a truly terrific new york listing

A Basically Perfect West Village Duplex

Dion Birney loved the idea of a red room but was warned against painting a room red if one spent a lot of time there. Instead, he slathered walls in the entryway, where he tends to pass through quickly. Photo: Marili Forastieri

When the broker Lisa Vaamonde tours buyers through the duplex at 23 Bethune Street, she often gets the same question: Are the owners taking everything? All the furniture? All the art? Yes, she says. That’s because the armchairs are heirlooms, the paintings are by friends, and everything has a backstory. “The space is very personal,” she says. “And I think that’s what people love about it.”

Dion Birney, a retired psychotherapist and former poetry teacher, bought the place in 1982 with a cash loan from his parents. (“They were pretty cool.”) He was drawn to the apartment’s bones (and the building itself, an 1834 Greek Revival on a quiet, perfect street). From the entrance, an arch framed the living room. Light poured through the south and north windows, whose moldings featured original rosettes, and the place was brimming with fireplaces. A few years later, Birney bought a studio above him, combining the two units with a spiral staircase and turning the upper floor into a primary suite. An old kitchen’s drop ceiling stayed, giving the space around the bed the feel of a private canopy. A few years later, his husband, Todd Olson, moved in. A naturalist, Olson brought a green thumb and filled the back terrace with lush plants.

Over the years, Birney filled the space almost wall-to-wall with books, family heirlooms, mementos, and precious antiques Chinese art from his grandparents’ 1919 honeymoon, a Japanese table given to him from a great aunt, and a pair of armchairs featuring crewelwork by his grandmother, now hidden beneath striped slipcovers. On a stay at an ex’s home in East Hampton he admired a painting — which was gifted to him. He collected Buddhist figurines, and one, on a fireplace, ended up wearing a necklace. “It’s an accumulation,” he said. “I just put everything I know into a room.”

The building is an accumulation, too, of aesthete tenants. In 1932, the socialist painter Ben Shahn moved in. Shahn then convinced the photographer Walker Evans to move into the garden unit. When Evans was away, he’d rent his space to the film critic Jay Leyda and the writer John Cheever. One floor up lived the painter Moses Soyer. Over the years that Birney has lived in the apartment, the block has continued to change along with the rest of the neighborhood (in 2020, Marc Jacobs sold a townhouse on the block for $10.5 million). But he likes to think he’s kept his place more aligned with the ethos of the building’s past tenants. “There’s no doubt this has been my creation for 40 years,” he said. “It’s been an outlet for many of my creative urges.”

It’s been an outlet for Olson, his husband, too. Vaamonde notices something new on every tour, and found herself fascinated by a series of paintings in the bedroom above a fireplace — small, complex abstractions. What were they? “Oh,” said Olson. “Those are by my mother.”

The 1834 Greek Revival townhome, part of a preserved row, played a role in the neighborhood’s bohemian past. Photo: Marili Forastieri
The front parlor looks over Bethune Street. After Dion Birney moved in, in 1983, his grandmother died and he inherited her armchairs. A Shaker wheel came from a nearby antiques store. Eastern art came from his grandparents’ 1919 honeymoon to China. Photo: Marili Forastieri
Above the sofa in the living room is a large canvas by a friend of a view of The Maidstone Club in East Hampton. Out of frame is a fireplace and a door to a small office or den that leads out to the terrace. Photo: Marili Forastieri
The spiral staircase leads to a primary suite on the fourth floor. Family photos hang over the staircase. Paintings by Dorothy Olson, Todd’s mother, hang over the fireplace. To the left of the fireplace are illustrations of Paris street scenes that were owned by Birney’s grandmother. Photo: Marili Forastieri
Birney took out the studio’s old kitchen but kept its lower ceiling to create an intimate space over his bed. Birney, who studied literature and taught poetry, walled himself in with books. Photo: Marili Forastieri
The terrace sits in the back of the building, removed from the bustle of the street — a perfect spot for reading. The main entrance is on the third floor, but an improvised ladder down from the fourth floor bedroom also gives access. Photo: Marili Forastieri
Olson, a manager at the Wildlife Conservation Society, has tended the plants here for decades. “I think I brought a potted plant out once, and that was it,” remembered Birney. Photo: Marili Forastieri
The kitchen layout reminded Birney of a butler’s pantry in an old mansion. “I wanted it to have that feeling,” he said. The couple renovated in 2004. Photo: Marili Forastieri
Birney used red throughout the apartment to pick up on the color in the foyer. A water jug sits on an antique shelf that Birney found on the street. “That’s a little design secret of mine,” he said. Photo: Marili Forastieri
A Basically Perfect West Village Duplex