October 1, 2012

A House United: Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis Designs an Uptown Town-House

The town houses that bring a stateliness to many New York streets are, as the song goes, practiced at the art of deception. Outwardly they convey the privileged domesticity of the 19th-century single-family residence. But behind the facades typically lurks a different reality: confining, nondescript apartments, carved out with brute idiosyncrasy. It’s a dichotomy that is especially startling in the city’s exclusive uptown environs, where one assumes the good life still prevails—and where, in the course of two renovations over eight years, the very downtown firm Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis combined three town-house apartments into a 21st-century version of old-world grandeur.

The four-story-plus-garden-level residence had been divided into apartments of different sizes and configurations. But there was a further twist: Floor levels in the front of the building did not align with those in the back. Spaces behind the street facade retained the high ceilings and grand proportions of the original architecture; those behind the garden facade had lower ceilings because an extra floor had been sandwiched in. Marc Tsurumaki, who led the project, speculates that when the house was converted, the developers gutted the rear portion and reconstructed it with compressed ceiling heights to gain the additional, squeezed-in story.

The misalignment didn’t affect the initial renovation, which was confined to the town house’s rear. LTL’s client, who owned a small one-bedroom duplex spanning the garden and first floors, purchased a second-floor studio directly above. He engaged the firm to refashion it into a master suite and connect it to there designed living/kitchen and guest room/office levels below. Tsurumaki accomplished this with a spiral staircase that forms the renovation’s most distinctive element. Enclosed in a cylindrical blackened-steel screen featuring a laser cut pattern, the stair expresses the hermetic, inward-looking quality of the small, stacked spaces.

So, when the adjacent street-front duplex became available, LTL’s client purchased it. Given their capacious original proportions, the one-bedroom duplex’s two main spaces would serve as the combined apartment’s grand living and dining rooms, while the intimately scaled triplex would contain the bedrooms and informal social areas. The front/rear misalignment, however, produced a daunting challenge: With a triplex in back and a duplex-plus-mezzanine in front, Tsurumaki was faced with combining six different levels, spread over 3,250 square feet, into a coherent home. “Visually and spatially, how do we make it continuous instead of compartmentalized?” Tsurumaki recalls wondering.

His solution amounted to a bravura example of vive la difference: He excavated a gap, measuring nearly 4 feet wide and rising up 27 feet, between the front and rear apartments, thereby exposing five of the six floors to one another (the garden level remains out of view). “By revealing the condition, we created a ricochet of relationships between the different levels of the apartment, the public and the private,” the architect continues. “It was important that you could stand in the middle and see from the street to the garden.”

The apartments were sutured back together with an equally dramatic gesture: A grand public stair, partially enclosed by a slatted-oak-and-blackened-steel screen, cascades down the five levels like a waterfall; it not only joins the floors but also facilitates ever-changing views as one moves up and down. Because the stair is both cantilevered and hung from the ceiling, it looks surprisingly weightless, a sensation intensified by the landings, which seem to float between the floor levels. The structure also helps unify the street and garden sides aesthetically: The screen plays off the pattern of the spiral stair’s enclosure, converting its tight perforations into a more flowing visual composition.

“The architecture, interiors, and client’s art collection were all to mesh well together,” explains interior designer Jeff Lincoln, who developed the project’s decorative scheme. This proved a tricky balance. The owner requested contemporary spaces, accented by mid-century-modern furnishings, as a counterpoint to the building’s traditional profile. Yet Lincoln wanted to avoid an excess of the usual vintage collectible suspects that he believed would feel neither less traditional nor more connected to the client’s “aggressively contemporary” art collection, which includes works by Tom Sachs, Catherine Opie, and Vik Muniz.

Accordingly, the Jeff Lincoln Interiors principal introduced contemporary and custom pieces into the mix and, where possible, updated the classics, as with the metallic-silver leather upholstery on a pair of vintage T.H. Robsjohn-Gibbings chairs—“that little kick makes the old pieces feel more spirited and forms a bridge to the art,” he says. For one of the custom rugs, “I channeled Piet Mondrian,” he continues. Elsewhere, a chandelier is Alexander Calderesque. Above all, the designer deferred to the architecture and selected the objects in collaboration with his client, so that “the apartment reflects who he is, not the hand of the designer.”

Ultimately, states Tsurumaki, “It was the idiosyncrasies that fascinated us,” referring to the town house in particular as well as the unknowable historical processes in cities in general.

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