Up on the Roof
At an East Village penthouse pavilion built by Rogers Marvel, loft living and family life intersect
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 9/1/2002 12:00:00 AM
Conventional New York wisdom is that you can have real architecture, and you can have real estate, but you can't have both. And the latter usually wins out. Occasionally, however, the ingenuity of design does meet the commercial requirements of the market. A good example is the East Village penthouse that Rogers Marvel Architects built for a Kate Spade executive, her physician husband, and their three children.
Perched atop a four-story tenement, the penthouse exemplifies the studied spatial relationships and assiduous detailing for which the firm is known. Two floors, four terraces, and a mezzanine all fit together seamlessly in a volumetric puzzle defined by the maximum zoning envelope. How that envelope evolved is a story in itself.
The tenement and an adjacent music hall, both constructed in the 1880s, were joined together in the 1930s to become a television and film studio where, among other things, episodes of The Honeymooners were filmed. By the early 1980s, film and television had long departed. The neighborhood had become the focus of the contemporary-art world, and a group of Swiss investors purchased the adjoining buildings to convert them into a museum. After several failed attempts—including one with Santiago Calatrava—the commission went to Rogers Marvel.
When the area's art scene fizzled, the museum plan was scrapped. "We had to decide what to do with the property," says principal Rob Rogers. "One proposal was to squeeze in 40 student apartments, but that idea upset the owners." Instead, Rogers Marvel joined the partnership and devised a more generous plan to convert the buildings into four large apartments, plus commercial space. Economic viability required more square footage, however, and none was allowed by city zoning. Space would have to be created. By cutting through several floors in the existing structures, the architects reduced square footage that, as in a game of Jenga, could be moved up to a penthouse addition. Their tactic also helped bring in light down below. "There were a lot of dark areas here," says Rogers. (He and his family share the ground floor and basement.)
As the duplex penthouse's central and grandest feature, Rogers Marvel erected a 1,000-square-foot pavilion on the tenement's roof. With a Mondrian-esque light box providing the focal point of a stairwell between the living and dining areas, this giant space features subtle moves that delineate, unify, and expand it. Planar differences across the east wall not only accommodate mechanical systems but also add depth. The room's 20-foot-high glazed facades, at the northern and southern ends, afford access to terraces. At night, another De Stijl–like light box, this one functioning as the railing of an office mezzanine, balances the light box above the stair.
In furnishing the apartment, interior designer and furniture dealer Steven Sclaroff deftly deployed a selection of mid-century pieces. "We were looking for ways to contrast the stark rectilinear character of the architecture with softer elements," Sclaroff explains of such choices as a 1960s Italian dining table and a vintage sofa by Edward Wormley for Dunbar. "Because their flavor is fairly contemporary, they're still in harmony with the rest."
Impressive as these results are, however, the open plan was a tough sell. "The client tended towards traditional spaces, so we took her to California to see some Schindler and Eames houses, which convinced her," says Rogers. Nevertheless, something more private was required downstairs on the existing building's 2,500-square-foot fourth floor. As project architect Scott Glass puts it, "The family had two opposing needs. The upstairs has a monumental scale for entertaining, but we also created a cozy family zone." This comprises a separate entry, a master suite, three bedrooms, a family room, and a playroom, the first two benefiting from cleverly located skylights. Rogers Marvel's genius for strategic placement really comes through with the organization of the fourth floor's partition walls and openings. Besides organizing an intimate, interlocking spatial composition, they simultaneously reflect the geometric thinking above.