Heaven Can Wait
A celestially peaceful chill-out room tops off a New York penthouse by Messana O'Rorke Architects
Craig Kellogg -- Interior Design, 3/1/2006 12:00:00 AM
It began as a straightforward bathroom renovation: Messana O'Rorke Architects came in simply to choose a soaking tub for the penthouse of a 12-story New York building. The bachelor owner is a philosophically inclined businessman in his 30s who travels frequently to Japan, and he wasn't interested in a "huge, glamorous bathroom," principal Brian Messana says. "He's not an overtly 'wow' kind of guy."
Rather, he's the type to stack his newest books and CDs neatly on the kitchen counter. And to tell the landscape designer for his roof terrace, "No flowers." In other words, he's a super-organized minimalist with the means and patience to demand perfection.
Basically untouched since the 1980's, the 1,480-square-foot penthouse had all the downtown essentials: acres of white-oak strip flooring, a 14-foot ceiling, and a huge peaked skylight. But the layout was imperfect, with "lots of little jogs," as principal Toby O'Rorke describes it. When MOA expanded the bathroom slightly, smoothing out a few of those jogs, the owner realized how many other improvements could be made. Before long, the renovation escaped its original confines.
A white-lacquered closet in the master bedroom came next, followed by additional storage in the study, which also serves as a guest room. Once construction began, the powder room's toilet began to seem shabby, so the architects replaced it—before turning their attention to rift-sawn oak 'paneling for the adjacent vestibule. Then they refaced the kitchen cabinets, using white-lacquered doors. The minor revamp was well on its way to becoming a nine-month overhaul of the entire apartment.
"We kept to a really limited palette," O'Rorke says of the immaculate environment. Messana adds, "We also eliminated fragmentation. It's about purity of space and form."
Strategies for the living area included thickening the ceiling beams to accommodate mono-point spotlights, thus avoiding obtrusive surface-mounted tracks. Under the windows, the architects built CD storage. Next, they banished the prefab wood-burning fireplace in favor of a sleek gas unit with a tidy flame dancing over glass chips. The hearth and the lining of the firebox are Portuguese limestone, which reappears in the master bathroom.
Almost done? Not even close.
To get to the roof, there had always been a spiral staircase, a white-painted metal affair that now looked hopelessly old-fashioned. The replacement stair is hand-polished stainless steel. And the roof has been transformed, too. It's a multilevel garden with built-in planters for trees and shrubs.
In one corner of the roof stands a structure that once sheltered a cast-iron water tank for the building's fire sprinklers. The owner had signed a long-term lease on the tank house, thinking he'd like to do something with it—he just wasn't sure what. MOA proposed removing the cistern, shoring up the masonry shell, and turning the space into a retreat.
The architects opened up the tank house with a floor-to-ceiling steel casement window and a glass door. To give the rooftop sanctum a shaft of 'otherworldly illumination, they cut out an oculus and capped it with an acrylic dome—a reference to the Parthenon and, O'Rorke says, a "very simple way of getting light into the top of a room more than 18 feet tall." The oculus is ringed by a ceiling cove with dimmable fluorescents that spill indirect light down the curved white gypsum-board walls.
Since the tank house will see use year-round, the architects specified stand-alone heating and air-conditioning, and they also wired for sound. Drinks chill in a small refrigerator stashed below a hatch in the white-oak floor boards, which are a shade paler than the flooring downstairs.
Improbably, the sole movable object in the space is a vintage molded-plywood side chair by Charles and Ray Eames. Like the sparse furnishings below—Eames chairs, a George Nelson dining table and bubble lamp, a Poul Kjaerholm chaise lounge, a Serge Mouille sconce—the lone chair lends a certain stripped-down perfection to the silence. Seated with his eyes cast heavenward, the owner of the penthouse presumably finds the peace to accept, even appreciate, the white roses that his girlfriend has planted in the roof garden outside.