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A Mid-Century in the Catskills With Room to Make Art

A musician and an artist found the perfect house in a not-yet-hip town upstate.

The Living Room: “Michael [Berryhill] chose the yellow fabric for that one chair,” Eleanor Friedberger says, “but the pink couch is like the centerpiece that I have been hoarding. It was like navy-blue corduroy that was kind of destroyed, and it was our big splurge to recover it in that pink corduroy.” Photo: Chris Mottalini
The Living Room: “Michael [Berryhill] chose the yellow fabric for that one chair,” Eleanor Friedberger says, “but the pink couch is like the centerpiece that I have been hoarding. It was like navy-blue corduroy that was kind of destroyed, and it was our big splurge to recover it in that pink corduroy.” Photo: Chris Mottalini

So just recently, my brother and I started playing together again,” says Eleanor Friedberger, who, along with her brother, Matthew, formed the band the Fiery Furnaces, which had been on hiatus since 2011 while they each engaged in various solo projects. They recorded their new single, “Down at the So and So on Somewhere,” in February in a studio upstate (they are working on their next album now) not too far from this house (pictured), where she lives with the artist Michael Berryhill.

The Fiery Furnaces were formed in Brooklyn in 2000, when that was still a vibrant scene. Friedberger moved to Ulster County in 2013, when she couldn’t afford to live in the city anymore as a full-time musician. She bought a place with a friend in Kerhonkson, a onetime Borscht Belt resort town, and made a go of trying to fix up what she describes as “this huge factory building that we thought would be a fun thing to tackle.”

Maybe it was too much to tackle. Last year, she and Berryhill decided to look for a house together, but they found the prices too high in Kerhonkson (and this was before the recent pandemic run-up upstate). Looking around, they saw a listing on Zillow for this 1955 house, also in Ulster County. It was in their price range in the quiet town of Ellenville that, Friedberger says, with evident relief, “has not become hip at all.”

“We looked at each other and said, ‘Oh my God, this is our dream house.’ I mean, like, immediately walking in. It was really exciting,” Friedberger says. In many charming ways, the four-bedroom, four-bath 3,330-square-foot house was timeless, with the original louvered windows and putty-pink-wallpapered bathrooms. Friedberger and Berryhill even kept some of the bedroom curtains. Best of all, the house gave them enough space to work at home. Berryhill moved from Sunset Park, where he had been living in a space under the BQE. “I always thought I wanted a tiny house and then like a big studio,” Berryhill says. “I never liked houses with a lot of square footage, but this one is so beautiful and so livable and useful that it works.”

The Bookshelves in the Living Room: “I have this book on East Coast modernism; I collect ’70s interior-design books. My friend Dan Stern is a musician and also a woodworker, and we commissioned him to make these, and Michael helped him. The installation involved tearing that wall apart, which Michael did while I was out of town, thankfully,” Friedberger says, laughing. The purple Lasko box fan was a find at the Ellenville Walmart. “You can get it in purple, blue, or black.” Photo: Chris Mottalini

When they took up the wall-to-wall carpeting, “it was beautiful 1950s plywood beneath the carpeting,” Friedberger says, “so we thought we could get away with just having plywood floors, but it was too patchy.” Berryhill got to work and made plywood planks that Friedberger says look like “Scandinavian wide-plank flooring. He hand-beveled each plank!” Berryhill’s carpentry skills fashioned the circular shelving niche in the wall of the kitchen/dining area. “It was like making a sculpture which I didn’t know how to make,” Berryhill says. “I was very excited when it worked out.” He also built Friedberger a stage in the basement, where he has a workspace that he can cordon off with a movable wall on wheels should they desire privacy.

The original owner of the house was a film exhibitor, and Friedberger says they found a trove of paperwork in the basement, including punch lists and drawings for the deck that was added in 1963. Doing research online, they also found complaints to the local authorities that he was operating a business out of the basement; apparently, projectionists from hotels and bungalow colonies in the area would come to the house at all hours of the night, raising questions in the minds of nosy neighbors. “Secretly, we were hoping that he was shooting blue movies or something more fun,” Friedberger says. Their work on the house took five months, recalls Friedberger, and just when they finished, they were able to shelter in place. Though they can’t wait to have visitors.

The Kitchen: Friedberger says she wanted it to look “halfway fancy and halfway really homemade, which I think it does with these kind of blingy elements like the hardware and the Sputnik lamp” — in the breakfast room (below) — “but I also wanted to create a Mediterranean vibe.” The kitchen walls were painted a blue inspired by Greek travel posters “that have been hanging in every kitchen of mine since I was 20. My grandmother had a stashof them from her first trip to Greece in 1955.” The dark-green marble top on the island was from her grandmother’s table. Photo: Chris Mottalini
The Breakfast Room: Berryhill made the circular shelving niche in the wall of the dining area off the kitchen. The butcher-block table was found on Craigslist — the previous owners were fans of Berryhill’s work and traded it for a drawing. “The plastic chairs I have had for years, but the white chairs I got at an antique mall in Kingston for like 75 bucks each.” Photo: Chris Mottalini
The Master Bedroom: The bed floats in the room, giving one better access to the window views. “The cool thing,” Friedberger notes, “is that we were able to keep the curtains. We just had them dry-cleaned. They look really nice against the white wall.” Photo: Chris Mottalini
The Standing Screen in Friedberger’s Office: “That was my Christmas present from Michael,” Friedberger says. “My room doubles as the laundry room, but Michael built me this screen so I wouldn’t have to look at the washer-dryer while I was thinking big thoughts.” Photo: Chris Mottalini
The Bathrooms: All are in original condition down to the wallpaper and tilework. Photo: Chris Mottalini
The Basement: Berryhill built a stage in the corner of the basement, where, Friedberger says, “I have all my gear and we can jam and I could potentially have a band practice down there.” Photo: Chris Mottalini
The Art Studio: Berryhill has been working in his basement studio on projects for his upcoming show at Kate Werble Gallery (opening September 24). “I like to have them be chaotic,” he says, “until the last minute, when I start to make them different from one another. I have an eclectic collection idea of a show, so I like to see them all at once.” Photo: Chris Mottalini
Berryhill and Friedberger. Photo: Chris Mottalini

*This article appears in the September 14, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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A Mid-Century in the Catskills With Room to Make Art