How a ’60s Doctor’s Office Became Our Unconventional Dream Project
Can a building be fate?
Published Feb 24, 2022 1:00 AM
Welcome to Space Shifter, writer and A Tiny Apt. creator Christene Barberich’s monthly diary documenting the gradual (i.e., slow, thrifty, and experimental) transformation and reimagining of her family’s newly acquired mid-century building in upstate New York. We are so happy you’re here.
Chapter 1: The Beginning of the Beginning
At the end of 2020, my husband and I bought a mid-century pediatrician’s office in Columbia County, New York. We weren’t looking…like, at all. But somehow this building found us. We had been staying at our friend’s house in a nearby town for a few weeks with our young daughter. And on the last day, driving back and forth to the local grocery store, passing this little brick building’s unassuming “For Sale” sign leaning on the front lawn, I whispered to my husband, half hoping he wouldn’t even hear me, “Should we take a look at that?”
He looked stunned and said, “I was thinking the same thing!”
My husband, an architect and very much the quiet type, does not (generally) default to delighting in serendipitous happenings. He much prefers facts and research and anything with a proven hypothesis attached to it. But our sudden synergy on the topic of this funny little commercial building that neither he nor I had ever said a word about as we drove past it almost daily for nearly a month was, well…strange.
And to me, of course, it felt like fate.
After that initial exchange, I immediately knew I wanted it. Really wanted it, without even knowing how much it cost, without stepping inside or knowing if it could even be lived in, without knowing anything. And while this was at the height of the COVID-related real-estate boom in upstate New York, I had every reason to think we could a) not afford it or b) never get it even if we could. But regardless of the millions of doubts, we called the number on the “For Sale” shingle.
I’m not sure why, but I’ve always believed that houses and apartments, be they temporary or permanent, are like soul mates—they are somehow destined to be in your life, with something important, usually mysterious, to be exchanged between you during your time together and often years to come. Creaky stairs, stuttering radiators, and doors that just won’t stay closed become these little conversations we have with spaces over months and years that bond us, good or bad. Exchanges that begin to tell a story about home and what that actually means to us.
I don’t know why, but I just had a feeling about this building. Like we already knew each other. And it was all I could think about after we pulled into its empty parking lot and just stared at it.
Over the next week, we proceeded to get the price and the property’s backstory—built in 1964, the 1,500-square-foot brick and concrete structure always functioned as a doctor’s office and had never changed hands until now. It had been on the market for a while, maybe because no one wanted to live in a doctor’s office, maybe because the mid-century lines and utilitarian design amid miles and miles of charming old (Queen Anne) farmhouses turned people off, or maybe because it wasn’t really on anybody’s radar to begin with, even if it was cheap by upstate standards (under $200,000). But there were issues—I was no longer earning a steady salary and my husband’s work had waned with the onset of the pandemic. My daughter was already in preschool in Brooklyn.
Would it be impossible or completely disruptive to drive the three hours north often enough to work on it and enjoy it? I laid awake at night, nearly every night. Was it irresponsible to buy something like this? Something that needed extensive renovations to convert it into a space to live, something that was so far from our home in Brooklyn and my sister on Long Island, something that could end up being a huge disaster or worse…a money pit?
Maybe. Possibly? But I just didn’t think so. Because when we walked inside for the first time, into the empty reception area with its big windows and vintage (i.e., a little tattered) striped awnings outside, I just felt like I was home. Like this building was waiting for us. The agent, who had never seen nor showed the property before, walked around with the same curiosity and sense of wonder…what was this place? So pristinely preserved with a wood-paneled reception area, five exam rooms with five micro bathrooms, plus what seemed like miles of gleaming concrete basement—a space that had never once seen the overflow of a broken washing machine or generations of family baggage. (One of my favorite quotes from Andy Warhol is this: “To be rich…really rich is to live in one big empty space.”) And because we lived in such a teeny apartment back in Brooklyn (under 800 square feet, fourth-floor walk-up, one bathroom, plus a preschooler and a cat), this felt like a lot of space…even if it was on the small size by average U.S. house standards.
Some space to build something new. Yes, definitely. But what?