Fred A. Bernstein

A Firehouse Becomes a Home for Art and Music

Living with century-old bricks and massive wooden trusses 

Published in The New York Times, September 9, 2007

MEGAN CRAIG was hesitant about letting a photographer and reporter into her apartment.

"Establishing a zone of privacy has been a challenge," said the soft-spoken Ms. Craig, 32, a painter and philosophy professor. During the first year that she and her husband, Nick Lloyd, lived in their sprawling apartment in New Haven, carpenters arrived every morning at 6 to begin working downstairs. They were there to complete the concert hall and recording studio immediately below the apartment, and the cocktail lounge on the level below that.

The apartment, the studio and the bar fit together, like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, within a 1905 firehouse that Mr. Lloyd bought in 2001, three years before the couple married and while Ms. Craig was living in New York.

The renovation of the building began in 2002 and wasn't completed until 2005. The process, both say, was exhausting. But the result is a striking living space, in which century-old bricks and massive wooden trusses mingle with high-tech appliances and Danish modern furniture. Walls that rise 17 feet to the ceiling frame several of Ms. Craig's oil paintings.

When he bought the decrepit firehouse, Mr. Lloyd had no renovation experience. "I was na�ve enough not to be terrified by the process," he said.

He had been living in Brooklyn, where he ran a small recording studio, but he had decided to move to New Haven to get a Ph.D. in music theory at Yale.

His search for a place to live took him to a neighborhood called Ninth Square (it occupies one of nine squares meant to surround the New Haven Green in the city's 1638 layout). There, he stumbled upon the firehouse, which had not been used for that purpose since 1961. The city was seeking proposals for its reuse.

Mr. Lloyd decided to submit a plan, which he did with the help of Ms. Craig. The fact that the plan was due in 48 hours wasn't a problem. "To us, it was like a research paper," said Ms. Craig, who had met Mr. Lloyd, who is also 32, in 1993, when they were both freshmen at Yale. (They began dating years later.)

Mr. Lloyd's bid of $110,000 was accepted by the city, and suddenly he faced the challenge of making his plan a reality. Luckily, Gray Organschi Architecture, a partnership of Lisa Gray and Alan Organschi, occupies the building next door to the firehouse. Mr. Lloyd hired them as soon as he saw the firm's newly renovated office.

While Mr. Lloyd planned the firehouse renovation - with Ms. Gray, Mr. Organschi and the project architect, Adam Hopfner - Ms. Craig was in New York, where she was pursuing a doctorate at the New School and was working as a painter. Lacking her own studio, she moved from one artist's residency to another.

In June 2001, she began working in a plum location: the 91st floor of the north tower of the World Trade Center, where the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council provided space to artists. On the morning of Sept. 11, she was in the lobby, on her way to the studio, when the first plane struck.

Lost in the wreckage was three months' work: paintings of Manhattan from the 91st floor (some of which she has since recreated from memory, producing a soft-focus effect).

In the spring of 2002, the couple decided to move in together. That meant renting a house in New Haven while the firehouse was being completed.

In 2004, they were able to move into the top floor of the building, which is about 40 feet wide and 80 feet deep. The architects turned the front half into a living room, dining room, kitchen and study, and the back half into a raised box containing two bedrooms and two bathrooms (which have ceilings of translucent plastic). By day, light from a huge new skylight passes through the plastic to illuminate the bathrooms. By night, light rising through the plastic creates a soft glow.

A stairway from the living room leads to a spacious roof terrace that Ms. Craig has filled with hollyhocks, lemon verbena, echinacea and many other plants. "There's no plan," she said. "I just want to make it as overgrown, organic and green as possible."

The rest of the building is devoted to Mr. Lloyd's businesses. By 2003, he had decided he didn't want to continue his studies in music theory and instead began to focus on record production. He founded a record label, Firehouse 12, specializing in avant-garde jazz. He now produces live performances in the concert hall, which has room for 75 people. (A fall jazz series will begin on Sept. 21.)

In 2005, he finally opened the bar, also called Firehouse 12. In 2006 it was voted the best new bar in the city by readers of the weekly New Haven Advocate.

Mr. Lloyd would not discuss how much the renovation cost, except to say that it was "more than I had hoped."

Meanwhile, the couple had 3,000 square feet of living space and hardly any furniture. They were tempted simply to drive to Ikea, about a mile away, and pick up everything they needed.

But looking for furniture became a three-year exploration of shared passions. Several pieces, including a magnificent dining table, were made by carpenters from cedar boards salvaged from the building. (Another piece, a tall Shaker-style table, served as the altar for the couple's wedding, which took place in 2004 at her grandparents' farm in Goshen, Conn.) The mix includes bright Kartell bar stools and a baby grand piano from Mr. Lloyd's family.

There are also a number of Danish modern pieces, including a chaise by Hans Wegner, bought at a furniture auction in Boston. A few - but only a few - pieces are from Ikea.

"It took three years to figure out how to furnish it and really make it livable, because it's just so big," Ms. Craig said.

She continues to paint. In fact, a show of her paintings will be at Carole Peck's Good News Cafe and Gallery in Woodbury, Conn., through Oct. 22.

She has also begun teaching philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, commuting by ferry over Long Island Sound.

The neighborhood around the firehouse has the feel of SoHo 30 years ago, with interesting new restaurants, galleries and antique shops lining the streets. But there are still a few vacant buildings on the couple's block.

Occasionally, they say, they look at the empty warehouses across the street and think about applying what they've learned to a new renovation. But then they stop themselves: Mr. Lloyd wants to make music, and Ms. Craig wants to make art.