Walk On The Wild Side
A 19th-century New York town house gets a fierce renovation by Meyer Davis Studio
Linda Lee -- Interior Design, 11/1/2008 12:00:00 AM
The five-story brownstone on New York's Upper East Side might look like a dowager from the street. But there's a flirty, modern gal inside, full of sexy surprises. Take the white, curved staircase that, illuminated by a colossal skylight, glows like a swooping, sensuous sculpture. Or the glass-walled ground-floor kitchen that leads to a serene garden. There's a sleek soaking tub in the master bathroom looking onto another private garden, plus a gym, an elevator, and that ultimate New York flauntable, a garage.
So the light fixtures are licensed re-editions, and not originals by Serge Mouille, which would have cost hundreds of thousands, instead of mere thousands. That's the exception to the no-expense-spared rule in this 5,700-square-foot, six-bedroom house, designed and executed by Meyer Davis Studio.
Since starting their practice in 1999, architect and principal Will Meyer and his fellow principal designer Gray Davis have made a specialty of pleasing high-power, sometimes celebrity, clients, and creating flagships for international luxury brands. Both have backgrounds with notable modernist firms—Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects for Meyer, Aero Studios for Davis—so it's a sure bet this residential client didn't approach them thinking Edith Wharton.
The client, a married couple with two young sons, was negotiating to buy the property when they brought Meyer Davis on board. "They asked for an open, loftlike feel, with rooms really connected to each other," recalls Davis. The house isn't landmarked, which provided lots of leeway for alterations, such as gutting the interior, demolishing the rear elevation, and adding a floor for the master suite. "We talked about lots of glass," continues the designer, who turned the back facade into a window wall, flooding every floor with light—a rarity in Manhattan brownstones. Then there's that skylight, measuring a generous 8 by 12 feet, illuminating the central stairwell. "We let the stair be a sculptural element," Meyer adds, "and got all that gorgeous light from the top."
The initial walk-through included the basement, even though it had a 5-foot ceiling. "We try to get the most out of a space," says Meyer, "to give the client more than they thought possible." In this case, that involved jack-hammering the basement's floor for two months to make room for mechanicals, the gym, and the laundry room.
Designers and client agreed to respect the south-facing front elevation. "There's a beautiful street facade, a row of similar town houses," notes Meyer. The front was preserved, including an entrance stoop that leads to the parlor floor, which comprises the foyer and living and dining rooms. But Meyer Davis set the new fifth floor back from the building front, making room for a garden terrace with a southern exposure off the master bath. A soaking tub sits facing sliding glass doors, fulfilling the couple's request for as much permeability as possible between interior and exterior spaces. Planted bamboo provides privacy during the day, curtains do the job at night.
The ground-floor kitchen also has an easy connection to the outside, with limestone flooring that flows through more sliding glass doors to pave the garden courtyard. The concrete countertop and rift-cut white oak cabinetry seem to pass through the rear wall seamlessly into a backyard cooking unit of ipé and stainless steel. The neighboring house is screened by its own giant magnolia tree. "It's so lush, it's almost like being in the country," says Davis. "You don't feel exposed at all." Another terrace sits above the kitchen, offering 260 square feet of outdoor space off the formal dining room.
"Our philosophy was tone-on-tone," continues Davis of the interior palette. "A white box blasted with little accents of color." Walls in the living room are a pale mauve-gray, allowing the grand washes of light to provide the drama. Furnishings and finishes supply additional visual and tactile interest. The smooth surface of the limestone hearth contrasts with a vintage goat-hair rug found in Paris. Davis covered a custom chrome bench in zebra hide. A low, lacquered wood table with tusk-shape legs strikes another call-of-the-wild note, while epingle upholstery on the clean-lined, but cushy club chairs and sofa is a balance of neutral textures. Oak flooring and stair treads bring a dark polish to the swaths of light.
There was, unfortunately, one disappointment: granite. Not the kind for a kitchen countertop, but the stuff that underlies much of Manhattan. The original plan to sink a swimming pool flush with the backyard deck had to be abandoned when the excavator hit rock. "It was too costly to remove," Davis explains, so a small, raised wading pool, big enough for the two little boys to splash around in, was built instead. Surrounded with ipé, it resembles the sort of private amenity found in Thai or Mexican luxury resort suites. Yet another sultry touch for this far-from-staid dowager.
Photo by Eric Laignel.