Marc Kristal | June 01, 2011
Brian Messana declares a hate for the word contemporary. When asked to describe the architectural style of Messana O'Rorke, he doesn't care for minimalist either. "It's too Zen," he says. "We're much more pragmatic." Clearly, he and Toby O'Rorke found their ideal client in an Irish banker who'd purchased a four-bay redbrick 1853 town house in New York shortly before being transferred to Hong Kong. For the ensuing 12 years, he rented the house to a series of tenants—the last being TV personality Charlie Rose—and time, alas, took its toll. A renovation, the first since 1981, would be essential.
The owner, who'd meanwhile returned to Ireland, wasn't sure if he would sell the renovated property, rent it out again, or keep it as a second home. But he harbored no ambivalence about the desired aesthetic. "There's a Spartan-ness about how he lives," O'Rorke says. Achieving simplicity, however, would be complicated. Though the house is 2,800 square feet, that generous amount of space is divided between three upper stories and a basement, and each of those was subdivided into four little rooms, a claustrophobic condition exacerbated by a trapezoidal footprint narrowing a full 8 feet from front to back. "Out of this hodgepodge, how can we create a sense of spaciousness?" Messana and O'Rorke wondered.
Their approach was to capture as much usable square footage as possible, to rigorously limit the number of interior elements, and to extract maximum impact from the chosen interventions. After gutting and restoring the dilapidated structure, Messana O'Rorke was ruthless in the pursuit of optimal functionality and clarity. The house used to have two covetable fireplaces per level, but one of each pair came out to make way for the closets so essential for clothing, audiovisual equipment, and mechanical systems. Not least of all, the closets also conceal the house's distracting diagonal sidewall. With essentially rectangular volumes now established, Messana O'Rorke left the basement, the parlor floor, and the second story largely open—dominated, respectively, by the dining room, the living room, and the master bedroom. These primary rooms are street-front. Supporting spaces, such as the kitchen, the study, and bathrooms, are at the narrow rear, on either side of the stair hall. The top story, by contrast, is divided into two front-to-back guest suites.
Resulting rooms appear, at first glance, to be vanilla-plain. On closer inspection, an array of details heightens one's perception—and appreciation—of the angles and surfaces that give the interior a surprisingly vital, tectonic presence. Walls, ceilings, and floors, separated from one another by narrow coves, become discrete elements with dynamic interrelationships. In the bathrooms, rectangular sinks float inches from the walls behind, adding architectural definition and making the small spaces feel larger. When possible, Messana O'Rorke eliminated the doors to closets and fitted them with concealed vertical fluorescent bars that cast a glow into adjoining rooms. "It creates the illusion that the space goes farther back than it actually does," Messana observes.
Such a pristine environment requires a judicious selection of materials. As a contrast to the white walls, Messana O'Rorke chose oak flooring wire-brushed and lightly limed to bring out its vivid grain, simultaneously conveying the woodworker's craft and the rawness of nature. Elsewhere, materials deliver surprises. White-painted doors open to reveal closets lined in tactile walnut; statuary marble in the kitchen and the master bath was chosen for the painterly quality of the veining. Furnishings, selected with the same care, acquire the authority of sculpture—the Shaker-like table in the center of the dining room, the vintage black leather-covered swivel chairs on the hair-on hide rug in the living room, the Hans Wegner chair in the monastic master bedroom. Architectural photography and ceramic objects add to the sophisticated drama.
Taken together, the interiors express Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's suitably terse description of his visual ideal: beinahe nichts, i.e. almost nothing. Or, as Spencer Tracy said of Katharine Hepburn in Pat and Mike, "Not much meat on her, but what's there is cherce." Messana O'Rorke's client certainly seems to think so. As renderings became reality, his notions of selling or renting evaporated. He kept the house for himself.
Irving Diaz; François Riboleau-Jullien; Mildred Beatle; Oliver Duncan: Messana O'Rorke. Zerolux Lighting Design: Lighting Consultant. Robert Silman Associates: Structural Engineer. M.A. Rubiano: MEP. Jorgensen-Carr: Woodwork. Idflecken: Metalwork. 9J Builder: General Contractor.