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A Leafy Backyard Compound in Clinton Hill

Behind the nondescript walls of a onetime shoe factory is a lush garden shared by three families.

Artist and designer Yolande Milan Batteau with her daughter, Leilani. Photo: Annie Schlechter
Artist and designer Yolande Milan Batteau with her daughter, Leilani. Photo: Annie Schlechter

You’d never know, walking by the 19th-century factory building in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill, that there is a lush and shady oasis, alive and secluded, just behind its walls. The leafy compound is planted with dogwood, Japanese maples, azaleas, rhododendrons, and ferns, but it’s the decades-old twisted, climbing, implacable wisteria that defines this communal Eden that Yolande Milan Batteau, an artist and designer, shares with two other families. Batteau first rented a basement space — which she calls her “cave” — on the property as her studio in 2004. That was just the beginning of her real-estate takeover. Over the next several years, she annexed the entire wisteria-covered triplex across the garden. Today, she and her 17-year-old daughter, Leilani, and their two dogs, Kitsune and Misaki, live in a bucolic confluence of studio and residential space.

“We always have at least two bird’s nests going,” says Batteau. “There are some doves with fledglings now.” She worries that the squirrels and the crows might get them. “There is this life cycle that goes on here, where doves will mate, and they’ll build a nest, and then they’ll have fledglings, and sometimes they make it and sometimes they don’t. It’s just this crazy natural thing.”

Batteau found the studio on Craigslist. The artist Tom Clancy had bought the former shoe factory in the 1980s, when the courtyard where the garden is now was waist-high in detritus. Clancy and his family spent decades cleaning it out; they planted trees and built walls using old cobblestones, then decided to rent it out.

“I showed up, and there were 20 people here at 9 a.m. to see that space,” Batteau recalls. “There was probably somebody more qualified than me, and I looked into Clancy’s eyes and said, ‘You can’t rent this to anybody but me. I am made for this place.’ ”

It’s one of those places you might’ve dreamed about during lockdown — the ultimate quarantine pod for three families. “We made ourselves a victory garden that has vegetables and herbs to show the little girls and Leilani that two or three square yards is enough to feed a family,” Batteau says. “But then I’ve put in sort of esoteric things like hellebores and black grasses,” which thrive in the shade. In the past, “we’ve all planted strawberries and blueberries, and then when the fruit comes, we all literally just walk out in the morning and eat the fruit off the bushes on the side.”

Outside the Sunken Studio: The gravel and flagstone path leads to Batteau’s studio and a spiral stair, which continues up to the third-floor roof-deck and a wisteria-covered walkway. The stone walls were made of old cobblestone pavers salvaged from the neighborhood. The terracing was done with soil that was dug out of the site of her current studio. Photo: Annie Schlechter
Inside the Sunken Studio: Batteau started renting this sunken studio at the far end of the garden in 2004. It is where she meets clients to review projects and design new wall coverings. Photo: Annie Schlechter

Once past the front door of Batteau’s space, you’re situated on the landing, where you can see the garden level of the living room and kitchen downstairs. Upstairs, the second floor is a gallery space. The third floor holds the bedrooms. In the back of the garden is the cave, which she uses as the design studio for her art and architecture business, Callidus Guild. (She also has a 7,000-square-foot facility in Williamsburg where she produces artisanal wallpaper.)

Batteau’s grandfather taught at Harvard and was friends with Isaac Asimov, and her grandmother was a Puerto Rican immigrant who had six children and created the first translation department for the federal courts. “My father, David Hurst Batteau, is a musician, and Clive Davis did his first record; Frank Sinatra paid for his first demo.” Batteau studied at the San Francisco Art Institute, spent a semester at the Sorbonne, and traveled East Africa by herself for a year and a half before deciding to settle down in New York. She got her start in 2000 when Peter Marino Architect hired her to design wall coverings for Chanel flagship stores. “You are really working with the best. It is the most difficult studio in the world to work with,” Batteau says of Marino’s firm. “He has complete confidence in his own taste, so I could be this young painter and he was willing to have me do all the Chanel stores.”

She knows she’s lucky. “The city has given me as close to the life of my dreams as possible.”

The Living Room and Upstairs Gallery: The triplex includes her open living-room/dining/kitchen area downstairs, where some of her collection of ancient Persian bronze oil-burning lamps sit on top of a cabinet as you enter; the second story seen here is now used as gallery space. Photo: Annie Schlechter
The Gallery: Batteau now uses this space, formerly her wallpaper studio, as a gallery (Avery Gregory and Richard Hart recently had a show there). The ca. 1928 Grand Comfort chairs are by Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Charlotte Perriand. A Meiji-period wood table sits on the floor between them. The two pieces on the wall are, above left, End of Civilization, Herculaneum (2019) and, right, End of Civilization, Pompeii, (2019), both by Batteau. Photo: Annie Schlechter
The Garden: Batteau’s living room/kitchen has access to the garden with her neighbor’s stair seen nearby. The different levels and pathways have been cultivated over decades by her landlord, Tom Clancy, and his family, as well as by Benito Salazar, the man who has kept the garden going over the years. Photo: Annie Schlechter
The Living Room’s Exterior: The decades-old wisteria vine has grown its way around the entire garden. If you look closely, it has captured an old fire hydrant. Doves often nest in it. Photo: Annie Schlechter
The Living Room: Two vintage sofas sit beside the wood-burning stove, the primary source of heat for the apartment. The hanging selenite mirror on the wall is by Batteau. Photo: Annie Schlechter
The Kitchen: On one side of the garden-level floor, Batteau’s kitchen is still as Clancy created it with old-school blackboards as countertops and joists as lintels. The floors were laid with bricks salvaged from a Brooklyn factory. Batteau’s friend Tyler Hays, BDDW’s owner, designed the dining table. The chairs are by Børge Mogensen, and the water-gilded panel on the wall above the table is by Batteau. Photo: Annie Schlechter
The Rooftop: The wisteria is particularly fragrant on the rooftop, where Batteau has access to the terrace from her third floor, seen here. Photo: Annie Schlechter
The Rooftop: Batteau’s daughter, Leilani, enjoys reading and studying in the hammock on the top-floor level alongside the roof terrace. Photo: Annie Schlechter

*A version of this article appears in the June 8, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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