On Location: The actor B.D. Wong's home is a victory over "a profound discomfort with throwing things away."
Bradley Darryl Wong is finally settling into his apartment. Not that the place, a ground-floor loft with a subterranean bedroom on East Fourth Street, is new, exactly. Wong, otherwise known as B.D., bought it in 2005 and moved in, sort of, four years ago.
But the settling-in part — the purging, the decorating, the homemaking — well, these things take time, particularly if you’re a hardworking actor and single father constantly battling entropy or rather fixedly engaged in “the struggle to control my surroundings as opposed to my surroundings controlling me,” as Wong, 51, puts it.
“Because of the accumulation of objects,” he continued, “things are never quite the way I want them to be. There has always been a lack of, well, clarity.”
On a recent August morning, Wong opened his front doors (century-old bronze, from a bank in Philadelphia by way of the Demolition Depot) to two visitors, this reporter and Wong’s architect, Jack Wettling, and showed off a few victories: 70-odd pairs of shoes corralled into 32 wire baskets in a locker-room storage unit in the front hall; three spit-spot closets arrayed with armfuls of colored yarn in clear plastic bags, tidy rows of hats and suit coats lined up like soldiers, all behind doors stenciled with the ghosts of long-defunct businesses harvested from the basement of the Puck Building nearby. The doors were never used in that building. (They were from the former Mercantile Exchange building in Lower Manhattan.)
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Finally, in a back room, there was a vast and curious piece of furniture made from old sewing drawers, yardsticks and reclaimed wood, built by a friend to replace the massive rolling wire bookshelf filled with DVDs, photos and books that had been Wong’s nemesis for the last few years.
Wong, whose off-screen presence is closer to that of Dr. George Huang, the soothing forensic psychiatrist he played for 11 seasons on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” than Song Liling, his stunning Broadway debut as the gender-ambiguous love interest in David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play, “M. Butterfly,” professes “a profound discomfort with throwing things away.”
He saves leather shoelaces, buttons and the thread and fabric swatches you get when you buy new sweaters and suit coats. He also collects yarn, vintage grease cans, 19th-century chiming clocks, yardsticks and old sewing drawers, which he accrues during episodic eBay forays (see “curious piece of furniture,” above). He likes old plumbing valves and fixtures, vintage hardware and a good deal. He drags furniture in off the street. Things do pile up, he said.
Wong extracted an aluminum stovetop percolator from a cupboard and rifled around for the coffee to fill it for some time before giving up and phoning his boyfriend, Richert Schnorr, for help. “He’s the coffee maker,” Wong said later.
This reporter suggested that perhaps Wong had cleaned up too much, and anyway she was fully caffeinated, if Wong wanted to forgo the coffee making. “But you won’t see how this apartment is made for entertaining if I don’t actually entertain you,” he said, bustling about his bright red Aga stove. Wettling grinned and stuffed a chocolate croissant into his mouth.
East Fourth Street is Wong’s third project with Wettling. The first, a loft on West 55th Street where Wong lived with his longtime partner, Richie Jackson, a television producer, was also filled with found objects: pieces of Andy Warhol’s Factory, including office doors stenciled with Warhol’s aphorisms, as well as family treasures like a floor border made from his mother’s mah-jongg tiles. The second apartment was a larger loft in Chelsea, bought and renovated for the family Jackson and Wong were planning to have.
In 2000, the couple had twin sons with a surrogate mother, born three months prematurely. The older one, Boaz Dov, lived only 90 minutes. His brother, Jackson Foo Wong, now a healthy 12-year-old, battled developmental setbacks and health crises in a neonatal care unit in San Francisco.
The darkly humorous email newsletters that Wong sent to a widening circle of friends, family and colleagues were collected in a book, “Following Foo (the electronic adventures of the Chestnut Man),” in 2003. In it, Wong details the helplessness of new parenthood as experienced through the harrowing prism of the neonatal nursery in which Jackson’s milestones — a sponge bath, a bottle feeding, breathing by himself — approach and recede in terrifying episodes.
A year after the book was published, Jackson and Wong broke up, their 18-year relationship “the collateral damage,” Wong said, of losing a child.
Yet, he added, although they live apart, they are united in knowing what it means to experience that loss (“this sense of being marked forever,” he said). And in their ongoing role as parents. Jackson lives with both his dads, in an arrangement that sees him uptown with Jackson and his new partner, Jordan Roth, during the week, and downtown with Wong on weekends.
As a result, Wong said:”Our house, this place, has become incredibly important, because I felt the disappointment and shame that my son was the fruit of a broken home. I felt a sense of being broken, and robbing him of a full family experience.”
In 2005, Wong bought this apartment for $1.25 million (he thanks “Law & Order” for the paychecks that made that possible) from William Sofield, the architect of Tom Ford’s Gucci stores, who had been living there since the mid-1990s.
The two men share a personal trainer, Rob Morea, who is also, conveniently, a real estate broker. They also share a taste for underground, underlighted places like this one.
“I’m basically nocturnal,” Wong said. “This is not the place for a daylight queen.”
The space had been, variously, a sweatshop, a Yiddish theater and a pornographic theater. When Sofield moved in, he had excavated the basement room and found carcasses of sewing machines along with old sets, props and scripts. He gave it his own decadent stamp — Wettling and Wong described it as a cross between a ’70s disco and a Charivari boutique — with silvered walls, much stainless steel and a quartet of Warhol’s electric chair prints; in 2000, Nan Goldin photographed the apartment for Elle Decor. (Recently, Sofield recalled the day his mother came to visit and wound up in the Merchant’s House Museum next door. Margaret Gardiner, the museum’s executive director, phoned him to say: “Are you expecting a mother, Bill? Because there is a woman wandering around the museum criticizing the décor. I don’t know how to break it to her that this isn’t where you live.”)
It took Wong seven years to fully renovate the 2,900-square-foot apartment, because he and Wettling proceeded in stages. Also, six months into the job, the contractor vanished and it took another six months to find a new one. The ceilings, intriguingly barrel-vaulted and brick, were covered in plaster, which was removed. The back of the loft still had its wooden skylight, which was replaced with a sturdier steel one. Sofield had enjoyed the sound of the rain on the wood and glass, but Wong worried about security.
It was an unsettling period: Both Wettling and Wong’s fathers died at the beginning of the project. Wong and Jackson, who spent weekends with him, camped out in four sublets during the first three years of the renovation. (This early phase, the bulk of the work, cost under $200 a square foot.)
But when it was over, Wong began creating the sort of home life he wanted for his son. “I wanted to learn to cook for him, and I wanted him to like it,” Wong said. “I’m a single parent of an only child. I wanted him to have this sense of people around.”
We have described the bright red Aga stove. It is no showpiece. Methodically, Wong, who grew up in a family that marked the passages of life with extraordinary meals, has been teaching himself to cook. America’s Test Kitchen, home of Cook’s Illustrated, is his university.
Every Saturday night, Wong collects a dozen of his friends — the same core group, give or take a few players, including the actress Cindy Cheung, whom he directed in the one-woman show “Speak Up Connie,” and Wayne Barker, the composer, most recently of “Peter and the Starcatcher,” now on Broadway — for an elaborate meal and performance that involves Wong cooking in the kitchen while Jackson gambols with the guests.
Jackson, who sleeps in a model of an R160 subway car, takes everyone for a ride and “you can hear screaming, and sometimes he serves snacks because sometimes it is a dining car,” Wong said. There is also singing and piano playing and improvisation, and every week Wong marvels at the production.
“Jackson has bonded with all these people in a huge way,” he said. “They are all theater people and they aren’t tolerating him, they are part of the show. It’s a big deal for someone like me, who grew up the eccentric in the family, crocheting on the couch at Thanksgiving.”
Even Richie Jackson, Wong’s former partner, is for the most part impressed with the home Wong has created. If only, Jackson told him, you could throw out 75 percent of all that stuff.