It’s a comfort in tumultuous times to remember that even places we think of as unchanging often have, in fact, been through many incarnations, emerging more interesting. Case in point: Manhattan’s lower Fifth Avenue. Plutocrats of the 1800s bought up the stretch and built capacious private mansions. But once the wealthy migrated uptown toward Central Park and laws barred at-home piecework, developers of the mid- to late 19th century tore all that down to erect the Ladies’ Mile, a corridor of buildings with loftlike retail and offices to serve the so-called carriage trade, many of which were done in the elegant Beaux Arts style.
Among the grand touches that continue to amaze today are the cupolas, sometimes placed atop rounded corners on the cornice and pediment–embellished structures. The phantasmagorical domes, often finished in copper or gold leaf, originally were decorative. But as many of the buildings have recently been adapted for residential use, a parlor game has emerged among pedestrians who cast their gaze upward: What’s it like to live in a place like that?
For one couple with three grown children, it has been an adventure. After falling in love with a two-bedroom residence capped with a two-story cupola in just such a building in 2012, they decided to combine it with the flat next door on the main level to make a 4,400-square-foot family home. They asked the New York City–based architect Peter Pennoyer and ELLE Decor A-List designer Katie Ridder, who are married, to help them reimagine the expanse. Ridder and Pennoyer are specialists in creating classical environments that also have a timeless, unfussy modernity. They had collaborated with the clients on a house in Westchester County, designed to look like a 19th-century carriage house that had been turned into a cottage, so they knew they were in sync.
A lucky thing, too, as the project turned out to be massive and complex. The cupola triplex had been unoccupied since the 2007 condominium conversion, and while the copper dome was supposed to have been refurbished, the work had not been properly done. So Pennoyer had to bring in Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, specialists in laboriously re-creating from scratch such daring architectural details. And because the giant flagpole at the top of the dome was speared through the structure, buried in a huge low-hanging beam that spanned the cupola’s interior, Pennoyer had to invent an umbrellalike armature to hold up the pole while leaving the dome open. “It was a really major engineering feat,” he says. “But it made all the difference.”
Still, the challenges continued even after those major structural issues were addressed. While the spectacular exterior of the 1897 building was intact, the high-ceilinged lofts themselves had been stripped of character and ornament. The flashy high-end appliances and trendy minimalist fixtures couldn’t hide the fact that “the spaces were basically Sheetrock boxes,” Pennoyer says. The top level of the cupola had been turned into a round white-on-white master bedroom–cum–wet room, with a glassed-in bathtub and shower and a dangling chandelier.
The clients wanted to keep the open flow of the main-floor layout, but they craved some of the prewar grace and detailing that had originally distinguished the space. And they wanted vivid color—especially blues and reds.
So Ridder and Pennoyer set about creating a unique, idiosyncratic hybrid: a contemporary loft incorporating a quirky dome and a surfeit of custom oak paneling and millwork to lend coziness; a place where antiques, lush seating, and vibrant textiles would interact seamlessly with the provenance of the building without seeming stuck in the period. “There really isn’t anywhere like this,” Ridder says. “It’s not derivative of anything.”
She is known for her way with saturated colors and riotous patterns, as well as her eye for unusual, shapely antiques. That approach is evident here as soon as you step into the elongated octagonal entryway: The walls are peacock-blue verre églomisé with floating gold and silver leaves.
Keeping the loftlike feel of the main floor, which now comprises the living areas and three of the bedrooms (the master bedroom is on the lower cupola level, reached from the entry hall by a private staircase), didn’t mean keeping things exactly where they were. In the condo conversion, the seating areas had been positioned in front of four curved windows that offer a rare diagonal view of the city; Ridder made that space the dining area, with embroidered red leather chairs around a late-19th-century pedestal table. In what is now the living area, cocktail tables by Wendell Castle and Jacques Adnet are illuminated by a graceful midcentury floor lamp by Tommi Parzinger.
But it is the two-story dome that most intrigues: Its circular stacked rooms—a denlike entertainment space above the main-level living area and a library at the top—are connected by an elegant bronze staircase. The rounded rooms are intimate yet airy, daring in scarlet and azure. On the curved wall of the media room, above a ruby sofa designed to hug the contour, hangs a series of wooden pigeon decoys. They likely were hand-carved around the time that the building itself rose high in the Manhattan skyline, its whimsical cupola embodying the past and beckoning the future.
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of ELLE Decor. SUBSCRIBE
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