Twenty-nine years after Robert Moses’s death, the mixed legacy of New York’s über–urban planner remains inescapable. I feel it acutely when, after a long ride on the F that loops me into Brooklyn and a stroll past the magisterial 40-foot-deep front lawns of Carroll Gardens, I cross a footbridge over the six-lane trench of Moses’s notorious Brooklyn-Queens Expressway—which, in addition to bringing noise and pollution, cast Red Hook, on the expressway’s other side, into isolation. Indeed, when I descend from the bridge, the milieu changes markedly: There are houses interspersed with weedy lots and light industry, signs warning of rat poison.
Yet Red Hook is ascendant—thanks not to the newish Ikea and Fairway super-market nor the hipsters along Van Brunt Street, one suspects, but to more romantic pleasures: My route to Wilmot Kidd’s apartment takes me by the rough majesty of the great Atlantic Basin shipping yards, with their tall mesas of cargo containers. Beyond them, I pass the rugged brick architecture that gives waterfront landscapes the world over their timeless appeal.
Kidd, a 31-year-old cinematographer in T-shirt, Blundstones, and a face full of unruly bed beard, awaits with his design-builder, Eric Wolf, in surprising circumstances: They have shaped his residence out of the undistinguished shipping and receiving room of a 1940s industrial building.
“When I first moved in, I built a sleeping loft with a mattress and a ladder, but it was sagging and had no railings,” Kidd recalls. “And there was just one window on the street-side wall,” Wolf prompts, “but it was way up high because you didn’t want people to look in.” “It did not work at all,” Kidd affirms. Yet he couldn’t imagine hiring an architect. “My perception was that an architect is for a person at a different stage of life,” he explains. Wolf got the job because he is, primarily, an artist. “I could relate to a painter—it wouldn’t be like talking to an alien.”
Wolf, however, proved to be wearing sheep’s clothing—he briefly studied architecture at RISD and pays the bills as a construction project manager—and redesigned the apartment with a craft-based professionalism befitting a neighborhood in which people, whether artists or stevedores, labor manually. With a small crew, he reconstructed the sleeping loft, installing a platform bed, a custom-crafted walnut-topped dresser, and mahogany rails. He also added a freestanding loft stair with built-in storage, shaped a dining area with a banquette, and put up office shelves with Nakashima-style flitch-sawn ends. The window was enlarged and a 16-foot-long mahogany bench installed beneath it; Wolf even found space for a snug guest room (accessed via ladder) above the reconfigured kitchen/entry. With surprisingly little angst, a neglected corner became a creative home that honors its industrial context.
Kidd pops a hatch above the loft and we ascend a ladder to the tar-paper roof. The sky, a mass of flat clouds riding the wind toward Manhattan, would have stirred Jack Kerouac’s heart. “I love it here,” Kidd says. “The light, the air. Everyone is doing cool stuff—there’s a guy who built a mobile drum circle for Burning Man. Everyone in Red Hook likes a live/work type of scenario.”