He thought he had bought a great apartment. The ceiling held a secret.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Friday, June 14, 2024

He thought he had bought a great apartment. The ceiling held a secret.
Detail of the ceiling in the main living area of the apartment of theater critic Frank DiLella in New York, on April 24, 2024. “It was a magnificent brick and stone archway outlined in old-school wrought iron. It was like finding dinosaur bones,” said the contractor who renovated the apartment to uncover the ceiling. (Katherine Marks/The New York Times)

by Alix Strauss

NEW YORK, NY.- It’s as if you discovered that the living room in your new apartment had been painted by Michelangelo.

Frank DiLella moved to New York City in 2002 to study journalism and theater at Fordham University. After he graduated, he rented apartments in Astoria, Queens, and in Hell’s Kitchen and on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

By 2020, he was ready to put down roots and buy something.

In September, with COVID raging, he found a 650-square foot, one-bedroom co-op, near Central Park. At the time, the working fireplace was the biggest allure.

“I loved it on sight,” said DiLella, 40, the host of “On Stage,” a program about the theater scene on Spectrum News NY1. “It was cozy, warm and had so much potential.”

He made an offer to the co-op board that is responsible for a row of 1880s houses in the 100 block of West 78th Street. The offer was accepted, and DiLella provided the requisite packet of documents to the board, which in his case included a reference letter from the famed choreographer Tommy Tune, a professional friend. A final interview over Zoom with several board members followed in November.

Toward the end of that meeting, Andrea Rapaport, 56, a longtime owner, asked if he knew about the hidden ceiling in his apartment.

He did not.

“I was only told that this building had once been two town houses that had been bought by someone in the 1960s and combined,” DiLella said.

Rapaport invited DiLella to see the ceiling in her apartment, and it was then that she sprung her surprise.

Rapaport bought a studio in 1994 and upgraded to a one-bedroom in 2003. As her family expanded — she got married and had two sons — so did her need for space. She purchased an additional apartment above hers in 2016 and found her Rafael Guastavino “archway treasure when we renovated and combined the two apartments,” explained Rapaport. “Everyone who lives in the A&D line of one of the town houses seems to have these. I was pretty sure Frank had one, too.”

Unfamiliar with Guastavino’s historical and artistic New York legacy and contribution, Rapaport, an executive recruiter, did some research and found out that he was responsible for designing some of the most famous city landmarks, including Carnegie Hall, the City Hall subway, Grand Central Terminal’s famous Oyster Bar, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine and the Queensboro Bridge, among numerous others.

“Her ceiling was beautiful and added a whole other dimension to the room,” said DiLella, who had instant ceiling envy. His lease was up in February. It was already the end of December. If he did have a Guastavino vault or dome, renovations would have to move fast. “It would be a thrilling, unexpected payoff if I did. A piece of New York history.”

DiLella hired Ray Romano — a New York contractor, not the famous actor and comedian — to spearhead the project. After tapping the ceiling and hearing a hollow vibration, a hole, large enough for Romano’s head and shoulders to pop through, was cut. Mirroring a groundhog looking for his shadow, what Romano saw was “jaw dropping,” he said. “It was a magnificent brick and stone archway outlined in old-school wrought iron. It was like finding dinosaur bones.”

Romano, 61, owner of Raymond Romano Inc, who, for the past 50 years has considered himself a designer builder with a passion for history, had heard about Guastavino’s arches, but had not seen one up close. “This was a majestic piece of art.”

Over the next two weeks, a work crew took the ceiling down in patches. A hardener and sealer were added to protect the existing mortar and brick. A matte finish, matched to the color of the bricks to maintain the integrity and prevent further crumbing, was applied. The wrought iron was sanded down and restored.

When the renovation was completed, an additional 4 to 5 feet of height was reclaimed, which allowed Romano to create two alcove bookshelves, one on either side of a wall above DiLella’s open kitchen. Two 1940s Hollywood-era spotlights were mounted to enhance the depth of the dome.

“This ceiling is like the beauty of New York. Breaking through and realizing this is part of the building’s story is dramatic,” he said. “Walking into this space, when it’s lit up, is just stunning. The arches bring an unexpected height and makes the apartment feel larger. Hues of light brown, reds and orange come to life.”

DiLella wondered, when “something so historic and beautiful had been created, why would anyone cover it up?” he asked. That question remains unanswered.

Perhaps just as surprisingly, neither DiLella nor Rapaport have had their ceilings appraised to see what additional value the found treasure could bring. “I feel like I live under a little piece of New York history,” said Rapaport. “It makes you feel like an archaeologist and gives us one more reason not to move.”

DiLella agreed.

“I don’t know if I could give this up,” he said. Alfie, a Chihuahua terrier rescue dog that DiLella adopted during the first part of the pandemic, and who sat next to him on his cognac-colored couch, seemed as comfortable in the space as his owner. “Guastavino touched major parts of this city that I love. Now he’s touched a bit of my home. It’s like a nod that I belong here.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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