A House Fit for Murder, Madmen and Fashion Models
c.2014 New York Times News Service
NEW YORK — Stars Mary-Kate Olsen and Lauren Hutton are laughing on a beat-up couch in their Harper’s Bazaar shoot, dressed for a bohemian ball, the plaster walls behind them cracked and humming in the afternoon light. In a Cosmo U.K. spread, model Megan McNierney totters down the stairs past a fresco of the Italian countryside, a Hitchcockian madman in pursuit. For a Vs. magazine feature, actress Amber Heard reclines in a claw foot tub, wearing leather, lace, a commandant’s hat and knee-high boots, a riding crop clutched with menace in her hands.
All were shot in the same house, a favorite of photographers, editors and directors around the globe. With its chipped paint, marble fireplaces, rolling grounds and airy cupola, the home seems to be from another time and place.
This fashion fun house is in New York state, though not in the more stylish precincts of Manhattan or Brooklyn, the genteel estates of Long Island’s East End, or upstate horse country. It is smack in the middle of Staten Island.
“When I first showed up, I almost didn’t go in,” said Tom Corbett, an Australian photographer who did the Hitchcock-inspired “Dial ‘F’ for Fashion” shoot last year. “I thought I was in the wrong place, but it turned out to be this total gem.”
Driving along busy Richmond Road, it can be easy to miss the house at No. 2475 among the stucco, siding and minimalls of New Dorp. Bob Troiano happened to be making such a journey four decades ago, cruising along in his 1967 Volvo 122S when the once-painted lady caught his eye. Standing at the rusted iron gate and centuries-old stone wall, the 19-year-old fell in love.
“You knew it was a forbidden place, but also unforgettable,” he said.
To an aspiring photographer and son of a master carpenter who grew up in the Staten Island neighborhood of Westerleigh, the appeal was clear. But it was not until 1990 that Troiano finally bought the home and was ready to pass through the forbidden gate. It was rusted shut.
The 7,700-square-foot Italianate house, a New York City landmark, has been called Staten Island’s Grey Gardens, and not just for its appearance. It was built in 1855 by David Ryers, a commander in the New York militia, and sold in 1889 to Gustav Mayer, a German confectioner whose Stapleton business was among the 114 founding bakeries of Nabisco.
For a century, his daughters Paula and Emilie Mayer, and few others, called 2475 Richmond Road home. The Mayer women never married — no man was ever good enough for their father.
The sisters found great joy in the house instead, with Paula painting frescoes from their travels on the walls, although in later years, they never went out, lowering baskets from the window to collect groceries, mail and laundry. By the time they moved out with their nurse in the 1980s, the sisters, who both lived to be more than 100, had confined themselves to two second-floor bedrooms, this inside a house with more than 20 rooms on four floors, five counting the cupola with views of Raritan Bay.
It took Troiano a year just to get his own two rooms on the first floor livable for himself, his wife and their daughter. From there, he set on the rest of the house, pulling down walls before they collapsed on their own, stabilizing those worth saving, rebuilding windows, all with the original wavy glass. All utilities were carefully hidden, leaving no switches, outlets or ducts visible, since none would have existed originally.
Troiano was soon approached by a location scout about shooting a music video in the house. He turned the offer down, yet the idea kept coming back to him, given his love of photography. In 1992, the first shoot took place, for a catalog long since forgotten.
The controlled decay of the upstairs, it turned out, was a commodity for the fashion industry. So rather than sinking hundreds of thousands of dollars into a complete restoration, he could leave the spaces largely as is, and make money off them, too. The result might best be described as Victoria and Hyde, with a carefully restored first floor of crown molding and carpeting where Troiano lives, and the exposed beams and weathered walls on the floors above.
Troiano will not say exactly how many shoots there have been in the two decades since, because editors want an old location as much as last season’s dress. But judging by the stacks of magazines and catalogs — Elle, W, New York, Vogue Korea, Anthropologie, Fossil — that fill the parlor beside Troiano’s own photos and wood carvings, dozens of jobs have taken place, along with the occasional commercial or album cover.
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To keep everyone in line, “House Rules” are posted everywhere, demanding workers not lean on this or touch that.
If anyone enjoys the shoots, it is the neighbors. When Olsen was here, neighborhood children lined up at the gate to catch a glimpse of the “Full House” star.
“It’s fabulous, like living on the red carpet,” Troiano’s next-door neighbor, Debbie Confessore, said. Her 2006 brick and vinyl-siding home is where the carriage house once stood (the sisters sold off their neighboring plots in the 1950s to homebuilders).
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But the glamour could be coming to an end. Troiano has put the house on the market for $2.31 million with Roberto Rizzini and Jung Ho Kim of Citi Habitats. That price includes a free exterior renovation by Troiano.
The price is steep — two to three times what surrounding homes command. And as a city landmark, any exterior renovations would have to be approved.
Troiano has been thinking about a change in lifestyle, maybe in the Southwest, but said that if he did not get a good price, he would be just as happy to keep the house.
Many are hoping he will.
“I’ve shot at the Astor Mansion, on Park Avenue, inside old factories, and this one is probably my favorite place in New York — it has a spirit unlike anywhere else,” Corbett, the photographer, said. “I really hope somebody doesn’t buy it and turn it into a yuppie mansion, with clean walls and marble fountains.”