Ron Wagner and Timothy Van Dam

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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.

L. to r.: The main staircase.; Black and white silk screens by Edwina Sandys hang in the stair landing.
An original Italianate arcade frames the staircase.
The formal drawing room.
An English landscape by Alfred Augustus Glendenning hangs over the Pottier and Stymus sofa.
A double mantel holds 19th century bisque ware.
A gilt armchair is surrounded by collection of shells.
Various views of the main drawing room.

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.

A Victorian taxidermy bell jar sits in the middle of a marble table in the Chinese TV lounge. The Victorian chandelier was purchased at auction in Hudson.
A Reformed Gothic bookcase is filled with Aesthetic Movement pottery. The painting is after Alma-Tadema.
A vibrant red and beige fabric covers a chair from the Havemeyer mansion.
Clockwise from above: A Chinese art deco rugs stretches across the original wood floors of the room; Japanese Geisha slippers rest atop a Bruce Talbert chair with a Minton tile inlay; Various Aesthetic Movement serving dishes fill the bookcase.
The gas fireplace still retains it original, amazingly lifelike ceramic logs.
An ornate turn of the century silver frame stands in front of maps of Michigan (Tim’s home state).
A vintage Chinese silk coat hangs on a mannequin. The corner cabinet is painted lacquer.
The wrought iron center table is by Ron Wagner.

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.

L. to r.: The ceiling of an Asian themed guest bath is painted in a red lacquer.; A Chinese temple lantern purchased in Buffalo is hangs in the pagoda shaped ceiling of the guest bath.
A porcelain washbasin stands in front of a watercolor by Tim Van Dam.

Gothic Revival chairs flank the fireplace mantel in the guest bedroom.
The headboard was found in Chelsea dumpster.
A corner daybed is sometimes used for extra guests.
The American Empire chest of drawers came from Ithaca.
A glimpse through the keyhole of the laundry/storage area.

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.

A view into the library.
The Orientalist library.
An ebonized American sofa is part of a set including two additional side chairs.
An original pleated mica shade tops an early bronze floor lamp.
A Pygmy headdress hangs above the fireplace.
A gilt bronze Gothic Revival chandelier came from a Hudson auction.
L. to r.: A Middle Eastern chair and stand in front of an Aesthetic Movement screen.; Greek chapel lanterns are suspended from a Moorish plasterwork ceiling star.
Four large ebonized bookcases were once part of a paneled room purchased in Palisades, New York.

Matching side chairs were upholstered with a fringe purchased at the Marché Aux Puces in Paris.
The library joins the master bedroom through the dressing room.
L. to r.: Peeking into the Chinese TV lounge, and the Herter Brothers sofa.; Tim and Ron’s newly restored dressing room.

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 [18]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.

Looking across the bedroom towards the master bath.
A Louis XVI revival bedroom set was purchased in Westfield, NY.
L. to r.: French doors (from the paneled room purchased in Palisades, N.Y.) flank the headboard of the master bedroom.; Overlooking the backyard of the townhouse.
An Oriental carpet was transformed into a bed cover.
An oversized armoire provides additional storage.
An American transfer ware punch bowl sits atop of the dresser.

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.

A pair of American 1860s gilt frames hang over the marble countertop in the master bath.
L. to r.: Hermes guards the toiletries.; The bathroom shell-and-ribbon tiles are original to the house.
A view into the bedroom for the bathroom.
Ron painted as a contemplative Zeus by artist John Woodrow Kelley.

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.

The Pompeian red dining room.
American Empire sideboards flank the fireplace.
A pair of Corinthian columns were found by Ron’s father in a Buffalo trash bin.
An oriental rug was purchased in Hudson.
Nineteenth century Grand Tour souvenirs line the fireplace mantel.
A breakfast table is tucked into the window alcove.
A view toward the main foyer.
Back to back double portraits of Ron and Tim are by artist John Woodrow Kelley.

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.

L. to r.: Board and bead lines the staircase leading up to Ron and Tim’s office.; A view of the neighboring rooftops and the skyline from the top floor office.
Tim and Ron’s oak paneled office was carved out of attic space.
L. to r.: Fabric swatches and sample books fill the office shelves.; Furniture arrangements are clearly marked on the floor plan of a current project.

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.

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