Finishing Touches

When an actor dies suddenly during his D.I.Y. home renovation in Washington Heights, friends and family come together to complete his vision.

A D.I.Y. Collaboration

Finishing Touches

Stefano Ukmar for The New York Times

When James Colby, an actor, died suddenly last February, he was immersed in an ambitious D.I.Y. endeavor: the redesign and renovation of the Washington Heights apartment he shared with his wife, Alyssa Bresnahan, and the couple’s 8-year-old daughter, Shannon.

But what had most definitely been conceived as a one-man show was about to become a group project.

Mr. Colby, 56, was a familiar figure in the neighborhood. Undoubtedly, some locals recognized him from Broadway, where he had appeared in the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Sweat,” and from TV shows like “Chicago P.D.” and “Empire,” or movies including “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” “Tower Heist” and “Patriots Day.”

But it was just as likely that people knew him simply as that strapping, gregarious man they often saw out and about with the family’s large mixed-breed dogs, Dempsey and Doolin.

“He always talked to everyone like he was running for mayor,” said Ms. Bresnahan, 51, an actress who has a featured role in the Broadway adaptation of the movie “Network.” “He took his time coming down the hill back to our apartment. Kids, dogs, elderly folks — Jimmy was incredibly warm and charming to them.”

So it is no surprise that this community stepped up to help complete Mr. Colby’s final project.

Mr. Colby and Ms. Bresnahan met in 1998 during a production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Hartford Stage, and were very much a couple, if not quite living together, when they moved to Washington Heights the following year and bought apartments across the street from each other.

Finishing Touches

James Colby at a photocall when he was in the cast of the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “Sweat,” on Broadway in 2017.Credit…Getty Images

Mr. Colby, a skilled carpenter and cabinetmaker, renovated both places. “Jimmy had an incredible eye for detail and was truly gifted at visualizing space, and was also a bit of a perfectionist,” recalled Ms. Bresnahan, whose own talents in this arena extended no further than scraping window frames and handing her boyfriend tools as he requested them.

“When he made a wrong cut, he’d be swearing and throwing things, and I’d say to him, ‘Jimmy, this isn’t Vietnam.’ He had a way of working that was like a man in a jungle, alone against the elements.”

They sublet the two apartments and moved for a time to the Los Angeles area, where they lived on a boat that Mr. Colby had refurbished and where he found steady work on TV shows and in movies.

Back in New York in 2006, the couple sold Ms. Bresnahan’s co-op and moved into Mr. Colby’s. Apartment 4-G was a shoe box (500 square feet), but also a jewel box. Mr. Colby took the apartment down to the plaster, then refurbished every square inch to a fare-thee-well: He installed recessed lighting; made the tongue-and-groove cabinets in the kitchen; carved out his-and-hers closets, complete with inlaid mirrors; and conjured a coffered ceiling for the doll-sized entryway.

“He did all the molding and put it in this tiny space,” said Ms. Bresnahan, who married Mr. Colby in 2008. “You look up and you think, ‘Who would do this?’”

Even so, it was still only a one-bedroom, and what with the two dogs and, subsequently, a baby, the family needed space to spread out.

In January of 2015, Mr. Colby, a habitué of open houses in the building, looked out the kitchen window across the courtyard, then gestured up to the top floor of the building. “I think that apartment is empty,” he said.

So it was. The owner, an older woman who had lived there for 30 years, had recently died. While just a bit bigger than their own place, the freshly vacant apartment had windows that faced the Hudson and the George Washington Bridge.

Eager to test the waters, the couple put their property on the market. By the first evening they had three cash offers, so they were able to sell the apartment and buy the other one the same day.

The renovation would be another Colby production. “While we were still in 4-G, Jimmy would come up here with a clip-on light and sit for hours and think and sketch,” Ms. Bresnahan said. “He always wanted to make a space to its full potential, and when an idea was fully formed, he would say, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’”

What he wrought, mostly over the next two summers, was a two-bedroom apartment whose handmade curved walls, interior windows and built-ins suggest a boat. Mr. Colby gutted two closets and built a wainscoted, arched dining nook in their place; fashioned mahogany and walnut runners to conceal the electrical wires coiled in the ceiling; and tiled the bathroom, among other projects.

Work stopped for a time when he was cast in “Sweat,” which ran for two months at the Public Theater at the end of 2016, and then on Broadway for three months in 2017. When Mr. Colby died, nearly everything in the apartment was finished except for the kitchen.

Almost immediately, friends and acquaintances stepped in to lend expertise and a hand. The owner of a locksmith a few blocks away came by and replaced the threshold under the front door. Donald Fried, a neighbor and a stage manager whose credits include “Sweat,” volunteered to help build the kitchen cabinets. Mr. Fried, who sometimes borrowed tools from Mr. Colby for his own D.I.Y. projects, also advised Ms. Bresnahan to polyurethane the floors rather than staining them, and urged her to hold onto the scrap wood stacked in various corners of the apartment.

And Juan Carlos Munoz, the super in a building across the street, who moonlights around the neighborhood as a contractor, has been helping with the plumbing and assorted other tasks.

“Carlos told me, ‘I’m going to get some guys and we’re going to take care of this,’” Ms. Bresnahan said. “Deciding what color to paint a wall has been hard, because I don’t know what Jimmy had in mind. Carlos understands this was Jimmy’s artistry, and he’s been very patient with me.”

She walked into the kitchen and ruefully looked down at the orange terra-cotta floor.

“Jimmy never would have chosen terra-cotta tiles,” Ms. Bresnahan said. “But I was thinking, ‘With all due respect, I’m going to go with that.’ And I had a couple of nice arguments in my head with him, and I won.”

Mr. Colby, she confessed, would also not have been in favor of travertine on the kitchen wall. Another series of mental arguments. Another victory for Ms. Bresnahan.

“It’s been a gift to work on the apartment, because it’s a combination of creative place to put the mourning of him and also a way to actualize moving on,” she continued quietly.

“Finishing it isn’t so difficult. I just want to make sure I honor Jimmy and the home he made for us.”

For weekly email updates on residential real estate news, sign up here. Follow us on Twitter: @nytrealestate.

Show More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button