Career makeover: how a style maven fell into real estate
Photo: Rob Howard
Her friends had their doubts. The competition tried to squeeze her out. So why did this writer and corporate design consultant want to buy a 120-year-old office building in Pittsburgh's Cultural District (besides wanting a new place to live, that is)? Well, it would make life interesting…
After years of living in New York City, I thought of real estate developers as greedy megalomaniacs who mowed down entire city blocks and erected architectural atrocities with low ceilings and cheap kitchens in order to maximize their profit per square foot. It was not a line of work to which I had ever aspired.

I was: (A) a writer by default, after my first career, as a dancer, didn't go according to plan; and (B) a design consultant, dispensing advice to corporations on brand strategy and product development—this had started out as a day job, to support my writing, but turned into something I actually liked doing. I was not looking to leave either of these occupations. Nor, to be honest, was I in search of some new job that would take up what little time and brain space I hadn't already allotted to A and B.

Nevertheless, I bought a building in Pittsburgh, my hometown. I wasn't planning on buying a building. I just wanted an apartment. After 30 years in New York and abroad, I was looking for a place where I wouldn't have to work overtime to meet an overhead that had turned into a heavy monthly burden, and it seemed like moving back to Pittsburgh might be a good idea, based on the easy access to both culture and nature, the fact that real estate there is tremendously undervalued, and the prospect of a life less frenetic and trendy than the one I was living out of a loft in lower Manhattan.

In the course of my search for an apartment in Pittsburgh, preferably a raw space that I could design to my own specifications, I came across a vacant nine-story architectural landmark, which, as it happened, offered everything I was looking for: a large, uninterrupted space, high ceilings, abundant natural light, character, charm, an ideal location. Built in 1889 and '90 as the German National Bank, with a massive facade entirely handcarved by Italian stonemasons, it had gone down in the guidebooks as an outstanding example of the style dubbed Richardsonian Romanesque, after H.H. Richardson, the famous architect who had designed the county courthouse a few blocks away. When the bank left the premises, sometime in the 1930s, the name was changed to the Granite Building, and over the years a succession of office tenants proceeded to subdivide the capacious interiors until the original grandeur was gone. What I found—coffee-stained wall-to-wall carpeting and a maze of makeshift cubicles—might have deterred some, if not most, people. But I was too busy seeing what wasn't there: a continuous expanse of dining and living areas, a kitchen overlooking the steeple of the church across the street, a master bedroom with a big bay window. I would wake up to the sounds of the carillon playing hymns on Sundays. I would grow rosebushes in little pots on the balconies.

But first I would have to buy the whole building, and that would leave me with six more floors than I could use, to say nothing of the payments on the financing. I kept looking. Surely there was someplace else to live that I could love as much.

As it turned out, there wasn't. Everything else I saw only served to make me appreciate the Granite Building even more: It had what all the other buildings lacked. And the price was right. (When I told a friend in San Francisco what it cost, he asked, "Do you get a roof with that?") The timing seemed right too. Developers from Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, and elsewhere had been circling, buying up properties and setting off a long-overdue revitalization of a downtown that over the course of the past 20 years had become the hollow core of a city on the skids.

I would keep two floors for myself and sell the rest as luxury condominiums, one 3,000-square-foot unit per floor. I asked friends who are more financially astute than I am to run the numbers and see if the project made sense. One came back and said, "Let's put it this way: I couldn't do it."

Well, of course he couldn't do it—he's a conservative guy who orders the same thing for dinner at his favorite restaurant every night. What was the worst that could happen? I asked him. "You could lose your shirt," he said. Well, that would be bad, I agreed.

My option on the building was about to expire. I was having trouble sleeping. I needed to come to a decision. I recalled a magazine article I'd read in which some self-help expert urged people to list the best and worst decisions they'd ever made, as a way of taking responsibility for their mistakes and understanding the faulty logic that had led to them. I got out a legal pad and drew a line down the middle. "Best Decisions," I wrote at the top of the left-hand column.

Uh. Let's see. Well, there was the time I refused a marriage proposal from Mr. Wrong—I figured that was to my credit. And yet, a few months ago when I was unpacking some moving cartons, I came across a packet of letters he had written me and thought what a shame it is that two people who once had so much in common could fall completely out of touch. So, though I don't for a minute doubt my decision, it did have some rather sad ramifications. There must be some other decisions I made that were better than this one. I let it stand, but I put it in parentheses.

Next I wrote: "1. Moving to Paris." Now that was absolutely the right thing to do. Although it was only a few months later that my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and I'm still sorry that I didn't spend more time with him in the years before he died. So I put that in parentheses too. Then I sat for a while and tried to think of another good decision I had made, but nothing came to mind, so I decided to move on and come back to this part.

For "Worst Decisions," there was no shortage of material. "1. Choice of college." For years I'd been wondering how different my life might have been if I'd gone to that fancy Ivy League school I got into but didn't attend because I found the students so intimidating. I would know things that I don't know now and have friends in lofty places. On the other hand, I would never have met two friends from my freshman year whom I now consider family. So maybe that wasn't such a terrible decision after all. I crossed it out. New number 1: "Staying in the wrong job too long." Okay! No doubt about it that was a mistake. And yet. I walked away with skills that helped me nail the next job. I gave this some thought, then crossed out that entry too.

This exercise was turning out to be harder than I expected. Doodling, I drew circles around the two entries on the right and arrows, as if to move them to the middle of the page, somewhere between best and worst. Then I drew circles around the two items in the left column and did the same. It was becoming apparent that both the good decisions and the bad ones had some mitigating consequences. Staring at my sheet of paper neatly bisected by a line where decisions from the left and right sides now converged, I came to the conclusion that there are no "right" decisions and no mistakes—or, anyway, not very many, and not as many as you might think.

And that gave me courage.

I tried to imagine how my life would change when I became a real estate developer. A few more phone calls, maybe. I could handle that. Design meetings with architects. Fun! There I'd be in some showroom, picking marble for the showers, choosing faucets. If you've read Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, you know that people contemplating future choices are limited by their own experience, and so we project our own distorted vision of things as we would like them to be, unable to foresee the grisly details and complications that will undermine the happiness we imagine. If only I'd read Gilbert's book before I bought the Granite Building…but not even Gilbert could have changed my mind. I still would have done what I went ahead and did.

Because, in the end, I had one thought that put all the others to rest: My life will be more interesting if I do this than if I don't.

I signed the papers. The word was out. For every person I met who congratulated me and wished me well, there were two who said Pittsburgh was hopeless, nothing would ever change, I must be nuts. I thanked them for their support.

There have been some glitches that I didn't foresee—that, quite frankly, no one could have foreseen. Any number of people with more experience in the field have come forward to volunteer their help. Sometimes this takes the form of free advice, much of it welcome. More often it has proved to be a bid to take the building off my hands. Some of these white knights turned out to be other developers who had been lined up behind me, back when I had the building under contract, waiting for me to come to my senses and walk away. They were still waiting. Just as soon as I realized that I was in over my head, desperate to get out, they would swoop in and buy at a discount. They gave me a few months to stew, and then the offers started coming in.

There was the developer who wanted to turn the building into student housing: People with the means to afford the condominiums I was offering, he contended, wanted to live in fancy suburbs. There was the developer sporting a dark tan in January, who prefaced our conversation by informing me that, although he was a Pittsburgh native, his success had enabled him to escape to Boca Raton. There was the developer who tried to frighten me by saying he'd be afraid to cross the street at night after parking in the garage directly opposite. "You would?" I asked, incredulous. Pittsburgh's crime rate is low, and my building is situated in the Cultural District, where there's plenty of activity in the evening. "Well," he said, "I wouldn't be afraid, but you should be—you're a woman." Like bad blind dates, these meetings confirmed my resolve to go it alone.

What my self-appointed white knights had failed to understand is that, although I had bought the Granite Building to live in it, that was by no means the only reason. In New York, Paris, Milan, I was a mere spectator, standing by and looking on while the landscape in which I lived was transformed, for better and for worse, by billionaires and corporations. But in Pittsburgh, I can call on my experience of other cities and make something happen.

Sometimes I wake up in a cold sweat before dawn and think about what my life will be like if I lose my shirt. I picture myself in some hovel, freezing in the winter, with nothing to my name but a few sticks of furniture donated by the handful of friends I will still have left (I know who you are). But alive, nonetheless, and able to read and write and go for walks along the river and do many of the other things that I enjoy. There are worse fates, I remind myself. And worse ways to lose your shirt.

Holly Brubach has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times .


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