Master Builder Michael Parkinson's Houses Aren't Homes, but It Takes a Kennedy to Afford Them

updated 04/14/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/14/1980 01:00AM

At 26, Michael Parkinson already qualifies as one of those arrogant Manhattan builders who not only construct a house but also tell the owner how to decorate it. "A typical case of Kennedy tackiness," muttered Parkinson when Jean Kennedy Smith stuck a mirror over a mantel, marring her Parkinson-built mansion. But the Kennedys are used to his biting comments. Ethel Kennedy has known Michael since he was a schoolboy palling around with young David and Bobby Jr. It was Bobby who commissioned Parkinson to do two of his earliest works, and other members of the family were soon weighing in with orders. Parkinson's designs, of course, are smaller than his ego. He creates miniatures, or "house portraiture," as he labels his art.

The ceramic replicas are not exact scale models, but the process is so painstaking (he spent 450 hours on one home) that he is now receiving as much as $4,000 for his handiwork. Parkinson photographs and measures the original from every angle and makes meticulous notes before going to work in his Bowery studio. Unflattering details, such as flaking paint or unclipped shrubbery, are omitted, although, he says, "I do include garbage cans." The size of the rendering is up to the owner. Interior lighting is optional.

Parkinson sculpts the hundreds of minute details ("Believe me, 100 windows take forever") with dental-type tools he has designed. With them he re-creates ivy, gutters and latticework out of clay. Glazing to achieve the correct colors can take as long as the sculpting. "When you deduct studio costs, materials and firings," says the artist, who grossed $30,000 last year, "it bottoms out to a daily pizza for lunch. My work's a giveaway. I now charge $10 an hour. Plumbers make $25 and don't know a thing except about pipes and how to get dirty."

Parkinson attributes his success modestly to "raw talent," but connections didn't hurt. His father is a retired Shell Oil executive and banker, and his mother used to decorate the windows at Henri Bendel. Michael attended the posh Millbrook School (with RFK Jr.) in Millbrook, N.Y. and then studied art at the Pratt Institute. . For a while he made porcelain houses with removable tops that were sold at Bendel's and boutiques but soon dropped that line of work as being beneath his artistic dignity. "My models are not meant to be ashtrays," he harrumphs.

His penchant for high living has sometimes outdistanced his art productivity. A rich godfather bailed him out by getting him assignments after he "blew a lot of money on boats and stuff." A live-in shipmate, a 36-year-old mother of two, had helped him buy and crew an 85-foot yacht. That romance has since been jettisoned.

Now, Parkinson says, he is determined "to forget about my wealthy past." But he and RFK Jr. still make the scene together at Manhattan discos. In fact, Bobby asked him to do a ceramic miniature of the Xenon interior. Parkinson demurred: "I'm just not into insides." He believes the ultimate challenge would be a replica of Hugh Hefner's Chicago Playboy mansion. He also would like to try his hand at monumental street sculpture.

Parkinson houses, though, are still the hot properties. To relax, the bachelor artist stalks the roof of his East Side apartment building blowing his bagpipes (a hobby he picked up in 1970) and occasionally his own horn. "I like beautiful, classy things and these people do, too," he says, explaining his appeal to his patrons. "I guess I am a snob. I simply prefer the rich."

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