Fred A. Bernstein

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A Loft in Boston's Chinatown

Sam Davol, the cellist for the Magnetic Fields, and his wife, Leslie, move north

Published in The New York Times, November 22, 2007


FOR years, Sam Davol, who is 37, worked as a Legal Aid lawyer in Lower Manhattan while moonlighting as the cellist for the indie-pop band the Magnetic Fields. As the band, led by the enigmatic singer and songwriter Stephin Merritt, flourished - a new album comes out in January, followed by a national tour - Mr. Davol decided to give up his day job to devote more time to music.

Mr. Davol and his wife, Leslie, then a museum executive, figured they could survive without regular paychecks if they sold their loft on Greenwich Street and found a less expensive place to live.

Boston was the obvious choice. Both were raised there and, since their parents were still living there, their children, Malcolm, 5, and Eleanor, 7, would have grandparents within easy driving distance.

"We had a really good run in Lower Manhattan," Ms. Davol, 38, said. "But nothing lasts forever." In 2005, they put their downtown loft on the market, and it fetched five times what they had paid for it as raw space eight years earlier. The windfall, she said, "is giving us a window of time to experiment with new careers, in addition to Sam's music, that will give us more time with the kids when they are young."

But where? Suburbia "would have been too much of a shock for us, coming from New York City, where we never owned a car," Ms. Davol said. The couple began focusing on Boston's rapidly evolving Chinatown, packed with stores and restaurants. Now that the freeway that skirted the neighborhood has been buried - the culmination of the decades-long Big Dig project - new parks have been appearing in its place. Indeed, Chinatown was quickly becoming the Boston equivalent of Battery Park City: dense, but bordered by green spaces. Ms. Davol was excited to find a neighborhood whose "story is still being written."

The family moved to an apartment in Cambridge while Ms. Davol searched for Chinatown real estate. At one point, she saw an online listing for a sixth-floor apartment with terrific views and light. But at 1,100 square feet, it was too small for a residence and offices for both Ms. Davol and her husband.

About three months later, she saw a listing on a different Web site for another apartment at the same address. Ms. Davol investigated and learned that the two apartments shared the top floor of the building. Combining them would create a 2,200-square-foot space with a stair and elevator core in the middle, with four exposures. The price for the two apartments was about $1 million.

Though they made offers on both apartments on the same day, the closings - each with a different cast of characters - "proceeded on different timelines," Ms. Davol said. (There were a nerve-racking few weeks in which the Davols were afraid they might end up with only one apartment.)

In New York, where both Davols had full-time jobs, the family lived in one big flowing space. In Boston, they hired Meejin Yoon and Eric H÷weler, the principals of H÷weler & Yoon Architecture, to create a series of separate rooms, including home offices and a mini recording studio for Mr. Davol. To illustrate how those spaces should relate to each other, "they produced a bubble diagram, with something like 28 bubbles," said Ms. Yoon, marveling at the clients' attention to detail.

The apartments, five floors above the bustling Jumbo Seafood Restaurant, had dark interiors despite the windows on four sides. The architects decided to take advantage of the top-floor location to "capture" light from above. To do that, they created a courtyard, eight by eight feet, open to the elements and accessible from the kitchen through sliding glass doors. Mr. Davol said, "People can't believe we removed square footage - square footage being so precious." But the courtyard has become the family's favorite hangout.

The architects also put skylights over the bathtub and the shower, creating luminous spaces enclosed by panels of acid-etched glass. Some of the other walls are made of translucent honeycomb polycarbonate.

And they added level changes. Their initial goal was to raise the kitchen floor so pipes could run under it, but they found themselves taking advantage of the spatial possibilities. Now the broad steps up from the living room to the kitchen serve as a perch for Eleanor, Malcolm and the family's 13-year-old calico cat, Regina.

Getting the place built took ingenuity. Contractors would only take the job, Ms. Davol said, if she could offer them a place to park - a rare commodity in central Boston. Luckily, there was an empty lot across the street from their new building. Ms. Davol, undaunted by confusing property records and her inability to speak Chinese, eventually located the owner and persuaded him to give her access to the lot for a small fee. From there, a crane hoisted building materials into the new apartment through the courtyard cutout in the roof - the "aperture for construction," as Mr. H÷weler put it. (The Davols have used the same lot for an outdoor film festival they organized each of the last two summers.)

As it turned out, the Davols did much of the work on the apartment. When the contractors bid on the job, the plan was to cover the back wall of the kitchen and adjoining courtyard in four-inch-wide strips of South American mahogany. But the architects decided that four-inch boards were "too coarse - the wrong scale for the kitchen," Mr. H÷weler said, so they had the boards cut into thirds.

That meant the boards would require three times as much effort to install. So the contractor did the first third of the wall - for his original price - and Mr. Davol did the rest.

The couple also painted the walls and covered the floors (four-by-eight sheets of white oak plywood) with two coats of stain and four coats of polyurethane.

"Sam and Leslie are pretty unique clients," Mr. H÷weler said, "totally determined to realize the design intent, even when that meant doing things themselves."

The new home supports a new lifestyle. In New York, while Mr. Davol worked at the Legal Aid Society, his wife worked at the New-York Historical Society and then for the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. A nanny helped care for the children.

In Boston, there is no baby sitter; the couple take turns tending to Malcolm and Eleanor, taking them to and from school by subway.

"We traded in some certainty about the direction of our careers" for flexibility and control, Ms. Davol wrote in an e-mail message. When they aren't with their children, they are exploring new ventures, including producing a series of children's videos.

Mr. Davol is also busy practicing cello riffs for the Magnetic Fields's upcoming tour (which will bring him to Town Hall in Manhattan in February).

Occasionally, he travels to New York to rehearse with the band, but he has recorded many of the tracks for the group's upcoming album, "Distortion," in his home recording studio.

Not having an office to go to, Ms. Davol said, makes her wish she had more time for herself.

"I used to be able to say ĹGoodbye, family!' in the morning," she said, and "head out the door to my office, read the paper on the subway."

On the other hand, she said, "The kids are thriving, and we are both able to see them more during the day."

Her husband said moving had allowed him to achieve a work and life balance that is "better, but not perfect."

"When we figure it all out," he said, "we'll let you know."