If you were to boil down the intellectual history of New York in the last century into a single edifice, chances are it would be an Italian Renaissance Revival building that occupies a full block from 78th to 79th Streets, between Broadway and West End Avenue. With its vast limestone facades and barrel-vaulted entries guarded by doormen in gatehouses, the Apthorp, built by the Astors in 1908, was no longer forbiddingly fancy by the time it entered midcentury lore. Instead, it had become a refuge for professors, playwrights, and eccentrics of all sorts, a high-ceilinged Brigadoon where one could hide from the clamor of the city while being dead in the center of it.
In the living room, the custom sectional is upholstered in a print and the custom sofa in a fabric is topped with a pillow in an fabric. The table lamp is by , the floor lamp is by , the rug is Persian, and the cashmere throw is by.
Nora Ephron rented a charmingly ramshackle fifth-floor five-bedroom in the Apthorp for decades, which she later eulogized in the New Yorker. She cooked Thanksgiving dinners for her famous friends and colleagues in her unrenovated kitchen and wrote such classic screenplays as When Harry Met Sally while she was there (conveniently, her sister and writing partner, Delia, had only to scurry across the way from her own apartment in the building). George Balanchine spent most of his career living at the Apthorp, and Lena Horne’s apartment in the building was filled with vintage 78s. Joseph Heller spent 45 years in what his daughter, Erica, in her memoir of him, called “the castle of Apthorpia,” writing Catch-22 and Something Happened while in residence. Woody Allen never lived at the Apthorp, but it is easy to imagine its influence on Manhattan, his love letter to a now-bygone city and era.
The kitchen’s sink, fittings, and tile backsplash are by . The range is by , the pendants are by , the custom island has a marble top, and the flooring is limestone with black-marble cabochons.
For Jonathan Sheffer, a conductor and composer who moved into the legendary building in September 2016 with his twin infant daughters, it was the thought of such cultured ghosts that made everything OK after what had been a bad stretch. A die-hard downtowner who was a protégé of Leonard Bernstein, Sheffer had previously owned a 5,200-square-foot townhouse on West 10th Street but was forced to sell it after a breakup with his longtime partner. “I had invested a huge amount of my identity in that house, in owning on that block, in that neighborhood, and it was incredibly painful to have to leave it,” he says. He spent time in a SoHo rental, weathering the loss of several surrogate pregnancies before the twins were at last conceived. Friends gently suggested it was time to consider the Upper West Side, where the apartments had the sort of space and layout that suited his new incarnation as a single father. He found the thought dispiriting. “I had always considered the neighborhood too stodgy,” he says.
The chair in the entrance hall is from , the vase is Chinese, the photograph is by Christopher Bucklow, and the mosaic floor is original to the apartment.
But architect and interior designer Robert Couturier, a friend of 30 years, talked Sheffer off a ledge and helped him imagine what his life could be like at the Apthorp. (Sheffer had, in fact, visited Ephron there, years ago, and experienced the magic of the place.) Couturier proposed a renovation that would reflect Sheffer’s tastes — an update of a refined Mitteleuropean sensibility. After the Apthorp went condo in 2008 (putting it on the front page for its legal battles with rent-controlled tenants), it was spruced up and largely brought back to its Astor-era spit and polish, but many of the new residents chose to create neutral minimalist spaces that mimicked newer construction. Sheffer instead longed for the spirit of the old Apthorp, imagining a nest that was hamish — Yiddish for “cozy” (take that, hygge).
Designer and client bonded over a mutual inspiration: the Musée Nissim de Camondo near Paris’s Parc Monceau, the elegantly preserved former home of an early-20th-century Turkish-Jewish financier who had collected a peerless assemblage of 18th-century furnishings in an intimate setting. Both Sheffer and Couturier related to how Moïse de Camondo had created a cocoon that perfectly expressed his passions. It was that warmth and texture within a historic context that Sheffer wanted, though made modern with contemporary art — an alluring Jack Pierson photograph of a man with a piercing gaze, a radiant Christopher Bucklow silhouette set against a night sky. “The Apthorp helped to heal Jonathan,” says Couturier, who himself grew up amid elegance in Paris. He has a knack for helping clients balance luxury with a deeper sense of authenticity and personal identity: “We made a place where he could feel like himself.”
The dining room’s furnishings include a table from and chairs in their original leather from . The custom banquette is covered in a fabric, the sconces are by , and the photograph is by Jack Pierson.
The 2,500-square-foot apartment was originally the top floor of a maisonette that had been divided. Living on the second floor suited Sheffer, who had loved living close to and feeling connected to the street below in his townhouse. Ada Louise Huxtable, the rigorous grande dame of architecture criticism, had touted second-floor living as an urban ideal, he notes, for its treetop views and human scale.
In the master bedroom, the vintage desk used to reside in the bedroom of Sheffer’s parents when he was growing up. The bed is covered in a suede and dressed in linens. A lamp from tops a side table from , the rug is from , and the photograph is by Adi Ness.
While the renovation was a major one, the apartment is almost an idealized version of what it might have been if Sheffer had lived there back when rent stabilization ruled, fussy novelists crabbed about bicycles left out in hallways, and the sounds of opera singers practicing scales vibrated even through the thick walls. The layout has discrete wings for his capacious bedroom suite, which he likens to the “best London hotel room ever,” and the spare but whimsical room that the girls share. But it also boasts well-proportioned public spaces that flow into one another with multiple doorways, ideal both for chasing after his daughters as they scream with delight, and for the parties he may one day throw again, as he did in his townhouse, with Gershwin and Sondheim filling the air.
Of course, in a corner of the living room — which features restored ornate plaster detailing and bookshelves holding volumes by Thomas Mann and Proust, along with busts of Verdi and Bach — stands a grand piano. Sheffer keeps a loft atelier in Greenwich Village, to which he travels daily to work, but he can often be found here on the tufted-leather bench, after the girls have been trundled off to bed, working on his current project, a score for a new musical.
Composer and conductor Jonathan Sheffer plays a grand piano in the living room of his apartment on New York’s Upper West Side. The curtains are by Perrine Rousseau for ALT for Living, and the artwork is by James Nares.
“It’s funny how you think you won’t survive loss,” he says. “And then, one day, you realize that you have to give up in order to get. I gave up a lot, it’s true, but I got all of this.”
This story was originally published in the November 2017 issue of ELLE DECOR.