainless steel range hood, more than eight feet long, is the size of some Manhattan kitchens. "It's a rule - when you come into this house, you have to eat," said a friend, Ellyn Amessť, while Ms. Cretella dished out escarole and beans and crisp Italian bread.

The house - one of about 400 designed by Wright in his more than 70-year career - is a long, low L, with wide-hip roofs. The exterior is red brick; much of the interior is mahogany. Its original owners, Catherine and William Cass, had it manufactured in kit form in the Midwest and shipped to Staten Island.

Wright, who died in 1959 - the year the house was erected - never got to see it. To some, it is known by the name the Casses gave it, Crimson Beech. Wright scholars call it Prefab No. 1.

By the 1990's, the house had fallen into disrepair. In 1996, the Casses sold it for $800,000. The new owners quickly took in six stray dogs, according to Vinnie Amessť, Ellyn Amessť's husband, a commercial photographer who lives in the neighborhood. Mr. Amessť was distressed by the deteriorating condition of the house - and the school bus parked out front.

When he learned that the owners planned to put the dogs into the bus and move to Alaska, he called Mr. Cretella, an old friend, who had been living in Manhattan but was planning to return to Staten Island.

Mr. Cretella made an offer, which he said was about the same as what the owners had paid six years earlier. The house never went on the market. "We were both really, really excited about it - it's not like Frank needed to sway me at all," Ms. Cretella said.

In addition to renovating the kitchen, the couple removed an interior doorway to make the stairway to the basement more inviting and turned a storeroom into a large wine cellar. (Mr. Cretella makes his own red wine.) And they turned one of Wright's tiny bedrooms into a master bathroom, with a large shower and tub. (The couple has avoided changing the exterior, which has been a New York City landmark since 1990.)

Now, with the renovation pretty much complete, "we're just doing upkeep, like any other homeowners," Ms. Cretella said. Her husband declined to estimate the cost of renovation, which was mainly the work of his own company, Black Dog Construction.

When he isn't working on Crimson Beech, Mr. Cretella is developing apartment buildings in Jersey City. But the Cretellas also have a history in the restaurant business.

In the 1990's, they helped revive Lundy's, the seafood restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, and created American Park, a restaurant in a former maintenance shed at the foot of Manhattan.

In 2000, friends invited them to an Andrea Bocelli concert in Liberty State Park in Jersey City. While Ms. Cretella was transfixed by the tenor, Mr. Cretella began imagining a new restaurant with views of the Manhattan skyline. Within a year they had built Liberty House.

On Sept. 11, 2001, "we had food in the refrigerators - that's how close we were to opening," Ms. Cretella said. The debut was delayed by months after the park became a staging area for rescue workers. These days, Ms. Cretella runs Liberty House, and when she's not there, she's likely to be cooking at home, alongside the couple's daughter, Madeline, 12.

Ms. Cretella said that when her daughter's class did a unit on Frank Lloyd Wright, "it was pretty exciting for her." But Madeline said she has been spooked by strangers looking through the windows and has had to ask people to leave - something it's hard to imagine her father ever doing.

"If people want to see it, I try to be nice to them," Mr. Cretella said. He doesn't mind that architecture students often show up, unannounced, or even that the nearby Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art has begun giving out directions to the house to people who ask if there's anything else worth seeing in the neighborhood. (Many other owners of Frank Lloyd Wright houses try to deter visitors.)

If the Cretellas have one problem with the house, it's that much of their furniture and art - including Santa Fe-style pottery, Victorian antiques and red leather chairs - doesn't really complement Wright's architecture. "Our old house was completely different," Mr. Cretella said, explaining the mismatch.

But even experienced interior designers have trouble knowing how to furnish a Wright house. So it's no wonder the Cretellas are hesitant about redecorating. "We're attacking it, piece by piece," Mr. Cretella said.

In the meantime, Ms. Cretella has gotten her pots back - in time to prepare big dinners for both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. "We're down to just one leak," Mr. Cretella said.