Kimberly Goad | September 01, 2010
What inspires people to press the reset button on their lives? For two Upper West Siders, it was the last of their children leaving for college. The empty-nesters promptly sold their apartment, got rid of its contents, and headed downtown—a move facilitated by Billinkoff Architecture.
"They were really interested in changing everything about the way they lived," Donald Billinkoff says. "They'd been in a traditional prewar, which was lovely, but it had accumulated all the things that come with raising a family. They were ready for something more sophisticated, clean, and crisp."
None of which describes the West Village brownstone they purchased. Over the years, the five stories had been divvied up into eight apartments, and ill-conceived renovations had damaged the joists, leaving the floors with significant deflection. Billinkoff had no choice but to gut the place, sparing only the street facade and the party walls. He even removed the rear, making way for glass that offers an unobstructed view of that rarest of Manhattan luxuries, a garden.
From there, the question became: How do you satisfy the desire for a minimalist environment that lends itself both to everyday life and to elaborate entertaining? Moreover-and this was the trickiest part-how do you do that in a vertical space? "We approached it as we would a loft, with openness and connectivity," Billinkoff explains.
He organized the 7,000 square feet around an M.C. Escher-like center stairway. "It makes the circulation experiential," he says. "In most brownstones, you never know where you are. You just keep going up." If you just keep going up in this house, you'll reach a skylight that glides open, allowing access to a roof with a view of the Empire State Building. Going back down the stairs, you'll notice the shifting patterns of sunlight and shadow, which turn a typically dark brownstone into anything but.
The bottom two stories accommodate the couple's love of entertaining. When they host dinner parties, the entry is large enough—fully half the ground level—for the cocktail hour to take place there. The rear half of the floor plate is an airy kitchen.
Its generous island multitasks. Housing the sinks, it allows for easy meal prep by creating a classic triangle with the refrigerator and the cooktop-oven combo opposite, along the sidewall. The placement of the island also makes it a clear demarcation between the heart of the kitchen on one side and the ground level's main circulation path on the other.
Guests pass easily between the island and a compact built-in office, proceed through a "breakfast" area—which actually lends itself to casual dining any time of the day–and open a sliding glass door to the basalt-paved terrace a few steps above the garden. "That way, you can get outside without feeling like you're walking through a work zone," Billinkoff says.
Kitchen cabinetry and the office built-in are veneered in a chartreuse-washed wood called Bolivar. The minimalist mix continues with acid-etched mirror, plus more basalt tile. Equally in keeping with the contemporary character of the house, oak mixes with white Corian and white or gray glass mosaic tile in in each of the six bathrooms, including the master bath.
"It's easy to add, much more difficult to hold back," Billinkoff says. And even he couldn't quite resist the stairs' carpet, a vibrant eggplant purple.
Photography by Peter Murdock.