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Starting a New Life in Brooklyn

By Joyce Cohen

Eleanor Alper embarked upon a hunt for a new home because her husband was dying. The couple lived at 2 Fifth Avenue in a one-bedroom on a high floor with a big terrace. “It was such a great place,” she said, with a full-arch view of Washington Square Park. Some neighboring units overlooked just half the arch. “I never thought I would move,” she said.

But her husband, Bertram Alper, who had managed well with leukemia for a decade, began to suffer from kidney failure. As his health worsened in the fall of 2006, he decided to stop dialysis.

Ms. Alper, 72, knew that remaining in their home after his death would be too painful. “Everything I looked at was just full of us together,” she said.

He was an architect and designer, so the two were “constantly renovating and changing and doing,” she said. “Our biggest arguments weren’t about the children or money — they were about yellow or blue.”

Ms. Alper met her husband in a painting class when she was Eleanora Kupencow, a Polish girl from Greenpoint. She perceived Manhattan as a magical place like Oz, sparkling across the river.

After their marriage in 1960, they moved to Bucks County, Pa., where they reared their four now-grown sons, the last three of whom are identical triplets. “We tell them apart by their beards,” Ms. Alper said.

Later, the couple moved to the Fifth Avenue co-op, where they spent two happy decades.

Shortly before her husband’s death, Ms. Alper began the hunt for a home of her own. That way, he would know where she would end up. “He was very involved with what my life would be like after he left,” she said.

To help with the hunt, she called her husband’s cousin, Pat Singer, who is a senior vice president at Prudential Douglas Elliman. They wished to find, for $2 million to $3 million, a big, bright, high-ceilinged place that could include an art studio for Ms. Alper’s painting and sculpture.

They began hunting in SoHo and TriBeCa, two neighborhoods that Ms. Alper liked.

“It was really dazzling to see what was for sale, but it seemed everything was in the wrong place,” she said. “The terrace wasn’t in the right place; the views weren’t in the right place.”

She found the condominium units at 53 Murray Street, a building that once housed a lamp business, to be too apartmentlike. “This was very typical,” Ms. Singer said. “It wasn’t for her.”

The same concern existed at 124 Hudson Street, a new condominium. “Anything that had the typical apartment, she found boring,” Ms. Singer said. “She needed very unique. This building is lovely. It’s just that for her needs it wasn’t appropriate.”

They worked their way through several downtown luxury buildings. “We were excited, but they looked like they were for people who wanted apartments, and I wanted more of an open space,” Ms. Alper said. “They were very elegant, and I realized I didn’t want such elegance. But I didn’t want raw space because I wasn’t going to have my husband to design it for me.”

What’s more, it was tough to find light and open views in densely built TriBeCa. “We kept running into the problem with the light,” Ms. Singer said. “That was a big thing for her, especially being an artist.”

A $2.5 million duplex at 80 Warren Street, a co-op building once occupied by dairy wholesalers and then by employment agencies, had everything Ms. Alper wanted. She would put her art studio on the top floor. “I liked it so much, and it just seemed right,” she said.

But a relative who is an architect said they would need to remove a wall so the studio could overlook the terrace. Besides, surrounding neighbors could look right at her when she was outside. That gave her pause.

After seeing pictures of the view from Dumbo, in Brooklyn, she decided to look there. She and Ms. Singer visited the J Condominium on Jay Street, the tallest building in Dumbo, at an early stage of construction. The ascended on the hoist to the second highest floor. “Oh, the view!” Ms. Alper said.

The apartment she liked had a double-height living room that included part of the penthouse level. She envisioned her art studio upstairs, next to the bedroom.

They visited 70 Washington Street in Dumbo as well, but she would have had to combine two condos for enough space. Besides, some of the rooms were interior rooms without windows.

Ms. Alper returned to J Condo with her eldest son, Hilary Alper, a cellist who lives in Portugal, who was equally captivated by the view. She agreed with him that “looking at the city, you feel you are in the city more than when you are in the city.”
And she had heard about the neighborhood’s pending designation as a historic district by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, so the view would remain mostly unobscured. (The area received its official designation last month.)

Ms. Alper decided to buy the J Condo duplex. It cost $2.65 million, with monthly maintenance and taxes of around $1,650. She was glad it was just below the penthouse level, “because it is kind of pretentious on your address to have the penthouse,” she said.

She took pictures to show her husband what she had bought. She hoped to take him there in a wheelchair, but was told this would not be allowed on a construction site. She plans to heed his advice about landscaping on the terrace: bamboo and ivy.

Her husband died a month after stopping dialysis, on his 84th birthday. “I kissed him goodbye and said we’ve done it all and had it all,” Ms. Alper said. “So this apartment had a great deal to do with his dying. It is a strange story.”

She remained in the Manhattan apartment for more than a year until construction on J Condo was finished. The next-door neighbor at 2 Fifth Avenue bought her apartment, including the furniture, all of which was designed either by or for her husband. “Furniture is full of memories, and it’s much better I don’t have all these things,” she said.

At her request, J Condo’s developer, the Hudson Companies, refrained from building one bedroom wall, which means her studio has open vistas of Lower Manhattan and Upper New York Bay.

She had the dark wood floors lightened, and moved in earlier this month. Her artwork hangs on the walls. She is working on sculptures to be installed in the spring at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, as part of the city’s temporary public art program.

New furniture is on order. In the meantime, she is sleeping on an air mattress. “I like it empty,” she said. “All I want is the view and the art.”

She especially enjoys watching the air traffic at Newark Liberty International Airport and, closer at hand, the Downtown Manhattan Heliport. Below her lie the Manhattan Bridge and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, where motor traffic “is all very miniature and very cute.”

Ms. Alper is known for riding her bicycle and her scooter around the local streets. “I am making friends with Brooklyn,” she said. “It is really fun. It is a different Brooklyn than I remember. The neighborhood is full of surprises. That’s what I think my life should be. Lots of surprises.”


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