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How living like a nomad made one man rich

Adam Gordon, one of New York’s most prolific apartment flippers and most-watched boutique developers, grew up in Ohio, but “fled as soon as possible,” he says, sipping an iced tea at the Smile, just up the street from 54 Bond St., his biggest condominium project to date.

It’s not far from the Lower East Side, where his great-grandfather was an active communist. “I haven’t really gotten very far,” jokes the handsome, square-jawed Gordon. Dream on: He’s married (twice) with children — but that’s getting ahead of his story.

Between college and an MBA at Wharton, Gordon got his first taste of Manhattan as a Wall Street intern living in an NYU dorm. Stints with Trammell Crow, then the country’s largest developer; Bear Stearns, which he says was “anathema to my genetics” and a factory outlet store developer followed. He has since made a fortune developing outer-borough self-storage centers. That’s his vocation. But Manhattan residential real estate is his passion.

After living in two rent-stabilized apartments, Gordon began his career as an owner in 1998 after his first wife fell pregnant, paying $1.47 million for a 4,200-square-foot raw loft with 12-foot ceilings at 158 Mercer St., a new condo that then housed the New Museum. He used it to try out design ideas he’d carried around in his head for years.

“I had no training,” he says. “I followed my personal obsessions. Renovation was a lot less costly then. And I thought, this is far easier than my day job.” So two years later, when his wife asked to move back uptown, he bought two townhouses, 129 W. 81st St. (for $1.4 million) and 60 E. 83rd St. (for about $2.3 million), planning to empty out their rental tenants, live in the first and renovate and sell the second.

But in 2002, he not only sold his first loft to Adam Dell, brother of the computer mogul, for $3.95 million, but the 81st Street house, too (for about $4 million — netting more than $2 million), to Richard H. Brown, a businessman. He started “glamping,” as he puts it, in units he cobbled together as he bought tenants out of the 83rd Street property.

After a second child’s arrival, he bought 35 W. 76th St., a house on the verge of collapse, in 2003, for $2.525 million, and planned a renovation with architect Steven Harris, who has since been his regular collaborator. But he sold it (and the plans) a year later for $7 million.

Then, just after buying out his last tenant on 83rd Street, Gordon says, “I had an epiphany: the life I wanted was elsewhere.”

That meant divorce — and more real estate plays. He sold the 83rd Street house for $7.53 million to David Wah, a Credit Suisse banker, and bought two more: 13 W. 89th St. (for $5.15 million) was for his ex-wife and kids, who still live there; 26 W. 76th St. (for $5.8 million) would be his next renovation with Harris.

Meantime, flying solo, Gordon moved back downtown, to 92 Jane St., which he’d bought for $3 million in 2004 to renovate. “But the more I put myself into it,” he says, “the more I wanted to live there.” Its landmark facade, modern interior and back wall made entirely of glass would be named the 2007 House of the Year by the American Institute of Architects. “It wasn’t about a generic vision of what would sell,” Gordon says. “The architecture is secondary to how you feel in your space. Do you feel loving? Relaxed? Creative?”

One thing Gordon still didn’t feel was settled. Citing a “nomadic instinct,” he says, “I always want to keep going.” So in 2007, he bought 54 Bond St., a cast-iron landmark on the corner of the Bowery, for $15 million, and 41-43 Bond St. for $7.75 million. Gordon met his current wife, a retail architect, at a community meeting on Bond Street, and married her shortly before they moved into the triplex penthouse at 54 Bond. “It was 90 percent completed,” he says of the penthouse renovation. “The best way to pressure subcontractors to finalize a job is to serve them coffee every morning.”

Then he started flipping again. First to go was 92 Jane, sold in 2008 to Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle Grill, for $13.425 million. (After the next-door townhouse was demolished, Ells would list it in 2012 for $16.5 million; it’s now on the market for $14.5 million.) In 2009, Gordon shed 41-43 Bond for just over $9 million after an investor bailed out. And in 2010, he set an Upper West Side townhouse record when he offloaded his West 76th Street property to financier Henry Silverman for $19.3 million. In the interim, Gordon and an investor bought and sold another Jane Street house (#60) for a $5.4 million profit.

By 2011, 54 Bond was sold out — the penthouse to a Belgian couple; the two remaining floor-throughs to foreign businessmen, one Japanese, one Italian — and Gordon had moved on, to another home and another professional project. He bought a vacant development site at 560 W. 24th St. for $9.787 million, and indulged his inner nomad by moving into the Bowery Hotel for six months. Most recently, he rented a loft on Wooster Street, where he plans to stay until West 24th Street, his first new-build project, is completed (pre-construction condo sales begin this month and the eight units will range in price from $6 million to $14.9 million).

To inspire architect Harris, Gordon explained what he was seeking in the project’s design: “So many new buildings quickly appear dated. I want this one to look fresh, but as if it’s been there forever.”

Forever is Gordon’s latest infatuation. Eighteen months ago, he bought a cattle ranch in Sonoma, Calif., where he is building a country home. It’s not his first — he once owned in Sag Harbor. “But I think, for the first time, it’s a place I’ll own forever,” he says. After a pause, he continues. “Whatever that is.” Another pause. “Forever for me.”