The Hot Seat: Margaret Sullivan


We are relaunching the Hot Seat, Brownstoner’s interview series with folks doing interesting things around Brooklyn. In honor of Openhousenewyork, kicking off tomorrow and lasting through the weekend, we chatted with Margaret Sullivan, OHNY’s Board President. Margaret is also the Director of Interior Design at H3 Hardy Collaboration Architecture.

Brownstoner: How did you become involved in, and end up on the board of, Openhousenewyork?
Margaret Sullivan: I was invited by a coworker of mine at what was then Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer to attend an OHNY volunteer recruitment session. At the time, I not only was working full-time, I was a volunteer docent at the Guggenheim and pregnant with my first child, so I said I would go, but that I had no more time for additional extra-curricular activities. But when Scott Lauer, OHNY’s founder, spoke about the idea of Openhousenewyork, I knew that I had to get involved. His pitch resonated with me: to plan an event that would expose diverse audiences to quality design and educate us all about the importance of design in our daily lives. So I signed up for the Benefit Committee, not knowing a thing about party planning or fundraising! And the rest is history!

Even during my maternity leave, I would bring my newborn, Frank, to the OHNY offices in his baby carrier and sit him on the desk. While he napped, I would hand-write thank you letters, post-benefit. About three years later, I joined the board. In 2008 I was interim executive director for six months, and I’ve been board president for three years. It has been truly remarkable to see this amazing organization take off and become so much more than we ever imagined!

After the jump, Margaret talks about what goes into producing the once-a-year event, her favorite interiors in the city, and what architect Hugh Hardy is up to in Brooklyn…
BS: Openhousenewyork is a big weekend in the city that only happens once a year. Can you explain what goes into producing it?
MS: An incredible amount of work! We have three full-time staff that plan a two-day event for hundreds of thousands of visitors. Plus, as a nonprofit, we have all of that work effort related to benefits, fundraisers, galas, grant writing, etc. We also offer year-round programs, including the incredibly popular Openstudios series and summer boat rides. With the staff, volunteers and an active board, we accomplish an amazing amount of programming each year. I realized that all total we have about 350 sites and programs during OHNY Weekend, which translates into the planning of one event per day. Having also been a site sponsor and knowing what the coordination entails, that made perfect sense to me.

One of the reasons that we can have an event at such a grand scale is because of how much work the site sponsors engage in for planning and preparing. And they do it all as volunteers as well. That is one of the things that I am most proud of regarding OHNY — that we are a free, accessible event that is made possible by the incredible generosity and donated time of our site and program sponsors. This creates the goodwill and the generosity of spirit that characterizes OHNY Weekend.

BS: Why is it important that New Yorkers have access to the spaces offered during OHNY?
MS: It is important because we offer the opportunity to experience this great city in ways unlike any other organization! We provide access to spaces, places and the people who are responsible for their creation through an actual experience, and that is unique. From that experience, we hope to generate a sense of ownership of the city and the opportunity to create informed opinions about what makes for great design. This generates in all of us a heightened sense of what makes for a vibrant, livable city and provides us with the tools to express our expectations for quality in planning, design, and construction. And, at the same time, we create an event that is a city-wide festival where hundreds and thousands come together to celebrate the best this city has to offer — and that, in and of itself, is important!

BS: You’re also the director of interior design at H3 Hardy Architecture, which was just involved with the design of BAM’s new Fisher Building. What’s the firm working on in Brooklyn right now?
MS: Yes, we are so proud of BAM’s new Fisher Building! I just took my 5-year old son to the opening block party and we had such a great time. Just down the street, we are currently in construction on Theatre for a New Audience with Sciame Construction – also a part of the Downtown Brooklyn Cultural District. It will be the first theater built in New York City for Shakespeare and classic drama since the Vivian Beaumont at Lincoln Center in the 1960s. It will be clad in sleek dark metal panels and glass and will be a great contrast to the brick in Brooklyn. And I love the Barry McGee mural on the side of the Mark Morris Dance Center — it is going to make for a very cool block!


Theatre for a New Audience

We are also about to begin work on turning the Tobacco Warehouse into a new home for St. Anne’s Warehouse. That project has had its share of fits and starts, which your readers are certain to know, but it is a great project and we are so pleased that it is going forward.


Tobacco Warehouse

Oh, and I have to plug OHNY! We will be offering hard hat tours of TFANA, BAM will be open and Mark Morris Dance Company is a site — a 10 year site — so you will get a commemorative button when you stop by there!

BS: Can you tell us about some of your favorite interior projects in New York?
MS: There are so many! Well, I have three categories: One, amazing spaces; two, decorative — like guilty pleasure decorative! — and three, interiors that are fun, playful and have a sense of humor…

Amazing spaces: When I think about amazing, grand spaces, I think about the type of place that gives creates a sense of awe and gives us pause from our daily lives – and one reason for that is because they break up the city grid – which is the construct of New York City efficiency. So, of course Grand Central Station, the Guggenheim Museum (I just love the way that space was designed for people), the Great Hall at City College, St. Bart’s Church, The Met’s Temple of Dendur – as a party room, there is nothing more dramatic, the Reading Room of the New York Public Library, Joseph Urban’s Tishman Auditorium at the New School, the Ford Foundation atrium, the lobby of the Hearst Building – the offset of the escalators is genius! The great industrial warehouses of Red Hook, and, of course, the TWA Terminal in Queens and the Brooklyn Army Terminal – both quintessential OHNY Weekend offerings!

Decorative: I’m going to sound biased since my firm was responsible for the restoration of the first three of these (and I am) — Radio City Music Hall because every surface is considered, the New Amsterdam Theater with the luscious terra cotta in greens and blues and Central Synagogue — I am just blown away every time I go. Also, the reception rooms and the company rooms of the Park Avenue Armory are exquisite — I have been dying to have these spaces offered during OHNY and am so thrilled that we are this year!

Fun, Playful Interiors: Diller, Scofidio + Renfro’s Brasserie, the Prada store in Soho — it is like a Disneyland for grown-ups, Steven Holl’s stairwell at NYU’s Department of Philosophy — that space is positively sacred! Rockwell’s new space for the Film Society of Lincoln Center — I took my son to see a movie in the “family room for Lincoln Center” and it really was that — a family room, the Taschen store in Soho — I love the colorful Beatriz Milhazes murals against the wood shelves and exposed concrete. The great new boutique hotels: Hotel Americano, the Wythe Hotel, but I still love the Paramount Hotel and the Hudson Hotel — that Ian Schrager and Phillipe Stark pairing really transformed a design approach to interiors — and you can still see it being acknowledged all over the city in new projects even today.


Steven Holl stairwell, NYU Department of Philosophy

BS: Finally, your favorites: favorite building in New York City, favorite Brooklyn neighborhood, and favorite tour offered through OHNY.
MS: By now, you know I can’t mention just one favorite building in New York City. My classics are: the Chrysler Building (although my kids will be dismayed that I didn’t say Empire State Building), the Lever House (as opposed to the Seagram Building- the Lever House is just extraordinarily cool and the restoration is perfect!) and my new favorite building – to acknowledge the great building renaissance of the past decade – is 41 Copper Square by Morphosis for the Cooper Union. It is so contemporary and aggressive and wonderful.

My favorite Brooklyn neighborhood is Dumbo. Since I’ve never lived in Brooklyn, I am always a tourist and I’ve enjoyed going to the artists and architects studios and seeing it develop over the years. I went to a happening at an artist’s studio when I was in my early 20’s and was just there recently – in the same building – to see Tom Fruin’s Watertower piece. It’s fun to see neighborhoods evolve. I also love that view from Jay Street of the Manhattan Bridge… the way the buildings frame it, with Manhattan beyond.

Oh! I cannot say that I have a favorite OHNY tour or site program! It is like asking to name my favorite child. Though the quintessential site is most definitely the TWA Terminal — access to a space not normally opened to the public, completely free and able to accommodate large numbers. But, goodnesss, there are so many great sites and so many great people involved. How can one possibly choose?!?!

TWA Terminal