Artist and designer Rad Roubeni has made it his mission to preserve ephemeral street art and graffiti through photography. (See our earlier interview with him about his piece of the Berlin Wall.) So when he got the opportunity to purchase a historic Williamsburg home previously featured as the apartment of Kate Winslet’s character in Michel Gondry’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his instinct was to preserve the place.
Unfortunately, by the time Roubeni and his partners, which include the development company Astral Weeks, bought the building at 59 Orient Ave., it had fallen into disrepair and was inhabited by squatters, as The Brooklyn Paper reported. “It’s pretty amazing for something that had such an amazing history, in a very major film production [to be] sitting abandoned there for so many years just housing squatters and drug addicts,” says Roubeni. “It’s pretty crazy.” The group ended up tearing the building down and putting up a new one, which Roubeni designed. Along the way, though, they did their best to preserve its charm as well as some of its artifacts.
“I don’t like how the new, modern structures that are going up all over Williamsburg and Brooklyn and kind of changing the face of Brooklyn, of its old past,” says Roubeni. "Brooklyn has a certain kind of charm that I wanted to preserve, so I concentrated a lot on ... having elements that fit into the neighborhood.”
The original building, which Roubeni says was built in 1899, was a three-story brown-shingled single-family home with a sort of look-out tower on top. In Gondry's film, the apartment appears briefly and seems in okay shape.
By the time Roubeni and his partners acquired the building in 2010, it was a broken-down version of its former self. In Roubeni’s photos of the old house, the walls are bared to their studs and the place is on the way to decay, with ghostly remnants of its homey past: lights of a remaining chandelier point every which way, and several Victorian-style pieces of furniture are scattered around, including a cabinet full of china. As for mementos of the squatter era, Roubeni found a 10-page letter, written on white lined paper from a woman named Dyanne to her apparent lover, Tim. He had tagged his name on the wall in the house, Roubeni said.
This 2008 letter from Dyanne to Tim, found in the house before it was torn down, spans the period slightly over two weeks before Dyanne was set to be released from prison, according to the letters. She tells him she hopes they will be able to find each other when she gets back to Brooklyn.
Roubeni gave the furniture to a refurbisher, saved the letter, and took photo after photo of the old house, some of which he used as backdrops for his fashion photography.
The new structure, a four-story, 16-unit brick apartment building, has balconies rimmed with steel beams that were subjected to a rusting process in order to make them look aged. (It's apparently one of the hardest parts of the project.) The apartments were rented even before construction was finished, Roubeni says.
Roubeni still thinks back to Tim and Dyanne and wonders what became of them: “I read the letters again, and I got to say it's quite amazing stuff.”