New York, New York
Simple, serene, calm, safe. Not the usual terms used to describe living spaces in New York City, but those are the words chosen by at least one half of the couple renting the West Village carriage house owned by photographer Jan Staller, and designed by New York City–based firm Christoff:Finio Architecture. Built in the mid 19th century, the carriage house, which sits adjacent to the townhouse where Staller lives and works, went through several design iterations over the years, until it was seriously damaged by fire in 2005. Staller had purchased the properties in 1992, and watched his neighborhood continue on a path of gentrification as towers by Richard Meier and Asymptote, among others, rose around him. To keep up, and to preserve a bit of his river view, which was becoming obscured by his neighbors, he hired Christoff:Finio to renovate his townhouse and add on a penthouse in 2004. “I liked their design sense,” he says of the firm, “and when the carriage house burned I decided this was the time to bring it up to the standard of the surrounding buildings.”
The architects decided to give the little house everything it might have had in the suburbs, albeit on a much, much smaller scale. “It’s very unusual to have a freestanding house in the middle of New York City,” says Christoff, “and this one even had a sliver of a backyard, between the carriage house and townhouse.” The resulting 800-square-foot, two-bedroom house is a study of efficiency and livability. It begins with the ground floor entryway, which is just off an alley. To give residents some privacy and security as they enter their house, the architects turned the front of the house into an “urban garage”—a small area that could house bicycles, garbage cans—fronted by a screen of flat steel bars, each twisted 90 degrees. “We wanted to make a screen that would be open air, yet elegant and simple. Still, it was tricky to build,” says Martin Finio. Inside, the ground floor contains all the public living spaces plus a powder room and laundry facilities (what suburban house wouldn’t have a washer and dryer?). The kitchen and its concrete floor extend into the backyard, with teak cabinetry and stainless counters that literally continue past the back wall into the yard, where a grill awaits summer meals outside. That back wall also has low, operable windows that extend four feet up from the floor. The tenant says, “I wasn’t sure about them at first. But after living in the house I see how thoughtful their placement was. We aren’t staring into our landlord’s townhouse, and we see the garden from our kitchen, which is really lovely. That backyard is like an extra living room for us.”
While the white interiors don’t exactly break any barriers design-wise, there is an abundance of natural light that is rare for a New York City residence that isn’t glass on all sides. A skylight above the stairway has a lot to do with that, and the tenant says it provides a direct connection to the outdoors. “We see the weather as it happens, and the quality of light from the skylight changes.” Upstairs, there’s a master suite and another bedroom, which functions as an office-cum-guest room. The large windows on the alley side of the master bedroom face one of the new tall, glass towers that have risen since the construction of the carriage house, but the tenant says she doesn’t mind a bit. “The light that reflects off all that glass and comes into our bedroom is really lovely,” she says.
Since part of the program was to make this house accommodate Staller, a few things were put in place to improve his view in the direction of the carriage house. Slate shingles clad the exterior wall opposite his townhouse. “It was a reaction to giving him something opaque and organic to look at,” says Finio. Also, a xeriscaped roof on the carriage house gives Staller a pleasant garden on which to look down upon from his penthouse. “Everything they did was so clever, subtle, and functional,” he says.
As for the tenants, though they are clearly inspired by their home, they acknowledge the downside of raised expectations. “We are New Yorkers renting this house and we realize that what we have here would be very difficult to replicate. This is an unexpected oasis in New York City. What we’ve experienced by living here would definitely be our inspiration if we were looking for a place to buy.”
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