Beaux Arts Beauty
For a New York businessman, his wife, and their four young children, an 1892 marble-and-limestone townhouse—the city’s first in the Parisian Beaux Arts style—is not only an architecturally significant showplace, but a comfortable family home as well.
However, when the owners acquired the residence nearly 10 years ago, they realized that its layout and interior details were suited more to the needs of a bachelor than to those of a family of six. Enter Los Angeles architect and interior designer Michael C.F. Chan, who imagined for the stately structure a new look and layout that melds the past and present. "It’s a historic landmark, so we couldn’t change the exterior," says Chan. "But we completely reworked the interiors not only to make it more family-friendly with larger open spaces, but also more in line with what an opulent home at the turn of the 20th century would have been like."
Using as a guide the neighboring Frick Collection building, one of the city’s preeminent examples of Beaux Arts architecture, Chan embarked on a seven-year renovation that included trips to Europe and Asia to purchase contemporary art and fine antiques for the 30-foot-wide, 12,500-square-foot townhouse.
The juxtaposition of old and new is apparent from the moment of entry. In the foyer, a Henry Moore bronze complements the traditional grand staircase. A pair of 19th-century Biedermeier armchairs flank a contemporary, saucer-shape, stainless steel–and-blue-lacquer sculpture by Anish Kapoor. The uninhibited blend of periods sets the tone for the rest of the home and creates the refined yet relaxed atmosphere the owners wanted.
Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture sits boldly beside the second-floor landing, spelling out the family’s fondness for their home. "Every piece in our collection is fun, beautiful, and expressive," says the husband, whose collection comprises mostly minimalist and Abstract Expressionist works. "My kids, whose ages range from 3 to 12 years old, love to climb on the letters." On the sinuous wrought-iron stairway, the couple installed removable iron rods topped with bronze pineapple finials, a traditional symbol of hospitality. The use of modern sculpture near the landing on each floor creates a consistent theme, illustrating, as Chan says, that modern artwork can be successfully incorporated into a period house.
The two-story living room, which Chan refers to as the "wow room," is the most eye-catching space in the home. "When you stand in the room, which is a 30-by-30-foot cube, you have no idea you are in the heart of Manhattan—you could be anywhere in the world," the husband says. "You never feel constrained by space or closed in."
Chan outlined the living room with traditional architectural elements, such as new moldings that he hand-carved to complement the home’s original design. He also made the large space more intimate by adding two Louis XIV cabinets, detailed with ormolu and marquetry, by André-Charles Boulle; a modern Italian sofa; an Asian-style coffee table that is reminiscent of an opium bed; and a pair of wide armchairs. "It’s sophisticated," the homeowner says. "But it’s not the kind of space where you feel you can’t set your glass down."
A Henry Moore bronze of a reclining figure turns a windowsill into a display podium, while a contemporary blue-toned Richard Diebenkorn painting hangs at the center of a prominent wall.
The homeowners liken the living room—the heart of the home—to a piazza. During parties, their children like to look down on the space from an upper-level balcony.
TABLE FOR TWO OR MORE
Designed for formal entertaining, the dining room, which is located on the main floor and is one of three dining areas in the townhouse, exudes elegance. "It feels like a chinoiserie room," Chan says. "It’s an interpretation of something you might find in the East, but executed with a Western eye."
The ceiling rose provides an ideal mount for the Belgian chinoiserie chandelier, which hangs above an antique French dining table and chairs and illuminates an American painting, Moonlit Seascape, by Childe Hassam. The eight chairs, six of which are armless, were acquired from two separate dealers in Paris and then restored to appear more cohesive.
Though family members eat most meals together in the kitchen or the den, they find that the main dining room’s beauty beckons even when there is no special occasion. "The key to the room’s functionality is that the table has many leaves," the husband explains. "We’ve had 18 people sitting around it, but my wife and I also dine there alone."
Across the hall from the living room, the traditional cherry-paneled library houses hundreds of rare volumes. "We have a huge collection of art books, which we’ve used as resources when creating our art collection, but we also have early editions of Shakespeare and beautifully bound editions of all the classic books our children will one day read," the husband says. "We like to read every book our children read so that we can discuss them with them."
However, the library is more than a reading room. When the couple entertains, they bring guests here for drinks and the meal’s first course. "The four hand-carved Chinese tables I designed have removable trays on top so food can be served," says Chan, who topped each table with a pattern representing a different season—spring, summer, fall, and winter.
The room’s predominantly traditional aesthetic is actually a delicate blend of antique and modern. Above the classic tufted-leather sofa hangs a 2002 mixed-media work by British artist Jonathan Callan; on a nearby wall is a 1917 oil painting, La Chemise d’Argent, by Kees van Dongen. For a niche just beyond the doorway, Chan designed an antique-style bar that British furniture designer David Linley made from Cuban mahogany.
The master-bedroom suite, which is on the fifth floor of the townhouse, includes a private balcony and a sitting room. A chair and ottoman, a parchment console, and a pair of custom-made stingray-upholstered cabinets inspired by Chinese wardrobes provide a neutral but rich backdrop for watching the flat-screen TV that is mounted above the antique marble mantel.
"We like to sit here with the children and read with them," the husband says. The family-friendly setting features a palette of tranquil colors that are in line with the room’s primary function as a sanctuary. "Every room I design has its own flavor," Chan says. "This one feels very vanilla."
The entire master suite faces the Frick Collection building and offers a refreshing view of Manhattan. The wife often takes advantage of the unique setting by inviting her friends over for a casual lunch on the balcony. "It’s a versatile space," says the husband. "Sometimes she and I sit out there in the evening, share a bottle of wine, and look out at Central Park. It’s so nice, I almost can’t believe I’m in the middle of the city."
Michael C.F. Chan, 323.962.8888, www.mcfchan.com