F or generations of New Yorkers, there was practically just one place to go to grab the newest album, CD, computer or gadget–J&R Music and Computer World, the superstore on Park Row in Lower Manhattan.
The fabled emporium grew from a small storefront shop opened in 1971 by Joe Friedman–the “J”–and his bride Rachelle–the “R.” Both of them had been born in Israel and brought to America by their families when they were children. Each was a budding scientist, too.
“Joe was an electrical engineer, and I was studying chemistry at Polytech University,” Rachelle explained. “We had just gotten married and needed to make some money, so we decided to open up a little electronics store–electronics was the love of Joe’s life.”
“From our first meeting, it became a wonderful adventure. We started traveling to France. We went everywhere. I organized private tours of Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte. We went to all the fairs, sales rooms and dealers. They were very easy learners–really interested and passionate.
In the beginning, they juggled the business with academics. “I used to set up experiments at Polytech and then say, ‘Guys, keep an eye on my experiment while I run to the store,’ which was one subway stop away.”
“It just grew and grew,” she continues of J&R, which eventually occupied an entire blockfront.
On 9/11, the establishment became an even more iconic part of New York City. Just blocks from Ground Zero, it became a staging ground and refuge for First Responders. In the months after the tragedy, the Friedmans were among the first local business owners to commit to reopening and expanding even.
By then, the couple’s two sons had grown up and left the nest – a contemporary steel and glass residence the family had built on the North Shore of Long Island. For Joe and Rachelle, it was an opportunity to create their dream house. On the site of their longtime home, they set out to build a magnificent 18th-century French-style showplace. Opulent as it was going to be, they didn’t quite want a chateau. With the sparkling waters of Long Island Sound reflecting inside, they wanted something that would still feel light and airy. So, perhaps Louis XIV’s refined Grand Trianon provided them with their model.
Though Mr. and Mrs. Friedman had each been brought up with an appreciation for the details of European art and design, they needed a guide in their new endeavor. They found one when they read a magazine article about the restoration of a chateau in France overseen by the eminent interior designer Juan Pablo Molyneux. “I said to Joe, ‘This is the person for us,’” Rachelle recalls. “I made an appointment with him and he really started educating us and changing the way our eyes saw things.”
“From our first meeting, it became a wonderful adventure,” says Molyneux. “We started traveling to France. We went everywhere. I organized private tours of Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte. We went to all the fairs, sales rooms and dealers. They were very easy learners–really interested and passionate.”
“We loved the Old-World charm of the dealers,” Rachelle continues. “The first time we went to see Bernard Steinitz, we saw the boiserie and just fell in love with that whole look. Joe and I are both scientists. Maybe we were attracted to all this because it used a different part of our brains. We were attracted to the beauty, the detail, the history. Walking on old parquet de Versailles floors and hearing it creak gave me such a thrill.”
“My father had a wonderful relationship with Joe and Rachel,” says Benjamin Steinitz, who has run Galerie Steinitz since the death of his father in 2012. “They were very passionate people who followed my father’s love of 18th-century France. I remember Rachelle being so full of energy–she was vitality itself.”
In addition to Steinitz, the couple patronized Paris’ other leading dealers, including Ariane Dandois, Aveline and Segoura. “I loved their way of living, and the love they showed their furniture. Each time they sold a piece, it was like they were parting with a child,” says Rachel.
As the Friedmans’ collection grew–with classic French furniture and decorative arts from the Louis XIV to the Louis-Philippe periods–so did their new house, which was constructed from limestone and marble imported from France, and exquisitely fitted with Louis XV and Louis XVI-style plasterwork, paneling and decorative painting designed by Molyneux.
“The whole house is very authentic, but we didn’t want it to feel heavy or stodgy,” says Rachelle. “We were both young and living on the water. We wanted to invite the water in, through the big open windows. We also incorporated all the latest electronics into the house. Basically, you feel like you are in the South of France.”
This fall, a new generation of collectors will have the opportunity to live with outstanding pieces from the Collection of Joe and Rachelle Friedman, when Sotheby’s New York presents Long Island Trianon (14 September).
"We were attracted to the beauty, the detail, the history. Walking on old parquet de Versailles floors and hearing it creak gave me such a thrill.”
The sale is a testament to a couple who had the conviction to follow their passion and create the American Dream, on their own terms.
“On 9/11, Joe and Rachelle showed such patriotism–what could be more American than that, I don’t know,” says Molyneux. “But their personality is beyond frontiers and borders.”