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A Townhouse Grows Up

An unassuming three-story building is transformed into a five-story townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side.

Project: Townhouse, New York, NY

Architects: Steven Kratchman Architect, P.C., New York, NY

Engineers: Matthew K. Bendix, New York, NY; Edward Hubschman Consulting Services, Little Neck, NY

Interior Designer: Steven Kratchman Architect, P.C., New York, NY, with Erit Cohen, New York, NY

By Eve M. Kahn

Rooftop and rear extensions on New York townhouses these days are typically "of their time," meaning Modernist – the favorite style for additions among the commissioners of the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission. The façades often get clad in reflective Mondrian-pattern curtain wall with black mullions, while the new roof ridges angle and jut in watered-down interpretations of the works of Viennese avant-garde firm Coop Himmelb(l)au. Rarely do Manhattan architects break with such contemporary "traditions" and design something genuinely traditional that blends with existing streetscapes. New York City-based Steven Kratchman Architect, P.C., just finished this kind of maverick history-inspired townhouse addition on the Upper East Side – on a block not in fact monitored by the Landmarks Commission. Kratchman transformed an unremarkable three-story brick box into a gracefully proportioned, five-story limestone home that seems to have stood there for nearly a century.

"We were looking to evoke 1930s townhouses, or embassies or clubhouses, that have clean lines but still hark back to 19th-century traditions," Kratchman explains. The architect also aimed to showcase the limitless possibilities of architectural stonework; the client is a stone importer who owns a Brooklyn-based company called Natural Stone Industries and entertains customers and prospective customers at the house. Contrary to the ancient adage that declares that cobblers' children have no shoes, this stone merchant's family enjoys juxtapositions of marble, granite and slate with vein patterns as dramatic and intriguing as Jackson Pollock paintings.

Kratchman re-engineered every inch of the original building to support the added floors with elaborate masonry. The Victorian brick structure, topped in a sheet-metal dentil cornice, had been chopped into characterless apartments, offices and a store. Fire escapes trailed down the back to a two-story rear wing. Kratchman's teams gutted the main block and tore off the fire escapes. They peeled off the back extension's roof and part of its top floor and inserted new steel floor joists to hold two tiers of terraces. The workers also spent two months excavating the site's basement: the floor was lowered to create a 9-ft.-tall usable space, which accommodates a gym, wine cellar and laundry room, among other amenities. All footings were reinforced, both for the existing structure and for its immediate townhouse neighbors. "It was almost like we were digging a tunnel," Kratchman recalls. "We could only proceed a few feet forward at a time."

The new stone façade gives some hint of the interior's increased weight and capaciousness. Foot-deep French limestone blocks were steel-pinned to the vintage brickwork. At the quasi-rusticated base, Kratchman designed 2-in. reveals between 18-in.-tall blocks, as the walls are load-bearing. Dentils support the ground floor's cyma recta cornice, which echoes a cyma reversa cornice five floors up. All the stone, explains the architect, "came from quarries near Avignon that also supplied the limestone for the popes' palaces there. Our sections have fewer fossils than you'll see on the palaces, but the warmish, buttery, beautiful color is exactly the same."

On every floor, Kratchman pulled back the limestone to form 10-in.-deep reveals for floor-to-ceiling, transom-capped casement windows that resemble French doors. Although all panes are operable, the occupants can't step onto the shallow sills, some of which are fronted in scrollwork iron railings supplied, like all of the house's metalwork, by Brooklyn-based Metal Crafts Inc. "We put in what are officially called French balconies," Kratchman explains. "You see them all over Paris, filled with flowerboxes." The railings' curlicues echo flowery ironwork on the ground floor's spear-topped fence and the entry door's security grilles. The whole exterior is cohesive, restrained and elegant, as well as respectful of similarly fence-fronted and dentil-trimmed townhouses on the block.

Kratchman meanwhile kept the interior ornament system consistent and low-key. All doors are walnut, even on the elevator. Iron scrollwork railings edge a teak main staircase and also frame a sunny bay window tucked at the back of the kitchen. Fluted pilasters and Ionic volutes recur on virtually every floor, from the corners of the kitchen island to the marble fireplaces in the library, living room and bedrooms.

The only visual fireworks in sight are the colors and patterns of the stone. In the kitchen, charcoal-streaked creamy marble counters complement cream woodwork. Fireplaces are carved with urns and swags, and some pilaster flutes are trompe l'oeil: terra cotta-colored vertical strips were inlaid into cream backgrounds. In the eight bathrooms, almost no tile was used. Stone sheets on the walls and floors are 3 in. deep – no mere veneers need apply. In the downstairs powder room, bold veins of lichen or brown slash across gray granite walls. In the master bath, white marble sheets bear feathery gray crisscrosses. On the rear terraces, the family relaxes amid Vermont slate pavers in shades of butter or peach.

At the rims of the terraces stand either iron scrollwork railings or low stucco walls. During construction, the owners even funded repairs and stucco coverings for the neighbors' brick rear walls. Everyone overlooking the spot, that is, gets to enjoy Kratchman's well-coordinated aesthetics. The house, while doubling in size, remained a team player at every elevation.

 

 

 
 

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