Follow architect Michael K. Chen as he recounts his renovation of a New York brownstone row house that aimed to perfectly balance old and new.
Arenovated brownstone row house on Manhattan, New York’s Upper East Side is a comfortable second home for an out-of-town family, a modern setting filled with light and a plethora of countless handcrafted architectural details. It’s a warm and practical setting where this multi-generational family can gather, conduct business and entertain when they’re in the city.
The 9,800-square-foot home’s design has won many awards and, according to the architect, Michael K. Chen, it helped launch his practice.
“The clients had interviewed many other architects,” Chen, whose firm takes on both residential and commercial projects, said. “I was just starting my career a few years ago, and these clients wanted to support me. I was lucky.”
“The building had been sliced and diced into a million pieces,” recalls Chen.
But when Chen first laid eyes on the project, he might not have felt so lucky. The circa-1879 New York brownstone had seen better days, having been subdivided in the 1920s into a series of apartments. More recently, it served as single-room occupancy (SRO) housing, its five levels and basement divided into 17 units.
“The building had been sliced and diced into a million pieces,” Chen recalled.“ There was no historic fabric left inside or out. It was badly degraded. We basically rebuilt it from scratch.”
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Working with a preservation consultant, a structural engineer and the builder, IA, Michael K Chen architecture rebuilt the home’s façade, honoring its original Neo-Greco architectural style by using sculpted terra cotta elements to blend it into the surrounding neighborhood.
Inside, Michael Chen architecture gutted the structure and created a sensible floor plan that met the family’s needs for both entertaining and privacy. On the street level, the New York brownstone remains, and an entry vestibule leads to a small gathering area, a spacious coat closet for guests and, towards the back, a catering space and the kitchen, which opens to a small backyard garden.
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The basement includes a wine cellar and entertainment room. Up one level from the entry, Chen placed a spacious living room and dining area and raised a step to add ceiling height for the kitchen below to serve as a ceremonial “stage” for evening meals.
The master suite takes up the third level, and secondary ensuite bedrooms take up the fourth floor. The fifth floor contains a library and bar, as well as additional bedrooms. The roof terrace is accessed via an enclosed landing spot, a glass architectural element Chen calls “the penthouse.” Chen placed staircases at the front and back of the home for access between floors and an elevator.
“The overall design had to mediate between historic preservation and modern design.”
When it came to the interior, Chen was careful to balance old and new, while keeping the New York historic brownstone. “The overall design had to mediate between historic preservation and modern design,” he explained. “We balanced heritage and innovation through craft.”
In order to achieve an airy, sculptural feel to the home’s interior, Chen included many tactile and visually rich details, contrasting crisp angles with flowing curves and grounding the spaces with black limestone and fumed-oak flooring.
In the entry vestibule, Chen designed a dramatic, robotically milled wood ceiling in a contemporary interpretation of a historic egg-and-dart pattern. The curved, sculptural staircases rise in open volumes, allowing light (and views) to flow between floors. The stairs’ oak railings were left unsealed so that the wood will acquire a patina with use and age.
One stairwell’s wall is clad with a three-dimensional black terra cotta tile, a modern echo of the exterior façade of the New York historic brownstone. A slatted wood and glass screen with a curvilinear appeal separates the master suite’s dressing area from the main staircase.
Chen also collaborated with artist Sarah Oppenheimer to create an angular, black aluminum, steel-and-mirrored skylight installation that pierces the home’s top-floor ceiling and is a walkable element on the roof terrace.
When it came to the interior design, Chen used a largely neutral palette, letting artwork and area rugs add subtle hints of color. He collaborated with local craftspeople to create custom pieces and used a mix of new and vintage mid-century furnishings to reflect the home’s modern appeal.
The vintage pieces echo the beloved New York brownstone highlighting the exterior. In the living room, a custom sofa in silk velvet shares space with a vintage Gio Ponti coffee table, a pair of Osvaldo Borsani armchairs, an Edward Durrell Stone oak stool and a small ebonized ash writing table and chair crafted by Christopher Kurtz, a New York furniture maker.
The dining room includes a vintage circular table by Poul Kjarholm and leather chairs by Kurtz, while the master bedroom is anchored by a custom-designed bed and vintagearmchairs.
Outdoors, Chen engaged in another collaboration, creating a vertical garden for the backyard in conjunction with Local Office Landscape Architecture and conservation botanists at SUNY.
“This wasn’t designed to be a full-time residence,” Chen said, “so the clients didn’t want a garden that needed a lot of maintenance.”
Chen designed the garden’s wall, made of cast terra cotta, to be integral to the exterior façade of the home’s rear staircase. The plantings were chosen to fit the eco-profile of the site and include native species found in the nearby Hudson River valley, including several types of ferns. Using New York native species matches the beautiful preservation of iconic Upper East Side brownstone for this project.
“This garden is a test case in urban conservation gardening,” Chen noted. Completed in 2017, the home has served the family well and been a career milestone for Chen. Among its many accolades, the project was one of the national 2017 Residential Architect Design Awards winners.