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New York Story

A 1917 apartment is renovated on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Project: Residence, New York, NY

Architect: Timothy Bryant Architect, New York, NY; Timothy Bryant, principal

By Lynne Lavelle

"New Yorkers aren't born, they're made," is a favorite expression of Timothy Bryant, an architect well suited to the city that never sleeps. Born and brought up in Windsor and High Wycombe, England, he moved to the U.S. in 1983, leaving behind an economic recession that had all but halted new construction at home. Besides a background in interior design and the instinctual education of growing up with a father who worked as a builder, Bryant brought with him a strong sense of destiny. "I had this mental image when I was 21 that I could come to America and become an architect," he says. "I came here with the idea that people were building more, so I'd have a better chance of actually becoming an architect and finding work because there was a greater need. Nobody was building much in England at the time and I really wanted to build."

Between arriving in Seattle, WA, in 1983 as part of an agricultural exchange program and opening his own office in New York City's Tribeca neighborhood in 1997, Bryant lived by the maxim "no job too big or too small." The list includes renovating and painting apartments, driving a tractor, making and selling jewelry and working as a barista. While doing the latter, a chance encounter with the owner of the design arm of the Westin Hotel Group led to work on hotel renovations, commercial stores and restaurants, and later, a promotion to the company's New York office. A lighting firm and a corporate facilities' designer provided the short-term stepping stones to Bryant's big break, working for Thierry Despont, where, he says, "The transformation really happened."

Bryant spent three years in Despont's office, working on complex residential projects. "I was a good draftsman from an early age, and I worked really hard," he says. "I studied the drawings – I didn't even know how to read a steel manual – did more overtime than anybody else, and basically taught myself how to understand it all. I was then able to work on buildings just by going to see them and reverse-engineering what was being built related to the drawings."

After leaving Despont for the Japanese firm Yendo Associates in 1992, Bryant then moved to Ferguson Murray Architects (later Ferguson & Shamamian) in 1993. It was here that he accumulated the balance of experience required to pass the Architecture Registration Exam, enabling him to open Timothy Bryant Architect in 1997. Recommendations came thick and fast, leading to work all over the country. Thirteen years on, little has changed: "[Today] I have projects in California, I have projects in Wisconsin… I like to go where the work is," says Bryant. "That has allowed me to understand what I am good at, which seems to be solving complex projects regardless of their stylistic idiom. I approach everything in the same way that I approached becoming an architect: 'How do I solve this?', 'What do I need to do to make this project as good as it can be?'"

Interactions with clients, crafts-people and builders provide the answers. At an elementary level, "you have to be able to interpret someone's wishes without being too literal," says Bryant. "Sometimes I use the analogy that it is a lot like trying to find the right word for a poem, or a way to describe how something feels. You need to articulate on many different levels."

Recently, the architect's approach found its match in a Manhattan restoration and renovation project for client with an extensive art collection and a strong point of view. Located on Park Avenue, the 2,900-sq.ft., John Carpenter-designed apartment was built in 1917, and had the original paint and wallpaper, maids' rooms, transoms, stove, butler's bell, metal windows and woodwork, and original electrical system to prove it. "It was just amazing. Seeing all of this was like going back in time. I took pictures because I had never seen anything like it," says Bryant, noting that with the exception of a new electrical panel added in the '50s and a door from a lumberyard added to the dining room, nothing had changed. "The design of the original apartment felt stripped, like somehow the lifeblood or the vitality was missing. There were a number of stock components – fireplaces and such – that weren't particularly spectacular. They looked like they had come from a builders' catalogue."

One of the criteria on which Bryant was selected was the strength – and reputation – of his molding work. "When they think of Classicism, most people focus on moldings," he says. "They don't think of Classicism or Neoclassicism per se, or whether I have a particular idiom. So from that perspective, I met the client and showed her my portfolio and she immediately responded. She had a winning, engaging, exuberant personality and I just connected with her immediately."

Wren-period Georgian profiles and James Gibbs-inspired cornices form the basis of the design, and give a loosely 1930s feel. Charles Edwards of England supplied the swirl doorknobs on the front door and the Regency-style ebonized beehive doorknobs for the black egg-and-dart molding in the mahogany doors and the brass beehive doorknobs in the master area. "I like those particular pieces because they weren't from the usual suppliers," says Bryant. "They felt unique to the client and the project."

From the original Cuban mahogany floors, with their little creaks and gaps, to the original metal windows that occasionally leak, the clients were enthusiastic salvagers. "I explained everything to them – the advantages and disadvantages – and they loved what was there," says Bryant. "And I would have done the same thing. I would have lived with the little problems because you either love old things and the marks of the people who made them, or you don't."

The new floor plan retains a traditional configuration, with service areas private from the formal living spaces. However, circulation problems meant that some subtle reworking was required. Bryant retained the original formal entry sequence and library location, but added a rear circulation hall and expanded the master suite. "We made a multifunctional sitting room, and the clients suggested hiding closets behind bookcases," says Bryant. "I was really surprised they wanted to do this, as most people don't like faux books, but they did and we ordered faux book covers. His bathroom was almost shoehorned behind plumbing pipes and everything else, while also accommodating another circulation from the kitchen to the back hall. It was very tight."

A brand new library, made from old-growth Oregon pine and fabricated in Paris, was installed in the original library location. It showcases a salvaged Georgian pine mantle from Barry Perry of New York City and, behind bookcases, a concealed bar and television. "She was into the theater of the concealed pieces," says Bryant. "Some people don't like that, they think it's too fussy, but she was able to control the whole sense of the place." The fireplace in the living room is complemented by a new Georgian-style mantel, executed in scagliola by Pennsylvania-based Ahmad Suleiman.

In the absence of a professional interior designer, the client's tastes and idiosyncrasies shine from every wall, cabinet and table: pictures of her ancestors; furniture she collected in Ireland when she was 23; old Georgian side chairs; the pedestal console in the entry hall; the mirror over the mantel and the custom-painted Chinese wall panels in the dining room – every piece fell into place. And where pieces were missing, such as oriental rugs for the kitchen, she found them herself. "Nothing was really selected for her," says Bryant. "And I didn't really know what she was planning on doing. One of the problems of being the architect in a situation like this is that you don't always see the fabrics, furniture and color that people have; you don't see all the pieces. There were items that she didn't tell me she had and then there they were, with a lovely natural feel to them."

Completed in 2006, this quintessentially New York project remains one of Bryant's favorites. "These little gems come along once in a while and there is an opportunity to really connect with the spirit of the work," he says. "For me, I want things to feel natural, to have understood the character of the place and worked with the grain. I like the reaction to be, 'Oh, of course. Why would you have done anything different?'"  

 

 

 
 

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