At Home with Zeb Stewart of Union Pool

[Ed. note: This feature first appeared in print in spring 2011, but was lost to the internet… We figured it was still worth a look.]

There’s something awfully familiar about Zeb Stewart’s house, and it’s not just the elements and aesthetic decisions it shares with Stewart’s trio of Williamsburg hotspots, Hotel Delmano, Cafe Colette, and Union Pool. Sure, the lighting is perfect, from morning into evening. His furnishings are a cunning blend of old and older, well-worn wood counters married to repurposed-paneling cabinetry, all backed up by solid chunks of contemporary built-ins. A massive chrome espresso machine gleams on the counter. “It’s going to go into some future project, I’m not sure where,” says Stewart, when asked if it’s hooked up for home use (it’s not).

All of this is housed in an old brewery office, its 12- or 14-foot-high ceilings bedecked with restrained paintings of hops vines and barley plants, its massive doors with frosted-glass panels labeled “Private Space,” “Telephone,” and “Toilet” refitted for the bathroom and pantry. Original, built-in mahogany shades cover the windows. On an otherwise unremarkable block in Bushwick, the brick building comprises not only the living space Stewart shares with his partner Erin Gerken and their French Bulldog-Boston Terrier mix Hank, but also a studio/workspace, a garage and a soon-to-be summer kitchen/guest quarters which opens onto an enclosed courtyard, complete with wrought-iron gates and a massive grill whose grate rests on the arms of a forklift.

Maybe it’s the forklift, or the 70s Jensen sports car parked in the garage, but like a bolt from the blue it hits: chez Stewart is like nothing more than a Brooklyn super-hero hideaway, for a man whose super powers are all in the arts of hospitality. He cooks, he invents his own cocktails, and he’s recently been working at making his own soda—both sweet and, hold on to your hat, salty. In lieu of purpose-built weaponry, cabinets open to reveal shelves of cocktail and wine glasses, ready for deployment at a moment’s notice. The chef’s stove is joined by a sink of almost alarming depth, and the normal batterie de cuisine is supplemented by an industrial-sized manual coffee grinder and a device of Zeb’s own invention, a modified, sawed-off tagine lid he calls the inferno: “I’m working on a second version right now.” It superheats food being cooked in a pan on the stovetop—shazam! No broilers needed.

Stewart’s origin story? For starters, he comes by the building and tinkering honestly—his grandfather was an inventor of the CB radio. He was born on an island off the coast of British Columbia, in a handmade geodesic dome, the son of an American draft dodger: his dad delivered him, following the instructions in a how-to manual written for taxi drivers in case a laboring passenger doesn’t make it to the hospital. Zeb’s just unearthed a stack of photos from his (very) early childhood, and they are both amazing cultural artifacts and unbelievably clear distillations of present-day Brooklyn style, which Stewart’s played a more-than-passing role in creating.

There’s the dome, as if lifted from the pages of the book Shelter, or maybe an early issue of Mother Earth News; there’s a guy in picture-perfect classic workwear—his outfit’s 2011 equivalent would set you back $600 or $700 in a Brooklyn boutique, but back then it was just Wranglers, Redwings, and a couple of layers of chambray and denim. In another photo, Stewart’s father out-beards the best of Bedford Avenue, and a handcrafted sauna looks like it could have been the inspiration for several dozen Greenpoint/Bushwick/Red Hook bars.

Amazingly, Stewart’s never quite mined this aesthetic for his own work, at home or in any of his businesses. Hotel Delmano is distressed, aged, but also elegant and Old World. He uses Edison bulbs, but “only because they’re the lowest wattage,” not because he wants a place to look like a Goldrush saloon. Sophistication always wins out over rusticity, polish over fabricated “authenticity.” Superheros never wear workclothes, and hideaways are never hideyholes.

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