From Big Pink to Whitney’s Dream House: Here’s What It’s Like to Live in a Pop Star’s Former Home

From Big Pink to Whitney’s Dream House: Here’s What It’s Like to Live in a Pop Star’s Former Home

From Big Pink to Whitney’s Dream House: Here’s What It’s Like to Live in a Pop Star’s Former Home

Donald LaSala was checking the security cameras at his upstate New York property when he saw a man wander into his yard, look both ways, then kneel to kiss the grass. Dr. Matthew Krauthamer once found a group of friends having a picnic on his front lawn. Justin Berthiaume lucked out one day when he found a sizable bud of marijuana taped to his gate. And then there’s Bridget Bobel McIntyre, who admittedly doesn’t feel cool enough to live in her Brooklyn apartment.

These four people have one thing in common: they all live in houses once occupied by famous musicians. LaSala owns Big Pink in West Saugerties, New York, where the Band lived and recorded The Basement Tapes with Bob Dylan. Krauthamer bought Whitney Houston’s massive Mendham, New Jersey, estate. Berthiaume rents the Grateful Dead House in San Francisco where the band lived from around 1965 to 1968. And Bobel McIntyre and her burgeoning family currently rent Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s first Brooklyn apartment.

Owning and occupying a location where musical history went down has presented its share of opportunities and challenges to this quartet of disparate people — from preserving history to making their own. Still, all feel the weight of the history of the places they inhabit, whether their homes are virtually untouched by time, like Big Pink, or part of the palimpsest of an ever-changing city, like Smith and Mapplethrope’s once-wretched first digs.

Big Pink

“When I went into that ugly pink house and went down in that basement, I said, ‘This is it,’” Robbie Robertson recently told Rolling Stone. “This is the place. I could see it. … It became the sanctuary and the place that so much music came out of. It was the beginning of the Band.” 

Far out in the woods of West Saugerties, New York, Big Pink stands Pepto-Bismol hued and unchanged — the same house Robertson first laid eyes on it in 1967. In its sunny kitchen, Bob Dylan once sat and wrote lyrics in the mornings, while the Band — Rick Danko, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel, Robertson and Levon Helm — snoozed in their rooms. The Band found their sound there with their debut album, 1968’s Music From Big Pink, while Dylan honed his with 1975’s The Basement Tapes, recorded in the guts of the house itself.

Still, when LaSala bought the place in 1998 for a mere $137,500, no one seemed all that interested in owning a piece of rock history. Prior to LaSala, the place had been home to classical music label Parnassus Records and proved difficult to sell — several potential sales had fallen through before the musician/audio producer finally made an offer.

“I was really shocked that nobody had bought the house,” LaSala, now in his seventies, tells Rolling Stone. “It was like Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road — everybody had fallen asleep from the poppies. It was actually cheap.”

Back in the late Nineties, LaSala and his wife Sue were looking for a rural spot to raise their family — somewhere where their young son could have room to roam. Big Pink was certainly that — the road to the house is narrow and unpaved, and the place stands just a few miles from now-posh downtown Woodstock. (And it didn’t hurt that LaSala was a musician and a fan of both the Band and Dylan.) Despite its remoteness, though, Pink Big was and is an integral part of the Woodstock community.

“The Woodstock area is very insular; it’s a small town,” LaSala says. “People have their opinions and there are people who have been here a long time, so they have strong opinions. My wife comes from the Adirondacks and there are people who have been there 20, 30, 40 years that are still considered newbies because they’re not multiple generations down. Woodstock is a little bit like that.”

When he first bought the home, LaSala found himself under the microscope. “People were saying, ‘Oh, you’re going to make it into a Dylan Disneyland,’” he recalls. “And they started asking, ‘What are you going to do? Make it a museum? People were just snarking at us left and right. So, we kept our heads down.”

LaSala and his family stayed at Big Pink until around 2014 when they started to grow tired of living in what was essentially a landmark for rock and roll fans the world over. “We’re famous now for owning a famous house, which is something I never expected,” he says. “That was a shocker to me because we would go outside and find somebody out there taking a picture. We’d chat with them and you know, it’d be nice, but then on weekends there’d be, like, a party going on — three or four carloads of people.”

Big Pink, West Saugerties, NY. Note the mourning bunting on roof for departed Band drummer Levon Helm. Photo credit: John Wisniewski/CC BY-ND 2.0

Morning coffees were often interrupted by travelers peering in windows, sometimes coming from as far as Norway. One man flew down from Liverpool with the aim of walking from Woodstock to Big Pink. He completed the trek and then went right back to the airport. Another man flew his girlfriend up from Texas to propose to her in the basement. Two couples have gotten married on Big Pink’s grounds. LaSala and his family were always welcoming to their visitors — they have more than one guestbook — but eventually, they needed a home that was a bit more private.

With the advent of Airbnb, LaSala realized that they could do something similar with their perhaps too-famous house: They could buy a home with a lower profile and become stewards of Big Pink, which they could rent out to fans and artists looking for their own personal musical Mecca. “I really didn’t want to make it a museum because it’s not dead,” he says. “What am I going to do? Make some wax figures and make Madame Tussauds in the basement?”

Instead, LaSala rents out the place for about $500 per night; he says it’s booked pretty much every weekend in the summer and fall. The house has been relatively unchanged since the Sixties, so visitors can live and work where Dylan and the Band lived and worked. When folks check in, LaSala takes them on a tour of the place. 

“I ask them, ‘Why are you here?’ Just like a psychologist or a doctor,” he says. “I tell people that this is not a shrine. It’s not a museum. This is a living place. Life still goes on here and history is still being made. Granted it’s not as illustrious and newsworthy [as that of the Band], but for individuals it is.”

“We don’t sit around like, ‘Oh, this is where Dylan [wrote].’ We’re like, ‘Oh, the gutters need to be cleaned or that tree over there might fall down and hit the house,’” he adds. “There are always things to be done and we try to improve it.”

Whitney Houston’s Dream House

In 1987, Whitney Houston spent $2.7 million designing a home in Mendham, New Jersey: a then-modern marvel modeled on Terminal C at Newark Liberty International Airport. All circular structures and glass, the house does, in fact, resemble a transportation hub — a 13,607-square-foot white structure lost in five acres of woods.

Houston married Bobby Brown on the house’s rolling lawn in 1992 and, for a time, it was home to their growing family. Still, as Houston divorced and acquired other properties, the house stood vacant, languishing on and off the market.

A few years later, though, a young emergency room doctor with a taste for real estate snapped up the long-empty house for a mere $1.5 million — plus a hefty sum for repairs. Krauthamer, now 39, had had his eye on the property for years before acquiring it in 2014. He recalls going on a tour of the house with other prospective buyers, who were all loudly speculating about how they’d change Houston’s former dream home.

“It just didn’t feel that they were necessarily going to be respectful of the great legacy she left behind,” he tells Rolling Stone. “So, for me, it was not only the challenge of buying a huge property and renovating it, it was the fact that it was her home. I wasn’t a crazy fan in any way, shape or form. I loved her as much as anybody else would love her — but it was just a really good deal.”

As such, the house doesn’t look all that different from when Houston lived there in the Eighties; Krauthamer’s renovations were subtle. The icon’s piano still stands in the white, circular sitting room, but gone is the high-gloss purple paint that used to cover many of the walls. The doctor’s clothes barely fill one corner of one of Houston’s apartment-sized closets, one of which also holds a jewelry safe that could easily fit an adult man. Her custom pool table still occupies the game room, and Krauthamer sleeps in her massive circular bed. He still gets mailings from Progressive addressed to “Whitney Houston.” 

The crown jewel is outside, though — a glinting pool emblazoned with Houston’s initials. “I went and found these little tiny [purple] mosaic glass incandescent tiles because I wanted to tile it,” Krauthamer says. “The poor workers that were doing it were out there for weeks, laying them all perfectly.”

Despite owning the house, Krauthamer doesn’t feel like it’s quite his. “We still don’t refer to it as my house. We always say it’s Whitney’s,” he says. “There have definitely been a good amount of people who have shown up at the front gate,” he says, mentioning the picnicking fans. “I’m like, ‘Hi, what’s going on?’” he says, mimicking the confused face he gave the revelers. “I think that for them, it’s something very meaningful. So, who am I to take that away from them?”

MENDHAM, NJ - FEBRUARY 12: General atmosphere of flowers and notes of sympathy laid at the entrance of Whitney Houston's former home on February 12, 2012 in Mendham, New Jersey. Singer Whitney Houston died on February 11, 2012 at The Beverly Hilton hotel in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by John W. Ferguson/Getty Images)

After Whitney Houston’s death in February, 2012, fans laid Flowers and notes of sympathy at the entrance of her former home in Mendham, New Jersey. Photo credit: John W. Ferguson/Getty Images

Every year, the doctor opens the doors of his home to 10 select fans for an annual Halloween party; he works with Houston’s estate to choose who attends. “It’s become this major event and we have over 400 people come every year,” he says. “We rent out the local hotel and we have a shuttle service that comes back and forth. We often end our night with karaoke in the studio.” Houston’s in-home studio is completely unchanged since she lived in the home; the doctor considers it a sacred space.

“It’s pretty amazing because it’s emotional for [the fans],” he adds. “It’s really moving for them to be here. I really enjoyed being able to do that. To some extent, I felt a little bit selfish [owning this house] because she was such a huge artist. With Elvis, people can go [to Graceland]. But people can’t really come here, you know? But that Halloween party is a way of allowing that.”

The Grateful Dead House

Back in 1967, the Grateful Dead held a press conference for the decriminalization of weed at their home base: 710 Ashbury Street, San Francisco. Eight narcotics agents had raided the residence on October 2, and two members of the band (Pigpen and Bob Weir), their two managers (Rock Scully and Danny Rifkin), their equipment manager (Bob Matthews) and six friends had been busted for marijuana.

“The arrests were made under a law that classifies smoking marijuana along with murder, rape and armed robbery as a felony,” Rifkin said at the conference; Rolling Stone was in attendance, of course. “Yet almost anyone who has ever studied marijuana seriously and objectively has agreed that marijuana is the least harmful chemical used for pleasure and life-enhancement.” 

Decades later, and someone taped two ounces of grass to the door of the hulking purple Victorian. Since Weir and Co. hadn’t lived at 710 for some time, current resident Justin Berthiaume took it upon himself to accept the kind gift.

“People ask me how I ended up living here all the time,” Berthiaume tells Rolling Stone. “I usually say it was karma because I used to play in a couple of Dead cover bands back East. The real story, besides karma, is that I just answered a Craigslist ad.” 

The 46-year-old teacher has been living in the bottom floor of what is commonly known as the Grateful Dead House for more than 10 years now — almost five times as long as the band actually resided there. The Massachusetts native happened across a Craigslist ad with his then-girlfriend, and the price of the one-bedroom garden apartment seemed right — especially for a school teacher living in San Francisco. When he discovered that the apartment once housed Jerry Garcia and Co., Berthiaume says he literally jumped in the air with glee. 

“It was a little surreal; you could feel the history there, you know,” he says. “We’d go out into the garden and you’d picture Phil Lesh and Jerry Garcia smoking a joint up there or jamming downstairs. You just kind of feel the presence.”

The house is a common stop on tours of historic Haight Ashbury and is easily locatable online, so Berthiaume says he gets his share of visitors — a man once rang the doorbell, looking for Lesh (“That’s when I learned not to answer the door,” Berthiaume quips). “I’ll say 99% of them are super sweet and respectful and just kind of curious,” he says. “Sometimes I feel like a rock star because everybody’s staring at me and afraid to talk to me. I kind of play cool sometimes and wear sunglasses.” 

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s First Apartment

When Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe moved into their Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, apartment in 1967, it was, she recalled, “aggressively seedy.” 

“The walls were smeared with blood and psychotic scribbling, the oven crammed with discarded syringes, and the refrigerator overrun with mold,” Smith wrote in her 2010 memoir Just Kids.. Once she and Mapplethorpe cleaned it up the best they could, though, they lived happily in artistic chaos. “My work area was a jumble of manuscript pages, musty classics, broken toys and talismans,” Smith wrote. “I tacked pictures of Rimbaud, Bob Dylan, Lotte Lenya, Piaf, Genet and John Lennon over a makeshift desk where I arranged my quills, my inkwell, and my notebooks — my monastic mess.”

Now, what Smith called “my corner of our world” is a pristine guest bedroom that its current residents have dubbed “The Mapplethorpe Suite,” outside of which stands a brand-new Peloton exercise bike. The floor-to-ceiling windows wash the white bedspread in bright sunlight and the shelves are filled with history books. Across the hall, a two-year-old boy named Sullivan snoozes away the afternoon. 

Smith didn’t have this much space when she and Mapplethorpe hunkered down there years ago — and they probably wouldn’t even recognize the highly modernized residence. When the pair first occupied 160 Hall Street, they paid $80 per month; now, the wholly renovated townhouse apartment could likely fetch one hundred times that. Bridget and Colin Bobel McIntyre, now in their forties, moved into the place two years ago — mostly because the 3,500-square-foot home was big enough for both the family and their two large dogs.

“I think they mentioned [the history of the apartment] in the listing,” Bridget tells Rolling Stone. “It was really tough to get an appointment. I think they were being very selective. … I was in the new mom haze and so I didn’t even realize until we moved in the significance of the house and what was here.” Colin works as an accountant and consultant, while Bridget is a stay-at-home mom.

160 Hall Street has undergone a total makeover since Smith and Mapplethrope sprawled on the floor, writing poetry and taking photos; it was featured in Architectural Digest in 2018 after getting a facelift from Jay Tall of Tall Builders. Now, it features an airy entranceway with exposed beams and pristine white walls, three huge bedrooms, three baths (which boast massive glassed showers and deep, luxurious tubs), a chef’s kitchen, a yard, a rooftop lounge and a basement gym. Sullivan’s toys cover every surface, the bright detritus of everyday life. A golden Mylar balloon shaped like the number two bobs in the corner, left over from his recent birthday.

“We’re just boring, normal people. I don’t feel cool enough at all to live here,” Bridget says. “We get a kick out of the fact that we’re like this nuclear family with the kids and the dogs. It’s a bit of a bougie area now with the artisanal coffee shop around the corner. It’s the absolute opposite of what their life was when they were here.”

Still, Bridget says she’s made friends in the area because of where she lives. At the dog park, for example, she met a woman who was thrilled that her new friend lived in Smith’s old apartment. “They ended up coming over for drinks that night — her and her husband,” she says. “That was the icebreaker.” The couple brought her a copy of Just Kids, which Bridget says she’s about halfway through (she has a two-year-old, after all).

“I’m going to finish the book,” she adds. “You know how you finish a book and then you want to research everything? So, I’ll probably finish it and be like, OK, where’s Patti Smith now?”

As for the family? Theyve bought their own townhouse and plan to move to Bed-Stuy in May, which means the historic apartment will once more be on the market — freeing it up for yet another occupant in its storied history. 

Source : Brenna Ehrlich Link

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