In June, a loft in the Village was listed for just $4 million. It was a bargain — 5,800 square feet and views of Union Square Park in a building where similar-size units have gone for nearly $11 million. The price was due to one small hitch: The apartment has two Loft Law tenants with regulated rent and the right to renew their lease for life.
“We’ve been offered a lot of money to leave,” says Rob Mason, now 77, who lives in the loft with his wife, Mary Jan, 69. They pay a monthly rent that’s about the price of the average Washington Heights studio. “But we’ve looked all over the world for an alternative, and you can’t find anything like this.” He gestures around the apartment’s spacious back room, in which not even a brachiosaurus would feel claustrophobic.
When Mason arrived in 1976, it was an abandoned commercial space, full of asbestos, lead paint, and water damage, with no plumbing, electricity, or floorboards. Mason made the property habitable at his own peril and expense and lived there during the two-year process. He says he could have had the top-floor unit upstairs as well and combined the spaces into an 11,600-square-foot duplex, but it was the ’70s and he was worried about burglars coming in through the skylights. New York’s 1982 Loft Law was enacted to protect the tenants exactly like this.
But even among Loft Law tenants, Mason’s story is unique. For decades, the Masons’ apartment housed the recording facility RPM Studios, where many classic albums were made: Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly, Spacehog’s Resident Alien, the Beastie Boys’ Hello Nasty, and The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.
Mason funded the studio construction with the proceeds from a mid-’70s deal with Columbia Records. He had led the instrumental rock group Stardrive, in which he played one of the world’s first polyphonic keyboard synthesizers, an instrument he may have invented. The studio’s superior acoustics and expansive microphone collection soon attracted producer Phil Ramone to record Billy Joel and Paul Simon.
The Masons’ apartment was overrun by legends. Bob Marley, David Bowie, Tito Puente, Burning Spear, Mary J. Blige, and Tom Waits all tracked music there. Three-quarters of Led Zeppelin rehearsed at RPM before their 1985 reunion at Live Aid. The Rolling Stones held all-night parties during the making of 1986’s Dirty Work, requiring the Masons to adopt the band’s nocturnal schedule themselves. A few of Mason’s studio employees started a band, called themselves the Spin Doctors, and cut their hit 1992 single “Two Princes” at RPM.
At first, none of Mason’s clients thought much about working in a studio that was also somebody’s home. “When I opened the place, I was a cool guy, I was in these artists’ peer group, and I just happened to be living there,” he says. “But eventually it became a little awkward. You don’t want to run into a guy who’s 30 years older than you on the way to the bathroom.”
RPM shut down in 2004 after the New York Department of Buildings decided that running a commercial studio out of the Masons’ apartment violated an extremely uncool zoning regulation. Mason sold his equipment to a Nevada billionaire who used it to outfit his own studio on the Vegas Strip. Now the control booth contains a king-size bed where Mason sometimes takes naps.
Mason suspects the loft’s new owners — it was bought by a California developer — will split it into multiple units. How long must they wait? The Masons are both in good health and plan to age in place. “We have plenty of space for caretakers if we need them,” Mason says. Plus, with all the money they save on rent, they can afford to take advantage of the latest medical breakthroughs. Mason recently had a new tendon installed in his ankle: “I’m doing everything I can to live to 100.”
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