By Vivian S. Toy
NEW YORKERS are notoriously opinionated. But who knew that holiday décor could be even more contentious than Yankees versus Mets or who around town makes the best bagel?
Small revolutions have been mounted when an apartment building’s lobby has gone without a Christmas tree and a menorah during the holiday season, or when a renegade Christmas tree has suddenly appeared in a building that has never had one.
In a city where people live in small spaces and close quarters, many see the lobby as an extension of home, and consequently can be very particular about how it is decorated. And being New Yorkers, they aren’t bashful about making their feelings known.
Gideon Stein, the board president at the Ariel West, a condo on the Upper West Side, said he oversaw “a very heated debate” over holiday decorations two years ago.
The building was new and had a tree and a menorah, but few were entirely satisfied. The discussion revolved around religious equality. Some people didn’t want a Christmas tree, others then said there shouldn’t be a menorah, and to be fully inclusive, there was talk of Kwanzaa, even though no one in the building seemed to celebrate it.
“It started off religious and quickly became an issue about what was tasteful,” Mr. Stein said. “That’s when I learned to never again open anything up for debate with 65 other people, because it very quickly gets out of hand.”
Last year, in hopes of avoiding controversy, Mr. Stein took the $250 usually spent on decorations and instead bought a water buffalo for a village in the Philippines through Heifer International. But the charitable buffalo fell flat. Complaints flowed in, and one resident said the treeless lobby had ruined his son’s Christmas.
That’s when Bruce Littlefield, a resident of Ariel West and the author of “Merry Christmas, America!” (Collins Design, 2007), stepped in. He quickly lined a lobby wall with packages wrapped in silver, only to have one resident ask why there weren’t any blue packages and another why there weren’t any red ones. He promptly produced a few of each.
“What an amalgam New York is! And making everyone happy is quite the challenge,” the ever-cheerful Mr. Littlefield said.
“The water buffalo was a good deed,” he said. “But we have a building with 108 kids, and that wasn’t something they could see and feel.”
This year Mr. Littlefield is the head of the decorating committee. Now, the lobby is enlivened by a resident-donated Christmas tree decorated with 108 silver ornaments. There are also silver pine cones; white lights; a pewter menorah; and silver (silver only) packages, including a jumbo one for a building’s coat drive for the needy. As he applied the finishing touches one day recently, a neighbor breezed by and shouted, “Look how festive this looks — and so nonsectarian!”
Holiday decorations can easily become controversial because Christmas is both a national and a religious holiday, and anything that refers to Christmas can feel like “an alien symbol being forced upon a non-Christian population,” said Jack Santino, a professor in the department of popular culture at Bowling Green State University.
“People feel very strongly, pro and con, about all of this,” he said in an e-mail. “These are, after all, religious and cultural symbols, wrapped up in questions of identity, faith, lifelong memories and experiences. They are personal, even while being general.”
To be sure, the vast majority of apartment buildings in the city have entirely uncontroversial trees and menorahs in their lobbies, and many don’t even eschew traditional Christmas red, as long as it’s balanced with Hanukkah blue. Some go further and put out fresh poinsettias and wreaths. The few that pull out all the stops might have Santa Claus or even a nativity scene.
The double-height lobby at the Grand Sutton, a 1980s apartment tower on East 59th Street, turns into what looks like a grand parlor in an English manor house “that’s been done up to the nines,” said Fern Hammond, of Halstead Property who has sold several apartments in the building.
The spectacular display changes annually, and this year, in addition to a 10-foot tree and a 6-foot-high menorah, swags of pine garland wrapped with crimson ribbon and pine cones hang from the woodwork, along with six-foot-long icicles. The space is transformed every December by the superintendent, Charles Mallon, and his merry elves, among whom are the building’s florist, Bill Ricci, and several building employees.
Mr. Mallon adheres to a tight budget, replacing tired ribbon or other accents when the need arises, and also trading decorations with the managers of other buildings. “That way I freshen up my lobby each year and they do, too,” he said. His goal, he said, is to have residents’ eyes light up as soon as they enter the foyer.
“I want to remind them that their house begins right here and their community is a family,” Mr. Mallon declared.
Natalie Berkowitz, who celebrates Hanukkah and whose husband is the president of the Grand Sutton’s board, said there had never been any complaints. “People appreciate that Charlie does it with so much grace and enthusiasm,” she said. “And anybody who is ‘bah! humbug!’ about it just stays away from the holiday party.”
Buildings that do nothing to recognize the holidays are the exception, said Paul J. Herman, the president for residential management of Brown Harris Stevens, which manages about 150 buildings. “There are very few buildings that don’t do anything at all,” he said. “We sometimes get complaints that it’s gaudy or it’s not enough, but not that there’s something there.”
The cost of decking a building’s halls varies tremendously. Cut trees are not allowed in lobbies, for fire safety reasons, and the expense of a fake tree and decorations can range from a few hundred dollars to as much as $15,000, Mr. Herman said, but that could be a one-time expense.
In rental buildings, the landlord makes the call on décor, but in co-ops and condos, boards are the arbiters. “A board can decide how over-the-top it wants to be or how minimal it wants to be,” said Paul Gottsegen, the president of the Halstead Management Company. “And things can change from year to year, depending on who on the board is in charge.”
It is typically when a building is new or when a new board president takes over that holiday decorations become an issue. But at a stately prewar building at Riverside Drive and 90th Street that had long observed the holidays with a simple lobby display of poinsettias and a few white lights on the bushes out front, decorations became a flashpoint a few years ago when someone set up a Christmas tree in the lobby without board approval. The unauthorized tree was promptly removed.
This fall, a decorations survey went out to residents. “Everyone apparently was quite opinionated,” said Michaela Gold, an agent at Halstead Property who lives in the building. “But the feeling was, if you start with a menorah and a Christmas tree, what do you do about Kwanzaa or Russian Christmas or other religions, and where does it stop?”
She said this year there had been significant demand to step things up. So now the building has big wreaths made out of pine cones, and a much larger assortment of poinsettias and lights. “They wanted to be more festive,” Ms. Gold said, “but also understated.”
In the still-sagging economy, some buildings have scaled back their holiday decorations.
LeFrak City, a 20-building rental complex in Corona, Queens, has had an eye-catching outdoor light display, visible from cars zooming by on the Long Island Expressway, ever since it opened in the 1960s. The colorful spectacle has included strings of lights to create a tree; Santa waving from his sleigh; a giant menorah; and the words: “Season’s Greetings from LeFrak City,” “Happy Hanukkah” and “Peace on Earth.”
But this year, “the former holiday decorations at LeFrak City have been retired,” said Ed Cortese, a senior vice president of the LeFrak Organization. New L.E.D. lights now outline parts of the buildings, using only 10 percent of the wattage of the previous display.
Dan Wurtzel, the president of Cooper Square Realty, which manages about 400 buildings, said some buildings had retrenched on holiday decorations “to save a few dollars, and even though it may not have impacted the budget much, it psychologically felt better to do less.”
At 15 Broad Street, which Cooper Square manages, building staff members used to reinvent the iconic 1,900-piece Louis XV chandelier in the lobby by replacing the scores of white light bulbs with red ones. “But they’re not doing it this year because of the expense,” Mr. Wurtzel said. “It’s very labor-intensive to rebulb that chandelier.”
Some buildings use the holidays as a time to nurture a sense of community.
At Schwab House, a 600-unit co-op at Riverside Drive and 73rd Street, lobby decorations are limited to a tree and a small menorah, but the board organizes a menorah-lighting party on the first night of Hanukkah and also gives a catered holiday party that usually draws several hundred residents.
The building is so large that it is its own voting district, said Keith Marder, a co-op board member and a Halstead agent. “You can be as anonymous as you want or as active as you want,” he said. At the recent menorah lighting, 9-year-old Avi Blitzer led about 50 residents in prayer, and the Schwab House singing group led them in song.
“We don’t go crazy with decorations,” Mr. Marder said. “But the holidays are very festive at the Schwab House, and people feel like they really belong to something.”
The residents of Rose Tallis’s 52-unit building on East 69th Street gather at a potluck holiday party each year. But what really sets the place apart is the Christmas tree, decorated entirely with ornaments handmade by the children of the building at annual tree-trimming parties.
Ms. Tallis, as Associate Broker of Halstead who served on the building’s board and oversaw holiday décor for many years, said the tree “really gives you the character of the building, and every ornament has a memory.”
Over the years, the building has switched from front-door wreaths to large red bows to save money, and from white lights on its outdoor trees to red lights and back again to white. “Some people thought the red lights were a little too adventurous,” she said.
The tree, though, has not drawn any criticism.
“It’s become a very rich tree with all of our children’s ornaments,” said Vera Danovitch, who has overseen the tree-trimming for several years and whose two daughters, now teenagers, have made many contributions. “The ornaments are a touchstone of their childhoods and of our lives, too.”
Friday, December 10, 2010