I’ve always wanted to live in Manhattan. But truth be told, my budget probably won’t ever stretch to buy the kind of dream dwelling that would make it worthwhile.
Sure, there’s Don Draper’s Park Avenue apartment, or whatever its 2014 version would be. But that’s not how most of my NYC friends live. Actually, none of my friends can afford to live in the Big Apple. But we can all dream, right?
For the first-ever Dwell on Design NYC, held this October, five Manhattan homes were selected to provide attendees with a glimpse into the city’s contemporary living spaces. We’ve already looked inside classical violinist Joshua Bell’s swank penthouse, and we’ll provide a peek at the Harlem townhouse of actors Alysia Reiner (Orange Is the New Black) and David Alan Basche (United 93) soon.
Three stops on the New York tour were top-floor homes in Lower Manhattan. The area prospered through the first half of the 20th century but had fallen out of favor by the 1960s. Then, with the rise of Greenwich Village’s jazz and folk clubs, the punk rock hangouts of the East Village, and the art galleries of Soho, a bohemian spirit took root. The events of 9/11 provided a catalyst for reinvestment, and today Downtown is host to some of New York City’s trendiest neighborhoods.
From the sensibly comfortable to the utterly sophisticated, these three dwellings make the dream of Manhattan tangible and aspirational.
Tribeca Family Penthouse
You’d think that an architect wouldn’t have trouble reworking her own space. She’d know the building codes, the products available, and the real-world concepts produced by her creative peers.
Not so, according to Yen Ha, a principal at Front Studio Architects, who recently adapted her 9th-floor Tribeca penthouse for her husband and two children.
“I begged my husband for a couple million dollars and he said no,” joked Ha. “As a designer, it’s challenging to have access to all of these things. You want to put them all into this one place, and you can’t.”
But Ha found some creative ways around her financial limitations. She incorporated a simple design flourish that became a focal point for the entire house. “I read a lot so I wanted a lot of space for my books,” she explained. “When I came in I said, ‘This wall needs to be a rainbow.’”
Ha’s elegant solution was an eight-foot-high bookcase lining one wall of the skylighted living room, with the insides of the shelving painted a gradient of bright colors. Utility became art.
The children’s bedrooms were separated from the parents’. The kids asked mom for a climbing wall, plus a way to talking to each other from their bedrooms, so a two-way speaker system was installed. Ha also created a large entry hall lined with inexpensive peg board from Home Depot—perfect for hanging up backpacks and bike helmets.
Budget constraints prevented the couple from redoing the kitchen, a speed bump Ha artfully navigated. But the process was grueling, and towards the end of the remodel, Ha entrusted others to resolve smaller hurdles.
“I was so grateful for people in my office who could make decisions for me, because I wasn’t able to at the end.”
Historic SoHo Loft
Working in an existing space always presents certain limitations, but it’s almost unavoidable in Manhattan. When she was hired to renovate a top-floor loft in a historic former light bulb factory, architect Bronwyn Breitner described the space’s existing proportions as the second biggest challenge.
“The space was 20 by 90 feet, with windows only at the two extremes,” she explained, so daylight was a limited resource. Her first instinct was to open the space from front to back, but the clients weren’t interested. “They’re big entertainers, and they loved the idea of loft living, but not to the degree of living with certain discomforts.”
And the biggest challenge? The clients were Breitner’s older brother and his new girlfriend, with two children added to the new apartment along the way.
Conventional floor plans simply didn’t work for the narrow space, so Breitner proposed a partial wall at the midpoint, creating a visual divide between the public and private spaces. This allowed for more comfortable proportions, though a corridor running down the spine of the bedroom area still connects the front and back halves of the home.
Breitner’s team decided not to expose the wood joists in typical loft style, due to sound considerations. Instead, they dropped the ceilings. But in other ways, loft living was honored.
“We left the exposed brick and did a lovely whitewash, and we exposed some of the steel pipes throughout the space,” Breitner said. Wide-plank oak flooring and exposed metal hint at the building’s former life, while Tamara Eaton’s warm interiors confirm its new identity.
Best of all, the familial relationships survived the process.
“We all still love each other, and they’re still together,” she added.
Tribeca Manufacturing Building
Working from the bones of a landmark 19th Century soap warehouse, architect Andrew Franz exposed the 16-foot beamed ceilings and brick walls of this Tribeca loft to create a true blank canvas.
“There were no partitions, no walls—it was an open box,” said Franz. “But we felt it was important to maintain transparency and the feeling of the entire space.”
To that end, Franz transformed the central living area into something that almost feels like an outdoor courtyard. The centerpiece is a 150-square-foot skylight that opens onto a rooftop terrace, which you can see at the top of this page.
“Connectivity to the indoor and outdoor space was paramount,” explained Franz.
So the stairs to the roof pass through a leafy mezzanine below the skylight. What’s more, the skylight is retractable, allowing the open air to filter into the entire space whenever the weather allows.
The end result is a rooftop terrace that feels as if it begins inside the living area. Creating this indoor/outdoor courtyard also introduced a small nook to the floor plan, just large enough for a guest room and bathroom overlooking the entire home. It’s a private retreat that Franz said has become everyone’s favorite space.
Another unexpected choice: To each of the two main bedrooms, Franz added glazed windows facing the center of the house, allowing the home’s open design to extend into the private areas. It encourages the residents and their guests to experience the entire home, and to appreciate it from a variety of perspectives and angles.
Finishing the space with Mid-Century furnishings, lush fabrics, and discreet built-in cabinetry, Franz clearly had lofty ambitions for the Tribeca Manufacturing Building—all ravishingly realized.
Hero image: Albert Vecerka