A Grand Upper East Side Mansion Gets the Gabellini Sheppard Treatment
May 20, 2019
A luxury boutique in a far-flung locale is usually where we encounter Interior Design Hall of Fame member Michael Gabellini. Jil Sander in Paris, Salvatore Ferragamo in Venice, Giorgio Armani in Rome, and 1436 in Beijing spring to mind. This time we’re on the Upper East Side, closer to home. . . at an actual home. And it’s every bit as grand as retail projects by Gabellini Sheppard Associates, the firm he operates with Kimberly Sheppard. In fact, early fashion interiors by Gabellini were partly what caught the eye of the house’s owners. “They reacted to the spaces that had once been part of historic homes,” he recalls, pointing out that Jil Sander was in an 19th-century building that later belonged to couturiere Madeleine Vionnet.
There’s plenty of history associated with the Upper East Side property, too. A real grande dame, the beaux arts limestone town house was completed in 1903 by Warren & Wetmore, Architects, best known for Grand Central Terminal. The subsequent century inflicted a number of dubious interventions, most recently a conversion into a nine-unit apartment building. Restoring it to its single-family glory, layered with 21st-century accoutrements in Gabellini Sheppard’s inimitable understated style, was the quest.
It turned into a seven-year adventure for the architects and the owners, a couple with four children. Guiding principles, believe it or not, were simplicity, comfort, and utility—to which we add: plenty of luxury. “The project is the culmination of our studio’s residential practice,” Gabellini says.
Since the house is in a historic district, the original part of the street facade was simply washed and re-pointed where necessary. The big move was to replace the 1970’s windows on the top two levels with dormers. Meanwhile, the rear elevation saw extensive work. “We took off the back and rebuilt it,” Gabellini states. The granite framework, with graduated limestone piers between punched frameless windows, is configured to create a “contemporary interpretation of the piano nobile, setting up a dialogue between old and new,” he notes. Pragmatically, all that glass lets sunlight penetrate.
Exterior upgrades aside, this was truly an interiors job. “We did a complete reconstruction,” Gabellini says. “Most floors were gutted.” Two years in, the owners decided to add a bona fide gym, complete with basketball half-court, and a swimming pool. Ergo an excavation descending 30 feet to add two subterranean levels to the five stories above ground. “This was key to the family,” Sheppard notes, since they are all athletic. Square footage now totals 13,750, plus the roof garden.
Here’s the gist of the organization. Past a small entry, the foyer is large enough for a sitting area where guests can gather on a Rodolfo Dordoni sofa before proceeding to the kitchen, straight ahead, or to the upstairs. Level two boasts the living and dining areas at one end, the media room at the other—that’s the real hangout place. The master suite and the library sprawl over level three, and the children’s four bedrooms are above. At the top are a guest room and a crafts studio.
Connecting everything, a spectacularly ethereal serpentine stair practically floats. The balustrades’ heat-bent glass panels are up to 6 feet wide, pushing the limits of curve capability, and capped by gleaming ribbons of stainless steel. Steps are creamy white marble from Macedonia. As a counterpoint, bringing heft and depth of color to the composition, each landing is paneled in wengé.
Wood and stone are the foundation of the luxe materials palette. The stair’s white marble also paves the ground level and most of the master bathroom and completely surrounds the pool, giving it the feeling of a “grotto,” Gabellini notes. Wengé returns for floorboards on the middle levels as well as the enclosure for the catering kitchen, behind the dining area. Some walls are Venetian plaster; others are painted white or off-white in matte or semigloss finishes.
Two slabs of honed travertine form the top of the 12-foot-long dining table, supported by a bronzed steel base. Gabellini Sheppard custom-fabricated almost half the furnishings, designed to keep company with pieces by contemporary masters—Carlo Colombo and Marcel Wanders plus the aforementioned Dordoni. But there’s no surplus of stuff. This is more about celebrating a surfeit of space.
Pervasive in the Gabellini Sheppard canon is the significance of lighting—this project’s overarching intangible, too. We see scarcely a fixture. Instead, illumination emanates from coves framing floating ceilings or from strategic slits, while a pervasive glow descends from the skylight directly over the stairway. “We take our principles from light artists,” Sheppard says. Think of Robert Irwin and James Turrell.