When asked what he does for a living, Aaron Gruenberg ’82 laughs and says, “I renovate bathrooms!” As the president and senior craftsman of Green Mountain Construction & Design , Gruenberg tackles restorations from the Victorian to the Art Deco periods. He does custom woodworking, and designs and renovates building interiors. Based in New York, his workshop in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
What brought you to Antioch College? What was your major? It wasn’t my choice; my parents met at Antioch College and I was conceived on co-op. I skipped my senior year of high school and came to Antioch instead. I had an older girlfriend who [chose Antioch College] on her own…I came back at her encouragement. It was a fairly spontaneous decision.
I didn’t really have an appreciation for [Antioch College]. It was literally in my blood and I didn’t get that Antioch College alumni are imaginative, competent leaders in their fields. I was at the Reunion three years ago, and an obstetrician from Springfield was there. I was standing around with three people he had delivered, but not me—another OB in Springfield delivered me. It was a weird experience.
I graduated with a history degree. I had a double major of history and fine art. I was there when payroll was suspended for several months, and we lost a lot of people, so I dropped the fine art. Later I got an MFA at Brooklyn College. The training in art, history and art history all come together in my business.
Who were some professors that made a huge impact on you? What were your favorite co-op jobs? My advisor, Fred Hoxie, had his first teaching job outside of graduate school at Antioch College. He taught me a lot of methodology: how to read graphs and statistics—basics. He kept one-page synopses of all the books he’d ever read—there were thousands. His book Parading Through History is a great read about the Crow Indians, but really helps explain all of American history. And, Tom Haugsby, who told me I would never have to hammer nails. He was right: I also use nail guns, but I often choose to hammer them.
Co-ops: Let’s see. One where I did craftsmanship; I worked at a small press and foundry—the place was just getting started. A bunch of artists and former college art faculty took over an abandoned elementary school in Atlanta, Georgia, now the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. I learned about papermaking by hand, little knowing the Antioch connection to Tim Barrett. We cast bronze and aluminum for artists from all over the Southeast. I was there for my first two co-ops. Another job was in Chicago. I fell in love with the city. Before I graduated, Budd Hoggarty got me another job in Chicago, this one with Donna Pressma, so I could move there. Chicago is still home to me, even more than Brooklyn.
If you could bring one thing to the future of Antioch College, what would it be? I would add a major tenet in addition to co-op, community governance, and classroom: volunteerism. It’s not a “c,” but I would like the spirit of the first year or two [of the revival movement] to become a permanent fixture. A lot more of us have our experience to contribute. Among us, we have a real ability to help educate students and develop programs. I would like volunteer contributions to be given the same weight or higher than financial contributions. [I propose] a major new commitment. It is kind of an adult extension of our commitment to co-op. We will be much more successful at raising dollars, if we can harness our desire to contribute as volunteers. It will require a big, big investment including staff and a structure of volunteer managers, but it would be a major asset, something new we will be known for.
Why do you give to Antioch College?I support anything that can address the struggle I see out my window. I support the sciences, I support the humanities, I support co-op, community governance, former and future faculty, staff, [incoming College President Mark] Roosevelt. I will continue to express what I want Antioch College to do, that no other college can do as well: give young people confidence, experience, and skill to go beyond particulars and get meaningful, competitive, effective results.
On his current projects: I renovate bathrooms. Twelve years ago, I decided that it was unlikely that I was ever going to get what I wanted out of a job. It didn’t make sense for me to start over again in yet another job…I started renovating houses, parts of houses, as a way of supporting myself. One of the revelations that came as a part of Antioch College was, I’m improving the world with home improvements.
I am trying to run a small business . . . in relations with clients, co-op boards, auditors, city planners and social policy makers—all highly educated, well-intentioned people. As I look out my window at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a public industrial park and former military base, I see the homes of wealthy New Yorkers who can't find enough skilled craftspeople to maintain and improve their multimillion-dollar properties, and I see the homes of other New Yorkers, who can't find good enough jobs to pay the rent. I see résumés of the latter who want work for the former. Most common past positions: security guard, janitor, fast food worker.
I've found within this industry, there's a much bigger problem than how to nicely tile a bathroom. I've been discovering a lot of unpleasant things about home improvements. It's a business opportunity, but it is also a disconnect in the system. That's my project, to close the gap somehow.