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New York Times

Not For Vampires Only

By Constance Rosenblum

IN this dense and congested city, nirvana usually translates into bright, light-flooded spaces and eye-catching vistas. The real estate ads promise it all: “Brilliant light!” “Dazzling river view!” “Light and bright!”

But a few people didn’t get the memo. Some New Yorkers seek dim, dark spaces that admit little sense of the throbbing city just outside their doors. Maybe they work nights and need darkness and quiet so they can sleep during the day. Maybe they’re writers or composers or computer programmers and need to be able to concentrate. All these people seek some version of the cork-lined room in which Proust wrote so many of his greatest works.

Real estate brokers tactfully describe these cavelike places as “light-challenged,” and to be sure, some people occupy them because they can’t afford anything better. But especially in an economy in which ever more work gets done at home in an ever more raucous city, a tranquil space, even if hemmed in by brick walls, is some people’s idea of heaven. Here are a few people who have enthusiastically embraced the dark.

Katherine Leiner, an author, has spent much of her life in California and Colorado, but she didn’t always love the sounds of nature. “In California,” she admitted, “I was sometimes even bothered by the crashing of the waves.”

When Ms. Leiner, 60, moved to New York and rented an apartment in Carnegie Hill, she didn’t love the noise, either. “Even though I was on the ninth floor,” she said, “it was extremely noisy. The bus would rumble by every 20 minutes. I could hear the lights change.”

So when she decided to buy and made a list of her priorities, “on the top of the list was quiet and space,” she said, “because I worked at home.” Being dog-friendly was important too, “but light was at the bottom.”

Ms. Leiner finds this interesting because she suffers from seasonal affective disorder, and the seventh-floor Classic 6 on Park Avenue that she bought in 1999 for $625,000 was a rear apartment that offers little in the way of light or views. Fern Hammond, the Halstead broker who found the apartment for Ms. Leiner, describes it as her nest.

“You’d think light would have been No. 1 on my list,” Ms. Leiner said. “But I have lots of ambient light, and I’m not bothered by the darkness because I’m so happy working on my books.”

Ms. Leiner, who shares the apartment with her partner, Andrew Lipton, an environmental lawyer, describes the view from her living room as Hitchcockian — think “Rear Window” — and although her office faces a garden, no city views can be seen anywhere.

“But the apartment is extremely quiet, and I need peace and quiet in order to write,” said Ms. Leiner, the author, most recently, of “Growing Roots: The New Generation of Sustainable Farmers, Cooks and Food Activists.”

“I can’t have any distractions. In fact, it’s so quiet you don’t know you’re in New York. And it’s magic what you can do in a dark apartment by means of lighting and fabric.”

Anthony Innarelli, who describes himself as a night owl, works the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift as an editor at NBC television and sleeps well into the morning. In his old apartment, which faced West 85th Street, he was regularly awakened at the crack of dawn by traffic and other street noises. And so he is delighted with the rear second-floor apartment at West End Avenue and 96th Street that he bought eight years ago for $280,000.

“When I get home,” Mr. Innarelli said, “it’s already been dark for hours, so it doesn’t matter if the apartment is dark. But I do need quiet so I can sleep during the day, and this apartment is extremely quiet. Quiet was at the top of my list. I’d take quiet over light anytime.”

Mr. Innarelli, who is 43, admits that the rooms can be gloomy, especially in winter. But he doesn’t care. “The living room gets no light, which is fine,” he said, “because all I do is watch TV there.” As for views, “if you look through the trees, you can see a sliver of river, but you have to have someone point it out to you.”
Mr. Innarelli now shares the space with his girlfriend, Alison Orford, a fellow television editor at the sports channel SNY who works the same hours he does. With the one-bedroom bursting at the seams, the two are seeking something larger, although whatever they choose will have to be equally quiet to accommodate their sleeping schedules.

And dark needn’t mean drab, as visitors who have admired the couple’s glittering array of Emmy awards can attest. “If it’s a dump and dark, that’s one thing,” Mr. Innarelli said. “But if it’s a nice place, that makes up for the darkness.”

Jeff Marder never lacked for spectacular views.

“When I lived in Los Angeles,” said Mr. Marder, a 42-year-old conductor, keyboardist, synthesizer programmer and composer who is currently associate conductor of the Broadway musical “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” “I had views of the mountains, the opera house and Dodger Stadium. I had all that.” But after moving to New York, “I decided to adjust my priorities.”

The noisiness of a series of New York apartments had worn him down. He envied musician friends who lived in quiet and peaceful settings. “Many of these places were dark,” he said, “but my friends said to me they didn’t mind the dark one bit.”

Given the city’s stock of prewar apartment houses with thick walls, he thought it would make more financial sense to find a place in such a building than to pay for soundproofing. So last June he bought a $339,000 one-bedroom apartment in the rear of a 1925 building on Riverside Drive at 77th Street.

From inside, a person would never know if it was morning or evening, sunny or overcast. Windows face a pair of courtyards and the wall of the building next door. “The only thing I can see,” Mr. Marder said, “is the super taking out the trash.”

When he was viewing the apartment, the broker made a point of switching on all the lights. She needn’t have bothered. Mr. Marder was adamant about his priorities. All he cared about was quiet.

Like many musicians, he works unpredictable hours, and the quiet afforded by the location of the apartment in the rear of the building is well suited for his schedule. “And since I moved, I do more composing than ever,” said Mr. Marder, whose apartment is outfitted with a grand piano, multiple synthesizers and computers, and other tools of his trade. “The lack of noise is very important in allowing me to concentrate.”

Mr. Marder recently married, and his wife, Sarah Spool, a hospital administrator, has settled happily in his dark and tomblike space. “After we married last January,” Mr. Marder said, “we redid the kitchen, because she is passionate about cooking. But she’s O.K. with everything else. Having the lights on a lot is just fine with us.”

Martin O’Brien, who grew up in suburban New Jersey and lived for a time in California, moved to New York in October. When he and his roommate, Janelle Hefley, began apartment hunting, the main thing they wanted was plenty of room, and they settled on a three-bedroom in a small apartment house on 116th Street in East Harlem. All the windows faced brick walls, but the apartment, which they rent for $2,000 a month, was extremely quiet, and they are savoring the peacefulness.

“It’s a dark space,” admitted Mr. O’Brien, 26, who works as a visual merchandiser. “And there’s no light in my bedroom. I have lights on timers so it feels like morning when I wake up. Otherwise it would seem like night all the time.” For the first time since he was a child, he also has a nightlight, to add a glow to the wee hours.

But Mr. O’Brien finds tranquillity in his denlike lair. “It’s very quiet and peaceful,” he said. “I wanted a New York City lifestyle, but I didn’t want to be surrounded by the noise. I guess I’m more of a wannabe New Yorker than the real thing.”

Ms. Hefley, who is 31 and works as a retail store manager, shares these feelings. “She grew up in New Mexico, so she’s used to a relaxed lifestyle,” Mr. O’Brien said. “For her, this feels like a home away from home, and she finds this place very calming.”

So does their newest roommate, Kristen LeFevre, 29, an arts administrator who arrived from Paris a few weeks ago and enjoys reading works of art history in the pale end-of-the-day light.

After Jennifer and Ed O’Connor were married two years ago, she moved into his one-bedroom on 76th Street near York Avenue. But then they began thinking about starting a family, said Ms. O’Connor, who is 34 and works for a theatrical management company. “And we realized that we needed a second bedroom.”

In October, she and her husband, who works as a senior vice president for finance of Armani Exchange, bought a two-bedroom unit on 86th Street near Park Avenue. The apartment was in the rear, and the second bedroom was just three feet from the building next door — “so close you could reach out and touch the wall,” Ms. O’Connor said.

Although none of the rooms had a view, the second bedroom also had the least natural light. “That room had zero views and light because it faced an air shaft,” Ms. O’Connor said. But the current occupant, a lively 3-month-old with red hair and bright blue eyes named Kieran, isn’t complaining.

“It will be the baby’s room until he grows up,” Ms. O’Connor said, “and babies could care less about views.” The couple installed an extra lamp, and the walls, decorated with underwater decals, were kept white to make the space seem brighter. “We figure we’re set for a while,” Ms. O’Connor said. “Even toddlers don’t want to be stuck in their rooms.”

Brokers love to trade horror stories about the challenges of finding takers for midnight-dark spaces. Some brokers even apologize when showing these properties. But some of the stories have unexpectedly happy endings, like the one told by Debra Hoffman of Corcoran about a one-bedroom at Broadway and 110th Street. A first-floor apartment, it was in the rear of the building, and every window faced a different air shaft. There were bars on the windows, although the rooms were so dim, they were barely visible.

“It was dark, dark, dark,” Ms. Hoffman said. “Everyone on the West Side talked about this place.

“I finally showed the apartment to a couple in which the husband was a research professor and the wife was a professional dog trainer,” she said. “They wanted a first floor because they had a dog and wanted easy access when the dog got elderly or fell ill. The same thing applied to other special-need dogs she trained.

“The moment they walked in the front door, they said to each other, ‘It’s a keeper!’ They said they didn’t care about light since they worked long hours and were never home during the day. And on weekends they were away in their country home, so the light didn’t matter then, either.

“It’s a keeper,” Ms. Hoffman repeated. “I’ll never forget that.”

Reasons To Embrace the Dark

YOU’RE A WRITER You do your best work when you’re not diverted by the hubbub on the street. “It’s so quiet that you don’t know you’re in New York.”

YOU’RE A MUSICIAN AND COMPOSER When you bang away at your piano in a ground-floor apartment in the rear of your prewar building, the neighbors don’t complain. “The space lends itself to being creative.”

YOU’RE AN ART COLLECTOR The last thing you need are blasts of sunlight that might cause your artwork to fade.

YOU HAVE AN ELDERLY DOG Your German shepherd has trouble climbing stairs, so you need a ground-floor apartment, even if it’s black as night during the day.

YOU’RE FROM OUT OF TOWN You never got used to the bright lights of the city, so living in the dusk suits you just fine.

Friday, January 13, 2012