Art aficionados combine talents and collections in a Munjoy Hill townhouse.
Leslie Hart and Kevin Schochat wanted to get out of the 1800s and into the twenty- first century. They rent an apartment in a pre-Civil War building in New York’s Soho neighborhood and Hart used to own a five- bedroom 1840s house in the Hudson Valley region. They were ready to retire and hoped to relocate to a sophisticated city that offered country pleasures. Hart’s brother lived in Brunswick and suggested Portland, but Hart and Schochat told him he was crazy. Maine? No, sir.
And yet here they are, in a Munjoy Hill townhouse designed by architect Ryan Senatore and developed by Redfern Properties.
“The biggest draw for me was the Maine people,” says Schochat. “I couldn’t believe how friendly and open everyone was, and they all said they loved Portland.” It’s no surprise that this warmth should appeal to a Georgia native whose business card reads “Southern charm | New York energy,” or to the equally affable Hart.
Schochat is a former child psychologist who became a photographer’s agent after attending the (now closed) Brooks Institute of Photography in California and moving to New York. There, he worked as an assistant to Ryszard Horowitz, a Polish-born photographer who studied under Richard Avedon. (Horowitz was one of the youngest survivors of Auschwitz). Schochat got to know Horowitz’s agent and realized representing photographers was something he’d like to do. Hart is a journalist with international training in Munich and Madrid. She worked for business and consumer publications on furniture, building, kitchens, and bath design before directing her own communications and advertising agency. The byproduct of their combined lives and careers is an extensive collection of photography and Southern folk art, as well as comprehensive knowledge of the many options for building, furnishing, and designing a new property.
Hart and Schochat exercised a few of these options right away, having purchased their townhouse before builders Wright-Ryan Construction even broke ground. This allowed the couple to make a few requests, the most significant being to move the open-plan kitchen/ dining/living room intended for the third floor to the fourth. The change afforded them expansive views of Back Cove from swivel chairs in the living room rather than from their bedroom, which is now on the third floor. On the ground floor are the entry and a garage, while the second floor has two combination guest room/offices and a hallway bath. Three of the levels are joined by open- riser staircases; a final flight leads to a rooftop deck.
The couple turned to interior designer Tracy Davis of Urban Dwellings for additional help. The project required Davis to consider how to combine existing antiques with new furniture and how best to present the couple’s remarkable art collection. “They are such happy and bright people on a daily basis,” says Davis, adding that she wanted colors that resonated both with their art and with their personalities.
In the living room, for example, the focal point is the couple’s collection of playful, brightly painted wood animal cutouts by Louisville folk artist Marvin Finn. Davis designed open shelving and flat cabinets around the fireplace to display the animals. She then picked pale fabric colors for the midcentury modern– inspired furniture, including two yellow swivel chairs, and a green sofa with purple pillows, letting the hues echo the colors of the cutouts. In the adjacent dining area, she combined a custom yew server from Mill House Antiques in Connecticut with Windsor chairs from the Hudson Valley house and a Danish-modern- influenced maple table, a design collaboration between Davis and David Stenstrom of Last Chance Woodworking in Portland. The kitchen features large lichen-green flat panel cabinets with small pulls, and the appliances have green flat panel surfaces, so the room presents a wall of color.
Folk art drove the owners’ bedroom choices, as well, with colors determined by an antique “yo-yo” quilt from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and bed pillows comprised of fabric from assorted men’s blue and white dress shirts, handmade by New York collage artist Stewart Siskind. Here again, an antique piece (a maple dresser that Hart’s grandfather built) shares space with a custom contemporary bedframe designed by Davis and crafted by Stenstrom. Although most of the townhouse’s walls are neutral to showcase the art, this room has a soft blue accent wall behind the bed and work by two Maine artists on other walls: a charcoal and watercolor image of oysters by Dudley Zopp and an abstracted barn by Ingunn Milla Joergensen.
The many hallways and corners that surround the staircases function like a multi-story art gallery. Some of the images on show are Schochat’s own: black and white shots of a barn door in Georgia; a weathered front porch with rocking chairs; a woman bathing a girl in a washtub; and sunlight glancing off pews in an empty California church. Others are by former clients and friends, including black and white nature photos by Chip Forelli and an image of Virginia Woolf’s bed by Patti Smith, who is a neighbor in Manhattan. Still others are items the couple has collected, like a circus performer with three dogs by Mary Ellen Mark, an iconic Edward Weston photograph titled Pepper No. 30, and an image of reeds in lake water by Weston’s son, Brett. Schochat’s office has a double row of ten black and white portraits of Abraham Lincoln, his wife, and others, all original prints off the glass negatives of the landmark Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.
A second-floor hallway once had a shallow closet. Davis removed the doors and fitted it with shelves to fashion an additional display space for curiosities like a whirligig dachshund, a collection of antique pocket watches displayed in small bell jars, and a child’s head from a Baton Rouge wax museum. A piece by folk artist Howard Finster of a flat figure holding a religious tract stands on one shelf, a two-headed iguana by Finster’s grandson, Michael, on another.
Hart and Schochat are knowledgeable about the lives of the artists whose work they collect. They visited Finn half a dozen times before he died, and relate that Patti Smith responded to a compliment about one of her memoirs by saying, “Everyone has a book in them.” Schochat says that Finster (whom Schochat once met in his home in Summerville, Georgia) tells of painting a bicycle, when a face appeared on the pad of his thumb and commanded him to “Paint sacred art.” Anecdotes and stories flow easily out of both Hart and Schochat. What they loved about locals, when they first visited, is the very thing a local is likely to appreciate about them: openness and an eagerness to engage with people, creative and otherwise.