Nowadays, the higher the floor, the more valuable the apartment. But when the Apthorp—one of the first high-end apartment buildings on New York’s Upper West Side—was built, people were still getting used to living uptown, let alone upstairs (elevators were also a relatively new thing in the early 1900s). That meant that the top-floor apartments were often reserved for staff and laundry facilities. In other words, they were quite poky.
More than 100 years later, the sprawling Italian Renaissance Revival building designed by Clinton & Russell still stands proud as a New York City landmark and one of the city’s most cherished apartment blocks. So when Sarah Zames and Colin Stief of design studio General Assembly learned that one of their repeat clients had purchased three adjoining apartments on the building’s top floor, they knew it would be a unique project—and a challenging one.
The top-floor space was a series of former maintenance quarters, which had long stood neglected. Since the three units were laid out in a line along one of the building’s courtyards, the 1,430-square-foot space had a narrow footprint, even after they knocked down the walls. Fortunately, thinking creatively around a building’s quirks is exactly what the design duo does best.
“We’ve done a lot of townhouses and brownstones, but I think this was one of the more interesting older structures that we’ve worked on,” says Zames. “We always look for projects like this and are so excited when we get ones that have some depth to them to start with.”
The trio of apartments had sat dormant for years and was in a completely raw state when General Assembly took on the project, meaning they could really start from scratch. It was a relatively tight squeeze fitting three bedrooms and two-and-a-half bathrooms, not to mention the kitchen, living, and dining areas into it. But since this was intended to be a pied-à-terre for the couple and their two young kids (they spend most of their time upstate), fortunately it didn’t need to have room for all their possessions.
“The idea was for this to be a little retreat in the city,” explains Stief. “They love being upstate, and so when they come here it needs to feel comfortable, enveloping, and warm.”Here’s how they pulled it off.
The Living/Dining Room
While they aimed to create a space that felt decidedly modern, Zames and Stief made sure to include nods to the historic building’s roots. They took the arched windows, an Apthorp signature, and continued the motif throughout—more overtly in the case of the arched doorways, but also in more subtle curves in the custom moldings, kitchen island, and light fixtures. The custom window shutters are crafted from the same French natural oak seen throughout the apartment, adding a warm, bucolic touch while still remaining fresh, clean, and modern. “We didn’t want to just do big drapes that covered the arches,” says Stief. “They’re such a part of the Apthorp that we wanted to embrace that.”
The narrow footprint of the apartment meant the bedrooms needed to be placed on the street side, where the largest windows were situated. To avoid a railroad-style situation (the bane of many a New York City dweller), the designers added in a hallway on the courtyard side and carved a series of Studio Dunn wall sconces into the plaster so that they wouldn’t jut into the space. “The hallway is about 42 inches wide, but because it’s so long, it feels kind of narrow,” Zames explains. “We wanted it to feel a bit like a hotel—everyone has a switch for their outside light in their room.”
Because the apartment’s front door opens right into the kitchen, the designers installed a French oak partition and parquet flooring to delineate part of the space as an entryway. Two original architectural features of the Apthorp—the skylight and the exposed column—help balance the contemporary feel of the renovated kitchen. “Having an open kitchen means that every piece in it has to feel a bit like the furniture,” Zames says. “We curved the end of the island to make it feel like a really pretty custom piece of furniture.”
The Kids’ Room
While the rest of the apartment maintains a calm, serene palette, the kids room gets a burst of cheer via the Flat Vernacular Swallowtail Sunstone wallpaper. The designers took their cues for the room from the bird lamp, which had been in a walk-in closet in the clients’ previous apartment and had always delighted their young daughter. Drawers underneath the bunk beds provide extra storage in the relatively tight space.
Though space may be tight for the family of four (sometimes five, when the grandmother comes to stay), it’s proven to be the perfect city roost. And the fact that the designers have known the client for 10 years helped them get it exactly right. “It’s always nice when you’re working with a repeat client because there’s a comfort level, and it makes you want to work harder and do a really good job for them,” says Zames. “But it also means you can have a little bit more fun.”
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