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A Townhouse With a Tree House in the Backyard

The controversial tree house. Photo: MW Studio for Brown Harris Stevens

The townhouse at 50 West 12th Street, situated in a neighborhood of frankenmansions, also offers two houses for one, although not quite in the manner of its West Village neighbors: There’s a delightful tree house in the backyard. “It certainly was a unique feature that people were taken by,” says Richard Orenstein, of Brown Harris Stevens, who had the listing. So taken, in fact, that it became something of a problem during showings. “Kids would go in and not want to leave. There were a lot of temper tantrums.”

The house, owned for nearly two decades by the artist Melinda Hackett, has sold for $14 million, according to city records. (The sale was first reported by Downtown News.) It was listed earlier this year for $15.5 million.

Hackett bought the property from Talking Heads frontman David Byrne in 2005 (the asking price was $5.9 million back then, which sounds downright cheap now). She built the tree house around a London plane tree for her three young daughters, whom she’d moved with from the country after a divorce. “They were used to running around outside and swinging off trees and playing in the fields,” she told the Associated Press. “It’s already nice they have a garden; that was a consideration when I bought this place. But to have a tree house would be an extra-special thing for them.”

Soon, however, she learned that such freewheeling whims don’t fly in the West Village. A neighbor tattled — she didn’t have a building permit and the house is in a historic district — but an architect helped her argue her case before landmarks, which ultimately approved the backyard structure on the grounds that it couldn’t be seen from the street. “It’s the little tree house that could,” Hackett told the AP. And it’s hardly some rough-hewn amateur fort — it’s a carpenter-crafted, cylindrical structure with its own twisting staircase, although in listing photos it’s far more elegantly turned out than the bean-bag and comic-book aesthetic when her daughters reigned.

The five-story house has more than 5,000 square feet (not including the tree house), five wood-burning fireplaces, an elegant curving staircase, and lots of historic details, in addition to an elevator and a roof terrace. There are three bedrooms, a guest suite, and atelier on the top floor lit by a big, dramatic skylight. But the vibe is more eclectic artist than master of the universe — the kitchen has green checkerboard floors, basic white appliances, and what Orenstein told me was David Byrne’s fridge. “It had all these wild stickers from the ’70s and ’80s,” he says. “The last owner really liked the spirit of the place.”

Louise Phillips Forbes, the Brown Harris Stevens broker who represented the buyers, a limited-liability company registered in Delaware, declined to provide any details about the new owners, but she did say they also loved the house’s spirit. “In the Village, you see all these old houses that need to be completely renovated or else they’re all shiny new pennies. Not a lot of them have a soul. This one does.”

The new owners, Forbes adds, will be doing some renovations, making sure to preserve the home’s original detail and charm. Most likely not the tree house, though. “I don’t know if the tree house will survive,” she says.

The townhouse has original moldings and other historic detail. Photo: MW Studio for Brown Harris Stevens
Artist Melinda Hackett purchased the property from David Byrne, of the Talking Heads, in 2005. Photo: MW Studio for Brown Harris Stevens
The kitchen hasn’t been renovated in some time, but it also still has David Byrne’s refrigerator with vintage stickers. Photo: MW Studio for Brown Harris Stevens
The townhouse has five stories and five wood-burning fireplaces. Photo: MW Studio for Brown Harris Stevens
“In the Village, you see all these old houses that need to be completely renovated or else they’re all shiny new pennies. Not a lot of them have a soul. This one does,” says Louise Phillips Forbes, who represented the buyers. Photo: MW Studio for Brown Harris Stevens
The house recently sold for $14 million. Photo: MW Studio for Brown Harris Stevens
A skylight was added around 1915. Photo: MW Studio for Brown Harris Stevens
The backyard. Photo: MW Studio for Brown Harris Stevens
The seller moved in with her young daughters almost a decade ago. Photo: MW Studio for Brown Harris Stevens
The tree-house interior, as it is now. When her daughters used the space, Hackett told the AP she never visited without an invitation. Photo: MW Studio for Brown Harris Stevens
The home also has a terrace. Photo: MW Studio for Brown Harris Stevens
David Byrne removed the wallpaper and liked how the exposed plaster looked so left it, according to seller’s broker, Richard Orenstein. The seller also liked the aesthetic. Photo: MW Studio for Brown Harris Stevens
One of the home’s bedrooms. Photo: MW Studio for Brown Harris Stevens
The tree house, which the last owner fought to keep up and the new owners are disinclined to leave up. Photo: MW Studio for Brown Harris Stevens
A Townhouse With a Tree House in the Backyard