In the early days of the pandemic, Jonathan Travis and his friend Ethan Rafii were visiting another friend’s country house outside New York City when they began to dream big. What if they pooled their resources and bought a shared house together?
“To be candid, we were having a mushroom experience,” said Mr. Rafii, 38, who works in finance and is a partner in Kettl, a Japanese tea company. He and Mr. Travis had become friends through a shared passion for art.
As they were lounging that night, Mr. Travis suggested that a shared house could be not only a getaway from their Manhattan apartments, but a place to display their collections and maybe start an artists’ residency.
Mr. Rafii agreed that it was a great idea, but he didn’t expect to hear about it again. “The next day, he started sending me houses,” Mr. Rafii said. “And I realized this guy was serious.”
To Mr. Travis, 37, buying a house together made a lot of sense. “It was an aha moment,” he said. “We’re both single guys without families, so why not do this together?”
It didn’t take long for Mr. Travis, an art-focused real estate agent who has been instrumental in TriBeCa’s emergence as an art destination after helping numerous galleries relocate there, to assemble a list of options. After a single day of house hunting, they found the place they wanted: a quirky manor with more than 5,000 square feet in Chappaqua, N.Y.
The late 19th-century home had soaring ceilings, tall arched windows and organic curves everywhere they looked. As Mr. Travis put it, “It had a cathedral-esque feel to it.”
A binder of documents left in the house said it had been built by a doctor named Max Wolfe as a wellness retreat. The property was littered with timeworn sculptures, including one of the wolf from “Little Red Riding Hood,” adding to its eccentric allure.
The friends struck a deal to buy the property for $1.65 million and closed in October 2020. They christened the house Wolf Hill, inspired by the name of the original owner and the wolf sculpture. Then they recruited Rachel Holzman, an interior designer, to update it. Mr. Travis and Mr. Rafii wanted to maintain the character of the house, but asked Ms. Holzman to renovate the dated bathrooms and kitchen, and to refresh the worn wood floors and plaster walls.
“We wanted everything to be super clean and livable,” Ms. Holzman said. “We wanted to go neutral, but still be interesting, to let the art speak for itself.”
So they stained the wood floors dark brown, painted doors and interior woodwork charcoal gray, and coated most of the walls in white. Deeper colors were used in more intimate spaces, like the dark-gray dining room and putty-colored sunroom.
For the home’s most dramatic new feature, the friends commissioned Simone Bodmer-Turner, an artist, to design and install a wall treatment of plaster waves that swirl above the fireplace in the great room and swoop down to create a firewood holder and bench.
“It was important for us to have artists stake their claim,” Mr. Rafii said. “And she absolutely crushed it.”
They asked another artist, Minjae Kim, to build custom wood tables, including a long, rustic coffee table that sits between a pair of white linen sofas in the great room.
In all, they spent about $500,000 updating the house, then filled it with more than a hundred works of art. But the art on display continues to change. Twice a year, the friends choose an emerging artist and offer studio space for four months — sometimes at the house, sometimes elsewhere. Then they present an exhibition at the house.
Each exhibition “is a great big party,” Mr. Rafii said, “with all these artists, collectors, gallerists and friends who come together to celebrate the artist’s work.”
When the work sells, half of the money goes to the artist and the other half goes to a nonprofit organization of their choice, after the costs of the residency are covered. Mr. Travis and Mr. Rafii earn nothing, they said.
In June, they presented the work of Amorelle Jacox, who chose to donate funds to TGI Justice Project. Last winter, they hosted Telvin Wallace, who donated to the art program at the elementary school he attended in North Carolina.
Two friends buying real estate together may seem risky, but thus far Mr. Travis and Mr. Rafii have been too busy enjoying themselves to worry much about conflict. They stay at the house separately or together, whenever they feel like it, and routinely entertain their families and friends there.
“It’s a big place,” Mr. Travis said, which gives everyone space to spread out, while allowing the friends to pursue their passion project. “Why wouldn’t we do this?”
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