New York City townhomes are most often characterized by their greatest constraints: narrow floors stacked four or five high between impenetrable and opaque party walls, resulting in formal box-like rooms at the ends of the rectangular floor plates, with dark and narrow service spaces at the center of the plan. The owners of this home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side wanted none of that. Their style of living, entertaining, creativity and collecting demanded a free flowing layout; large continuous expanses of wall space; and the flexibility to reprogram spaces at will for work, play, and creative projects. Yet the conventional tropes of modernist design – the smooth monochrome surfaces, the emphasis on formal clarity—were also an unwelcome constraint; texture, color, playfulness and warmth were a programmatic necessity.
The narrow property precluded creating an area large enough for all functions in one continuous level, so cutting the section wide open was the critical first step. A double-height great room forms the core of the home, blending cooking and dining with multiple levels and scales of living room. Having a schoolyard for a neighbor meant the opportunity to cut openings into the side wall, so that by day, all levels are flooded with light from two sides. But at night, the owners – one a designer of innovative event lighting – can project their own 20-foot high images and videos on the wall of the living space. A bridge connects the upper level to the rear façade, and provides “bleacher” seating to the projected images.
The stair hall –usually a strictly efficient service space in a townhouse – is here treated as a generous, skylit atrium. One wall of the five-story “room” is clad from basement to rooftop in thick, lichen-dappled tulip poplar bark, lending the whimsical feeling that the home’s exposed wood joists are the natural outgrowth of some enormous trunk. The stair itself, in contrast, is a marvel of computer-cut precision, it’s glass guard rail seemingly floating in the slotted ribbon of steel.
The historic townhouse, originally built in the 1890’s, is in one of the city’s Landmark Districts, so we were careful to restore and protect every detail of the bay-front brownstone facade. Elsewhere, we took a more playful approach to highlighting the original brick surfaces, exposing some on the original masonry walls of the great room, and creating meticulous new brick detail – a custom “quoin” — on the private rear façade. But there is nothing historic about the fanatical attention to envelope performance: every inch of exterior wall is tightly sealed against even minute infiltration; thermal insulation far exceeds even the demanding energy codes of NYC; thermal bridges are carefully avoided; and all mechanical systems are ultra-high efficiency.