HomeDIY CraftA Family’s Secret Life in a Landmark Building of Manhattan

A Family’s Secret Life in a Landmark Building of Manhattan

I was 15 when it happened the first time.

I was staring at the empty apartment and wondering what would happen if the police found out what my father had done.

For years, my family had been living in a commercial building — illegal for residential use — above my father’s Pilates studio. He opened it in 1998 at Scheffel Hall, a New York City landmark dating back to 1895 on Third Avenue.

Modeled after a 17th-century palace in Heidelberg, Germany, the building features an intricate terra-cotta façade. The interior is a bit spooky, with finely carved dark wood, gargoyles perched near the ceiling, trap doors, and dumbwaiters. A golden statue of the Roman goddess Flora is visible in the front hall.

Scheffel Hall served as the beer-soaked setting for one of these o henry stories and once housed a jazz club, Fat Tuesdays. Within one of the walls, my father found a trove of framed photographs of New York that had long since ceased to exist. my favorite picture was Daisy and Violet HiltonConjoined twins who worked the vaudeville circuit.

My father decorated the walls with these pictures, as well as some large-format pixelated images of his heroes, including Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Gurdjieff, Pilates exercise machines took place in the main room under a stained glass skylight depicting a half moon smoking a cigar.

As far as I know, their Pilates studio, Movement Salon, never turned a profit, but for years it served as a quaint gathering place for the neighborhood. I think some of them just came to see my father, who for 40 years owned several of the city’s most successful Italian American restaurants., In 2009, when I was 11, they moved us from our previous apartment to Scheffel Hall after a financially ruinous lawsuit.

We lived there without incident until one evening during my sophomore year in high school, when my dad received a notice from the New York City Department of Buildings. Someone had filed a complaint that people were living in a building designated for commercial use only, and an inspector would come to visit us.

After reading the notice out loud to me and my sister, my father slammed his fist on the shabby computer table, and mugs and pens rattled. Suddenly, he looked at us. They said, “We’ll just go into hiding.”

,What, I had said. “I wish we could afford to go out.”

“It’s not an issue of money!” He screamed, though it was too much. He looked around the room. “Shed,” he said. “We need a shed.”

Within 12 hours, with the help of a porter, they built some sheds on the terrace. Our plan was to put all our belongings there, to hide the evidence that people were living there.

Moving the beds was the hardest. I remember pushing my mattress out the attic room window with my sister, straining my fingers when it slipped out of my hands and tried to pull it up to the ceiling.

“Mickey, you gotta push Above, my father shouted.

In the next step of the operation, they gave me a black colored plastic garbage bag. “Take everything off the walls,” he said.

I stop to look at a framed picture of my father with actor Mickey Rourke, taken at one of his now-shuttered restaurants.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll put them back later.”

I pulled other pictures off the walls, too: me at Disney World, smiling, missing a front tooth; Our family, 10 years ago, was feeding birds in Sag Harbor; My sister and I are making snow angels in Gramercy Park. I stored them in a bag with medical bills, my black binder from poetry camp, and items on my father’s night stand, including a gold figurine of baby Jesus that he would kiss every night before bed.

In other bags went his books and papers, a colorful collection containing 200 pages of Wikipedia material on the pineal gland and nonfiction such as “Eros Unredeemed, The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism,” “Terra Nova: The Global Revolution and the Tasks included. Love’s Cure” and “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.”

Then my sister and I picked up stuff in the attic — colorful shirts from Forever 21, leggings from H&M and makeup from CVS, as well as plastic jewelry and school books. I wrote my name in big letters on a white paper and pasted it on the bag that was mine. The only thing we left behind was my cumbersome science project, which we hid in the closet.

Then came what was probably the most important part of the trick: My dad got the signs printed and pasted them all over the building. “Staff Kitchen: Please leave the kitchen cleaner than you found it,” read the writing near the stove. “Laundry: Acupuncture Linens Only!” Read the label on the top of the washing machine.

He put up two signs in the attic. The door read, “Massage Room 1: Session in progress, do not enter.” And the sign near the closet that hid my science project read, “Massage Supplies.”

Within three days, we had packed the entire place. I sat down on our stained brown sofa and stared at the empty space. I would have been sleeping over at a friend’s house that night, but my dad made plans to stay at the Movement Salon. I thought of losing her, with a vision of the inspector taking her away. Tears welled up in my eyes, on my underwear.

I was at school when the guy from the building department came by. My father later told me about the journey.

When the inspector arrived, my dad said that “a crazy lady across the street” had filed the complaint, adding that there was nothing to it. Then he saw that the man was going from one room to another. Everything was going according to plan until the inspector reached my attic room. He made his way across the creaking floor to the closet and passed the “Massage Supplies” sign.

“Oh, give me a break!” My father said.

Inspector stopped.

“Are you really going to flip every last little thing?”

The inspector nodded and turned away. Moments later, on the main floor, he scrawled something on a white figure and handed it to my father.

“You passed,” he said.

Two years later, when I was 17, my father was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. A few days after the diagnosis, he became convinced that a skylight was hidden in the plaster ceiling outside the attic bedroom. He cut the roof. Dust got into every room in the house, into shoes and lungs, but he was right. Their efforts resulted in a stained glass skylight that transformed my gloomy stairwell into a rainbow jewel box of wondrous pink and blue.

Mikaela Maccagnon is a writer in New York.


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