Ron Wagner and Timothy Van Dam have been partners in life and their respective design business for more than two decades. They took the leap from their Chelsea residence to their now fashionable Hamilton Heights townhouse in 1985 at a time when just heading north of 96th street was not the norm. Trailblazers all the way, they have a stylish, sometimes quirky eye and at the same time, a wonderfully joyful, decidedly non-New York unhurried way about them.
Now I wanted to talk to you about the neighborhood, because, I am embarrassed to admit that I have never been here. Tell me what brought you here to begin with?
Ronald: Basically we just fell in love with the architecture. We found out about this neighborhood from an elderly black man that we befriended in a bar one evening. [laughs] – and one Sunday morning took the train up here and our jaws just dropped because of the amazing architecture.
It is beautiful. How long ago was that?
Ronald: Twenty-four, no, twenty-five years ago.
It was probably very different then.
Ronald: Well, there were, I think, five vacant houses on this block.
And were there any white people living here?
Ronald: The Shea sisters, whose grandfather built the house. lived about five doors down.
Timothy: The house had never left the family, the family that built it.
Ronald: In the late 19th century, the neighborhood was home to African Americans and Irish and Jewish immigrants.
Was it a spontaneous decision to say, okay that’s it, we’re going to move here?
Timothy: Pretty much—because we had looked in Brooklyn, the Lower East Side, the Village, and in those neighborhoods we were either too late and couldn’t afford it, or we didn’t like the commute—and then we came here. It was close and convenient and people were nice to us.
The first day we were walking around and people were coming out of church, a man called out to us and said, “Hello there gentleman! How are you? Are you guys looking to buy a house?” It just seemed to happen very naturally.
What was it about this house that made you want to buy it?
Ronald: Well this house was designed by an architect called Clarence True and he did a lot of buildings on the Upper West Side in the 70s, 80s and 90s and he developed a floor plan where instead of the traditional high stoop and straight run of stairs, which gave you a long narrow parlor, his stairs were configured in a horseshoe so that both the front and the back rooms had the span, the full width of the house, and that was one thing we just loved.
So you had an emotional reaction to the house, it sounds like.
Ronald: I think that’s how everyone buys houses, actually.
Timothy: The scale of the rooms felt right to us. We’re both tall and they have great ceiling height.
I do think purchasing a home is an emotional decision, however I think most people can’t project visually. Did you have a lot of projecting to do?
Ronald: Oh, we did! I mean this whole room, every surface, including the floor, was lime green!
Timothy: It was a series of removing things. It had been divided into eight apartments.
And you had tenants … was that sort of messy?
Ronald: Well, we inherited two tenants, but in the end they were not that bad. They were with us for about a month. One was a very colorful character … whose nickname was ‘Love’ and she had gentleman callers all night … [laughs]
Timothy: … she had a round bed.
How long have you been together?
Ronald: We’ve been together 29 years.
Well, you must have very complementary vision, otherwise this could have been a nightmare: living together, working together plus renovating a home.
Ronald: Making the design decisions for our own house, the conversation can get a little heated but eventually one gives to the other and we move on. It’s much easier to agree on things for a client than it is for our own house.
Timothy: But we never move forward until it is [mutually] decided.
I have to ask you, because I am addicted to HGTVand I saw you on the show where you were one of three designers pitching for a job converting an attic into a fancy family room in a house in New Jersey. I thought it was a riot and I thought to myself, Well how is it possible to take this whole room and make it look presentable for $30,000. Maybe you can tell me what that was like?
Ronald: It was extremely difficult! It was finding completely new sources than we normally deal with.
Timothy: It was a lot of fun. I can’t say we’ve gotten any work out of it but it was really a fun experience.
So is it possible to have such a restricted budget and make it look good?
[Very long silence then laughter] … Ronald: I think it is … if you’re creative … and if you have time.
How did you two meet?
Timothy: My last girlfriend, and Ron’s last boyfriend worked together at Skidmore. And they sat next to each other and traded stories about the horrible people they lived with! So we would hear about each other … and I always thought he sounded very sensible and realistic … we were the two outsiders in a way—they were the pals.
That’s very funny! And what did you [Ronald] hear?
Ronald: [laughs] Similar kinds of stories about how unreasonable Tim was.
How did you end up meeting each other?
Ronald: They [Timothy plus girlfriend] had a birthday party and invited me [plus boyfriend] …
Timothy: And er … there were some sparks.