This just in: Alison Stewart, the host of the arts and culture talk show “All of It” on WNYC, is a self-described stalker.
Ms. Stewart stalks sofas and tables, paintings and photographs. She stalks buildings, too, which is how she came to buy an apartment in a Chelsea townhouse more than 20 years ago.
“I just became obsessed with it. I knew it was available, and I started walking down the street to look at it. And I would stand across the street and look in the windows at night,” said Ms. Stewart, 53, who is also the host of a new virtual book club partnership between WNYC and the New York Public Library, a community outreach response to the coronavirus.
Except perhaps for the loitering-with-intent part, Ms. Stewart’s real estate history in New York isn’t particularly notable. But possibly because of her occupation — she has reported and anchored for MTV, ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, NPR and MSNBC — Ms. Stewart knows how to dish up a story.
Thus, you get a vivid picture of the “weird apartment” she rented with her best friend near an SRO and a needle park on East 23rd Street when she was fresh out of college and new to the city. She expertly conjures the experience of subletting a sub-Lilliputian apartment on the Upper West Side: Vaulting was the only way to reach the bathroom once the convertible sofa was unfolded.
Alison Stewart, 53
Beautiful days in the neighborhood: “It’s too far west to be Union Square. And when I moved here, there was no High Line. The meatpacking district hadn’t become a destination. It was a little bit of a no man’s land, and I liked that.”
Before she ever went inside, what so captivated Ms. Stewart about the long, narrow townhouse in Chelsea was its whiff of old New York. “It looked quaint,” she said.
The neighborhood was equally appealing. “I liked that it wasn’t precious, that it was a very middle-class street. I thought, ‘This is a place where real people live and raise their kids.’”
But for a good long time, Ms. Stewart did nothing but admire the place from afar. The apartment — garden-level floor-through with fireplaces, exposed brick, a sunroom and outdoor space — had been on the market for a while. “But there was no movement on it,” she recalled. “I figured there was something wrong with it. There had to be.”
She learned, when she finally went to visit, that it was being ill-treated by the tenants, who were renting from the owner. But she could see past the holes in the walls, the hillocks of detritus and the unkempt backyard. When she went down to the basement, half of which came with the apartment, she could imagine the space free of the garish black-marble-and gold whirlpool tub.
Ms. Stewart bought the apartment, fixed what needed fixing, yanked out the Jacuzzi, put in a “plain-vanilla bathroom” and happily settled in.
Fast forward five years. One of the two apartments just above on the parlor floor became available. Ms. Stewart bought it and had a staircase installed to connect the spaces.
A few years later, after she got married (she and her husband have since split) and gave birth to a son, Isaac, Ms. Stewart began stalking her dream apartment on Franklin Street.
“I loved it, loved it, loved it. I still visit it online, but I just couldn’t get it together to do anything about it, and the truth is I loved where I was,” said Ms. Stewart, who, as things turned out, would soon have more to love: She made a very attractive offer to the owner of the other apartment on the parlor floor, who happily accepted and cleared out.
Renovation No. 3 soon commenced, leaving Ms. Stewart with a three-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bathroom apartment. Renovation No. 4 — installing new cabinets and a new backsplash in the kitchen and upgrading the appliances — was set to start in March, but the coronavirus has put the project on hold until the fall.
The virus also means that Ms. Stewart is broadcasting “All of It” from a corner of the living room where a studio has been assembled.
Ms. Stewart’s purchases are as well thought out as her on-air discussions. “I’ll see a piece of furniture in a magazine or a store window or online,” she said. “Whatever it is, I’ll stalk it a little bit.”
Such shadowed items include the surfboard-shaped dining table from Room & Board, a sofa that is currently on order and a sleek digital piano from the Museum of Modern Art Design Store. “I went there and visited it three times before buying,” she said.
“I’m not someone who can’t make a decision,” Ms. Stewart continued. “It’s just that I only buy things I love.”
Art is among those purchases. Works by Elizabeth Catlett, Diane Arbus, Alison Shaw, a photographer on Martha’s Vineyard, are represented in Ms. Stewart’s collection. She also has a much-cherished print of the haunting cover image of the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
As Ms. Stewart said, she knows what she likes. She favors furniture with simple, clean lines — for example, the reclaimed-wood desk with steel-pipe legs she found on Etsy.
She gravitates toward soft colors and fabrics, like the blue-gray microsuede that covers the two love seats. But she isn’t quite sure how she would define her aesthetic or her decorating style.
Actually, the décor can be summed up in a single word: family.
Ms. Stewart’s family is all over the house. They smile and gaze out from picture frames, wherever you turn. A narrow ledge in the stairwell holds photo after photo of her parents, her maternal and paternal grandparents, her great-grandparents and one great-great-grandparent. The built-in shelves in the living room display bits of pottery that Ms. Stewart inherited from her mother, books that belonged to her parents, a set of the Harvard Classics (a legacy from her maternal grandfather) and her son’s rock collection.
On the fireplace mantel in the living room sits a silver cocktail shaker that was part of the barware on the B & O Railroad. Ms. Stewart’s great-uncle worked as a Pullman porter in the car reserved for the president of the line.
“My uncle and my mom were allowed to ride in the car back and forth between Washington and New York,” Ms. Stewart said. “And the story goes that the president of the railroad gave the shaker to my mom at some point and told her Gloria Swanson used it when she took the car.”
These days, of course, cocktail hour, if observed at all, is observed at home. Fine with Ms. Stewart.
“I love being out and about. I love the idea of all the excitement and engagement and flash of the city. But I’m really a homebody, in many ways,” she said.
“Also, I think for middle-class, trying-to-make-it African-Americans, owning property is of big historical importance,” Ms. Stewart continued. “It’s something people can’t take away from you. For my parents’ generation, that was the big thing: Don’t owe anybody anything. Get your home. Own your home.”
She added: “That’s a big thing for me, too.”