It's not easy to be a family in New York City, a place whose very energy seems to promote individuality—a place where you define yourself as a foodie or a theatergoer, a socialite, skateboarder, rapper, or Wall Streeter before you are a brother, sister, mother, or father.
But scratch the surface, and the city quickly reveals itself to be a terrific place for parents and kids to grow up together, especially if they have a suitable home in which to do it. For one particular family, that home is a townhouse tailor-made to allow them to balance privacy with togetherness, serenity with rambunctiousness, and high style with childproof durability.
When the clients first saw the property, a 1901 limestone townhouse on Manhattan's Upper East Side, "it was grand, but daunting," according to Kevin Roberts, a principal of Haynes-Roberts, the firm hired to remake the space. Originally built as a single-family dwelling, the house had been cut up over the years into multiple apartments as well as a doctor's office. But at 12,000 square feet, it was the right size for the clients, who not only have five children—ranging in age from six to 17—but also regularly welcome as many as 30 guests for their Shabbat dinners.
For the clients, it was a chance to start from scratch with a clear sense of who they are and how they live. "This is the first project I've done where I knew the size of my family," says the wife, noting that when they moved into their previous place, they had just two children; as the family grew, they expanded into the apartment below.
"It got big and ungainly," says Roberts of that apartment.
This time, adds the wife, "I knew exactly how we were going to use the space."
Designing the house to maximize its usefulness for each family member took nearly four years, from first showing to move-in date. But Timothy Haynes is trained as an architect and Roberts is an interior designer, and their firm is intentionally small and closely knit, so every aspect of the project—from the configuration of the spaces to the smallest trim detail—was assiduously discussed and planned, then painstakingly executed.
Among the resulting delights are a bevy of features as resilient as they are stunning. The ground-floor entrance gallery's terrazzo floor, for example, brings a gloss of polished white to a previously dark space. "I wanted a big, chunky terrazzo," says Roberts, "and I wanted it to look random"—almost like ice floes. Punctuating that space are dark rosewood columns with contrasting nickel-clad corners and a vivid red wall sculpture by Lynda Benglis. Out of sight, there's also ample storage for bicycles and sports equipment. Below, there's even an area for indoor hockey games.
Upstairs, the dining room table, topped in back-painted glass, stands on a cowhide rug ("both are easy to clean," Roberts points out). Living room chairs are upholstered in indestructible white leather or fabric of woven metal threads. The library walls are ebonized mahogany; its carpet a forgiving pattern of dark spatters. The family room table is Corian. And high on the sixth floor there's a playroom where the kids and their friends can kick off their shoes and lounge in front of a big screen. "They come from hanging out in Central Park," says the wife, "and they're all starving and they know they can have a snack here. Everyone is always over here now!"
But not every aspect of the design is a concession to the haphazard habits of party guests and children. The living room, for example, "is not a place for orange juice and sticky hands," says the wife. The staircase, which winds, ribbonlike, up from the gallery floor to a large skylight in the roof, is as much a piece of breathtaking natural-lit sculpture as a means to move between stories. And the master suite takes up an entire floor, including not only a generous bedroom and dressing room, but also a sitting room, a gym, and a spacious master bath. "I had always dreamed of a day when our bathroom would not be the center of everybody's universe," says the wife. "Because in our old apartment, even though the kids had their own bathroom, they were always in ours."
The house also needed to accommodate the clients' significant art collection, which includes works by John Baldessari and Jim Lambie, among others. "They have a strong commitment to contemporary art," says Roberts, "but they had no space for it. Now they can actually look at their art." In deference to the works' "intensity," Roberts stuck to a calm, monochromatic palette of platinum, silver, ebony, and palest gray. Moreover, he adds, "Collections change over time. Keeping the rooms neutral allows for flexibility."