I am a very lucky lady. I live in a lovely, one-bedroom apartment on a quiet, tree-lined street in New York City. My building is a handsome eight-floor prewar with a red brick facade. My unit is on the second floor and faces a serene courtyard with leafy trees, which keeps me very grounded.
My building was completed in 1923, when even ordinary apartment buildings were laid out with a generosity in scale and richness in detail. My unit is ample and also intimate. Each room is carefully shaped and has natural light and ventilation. There are masonry walls and concrete slab floors that isolate sounds and keep the rooms cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
I have all the predictable complaints about pre-war construction. The steam heat is hard to regulate, with noisy pipes and immense, inoperable radiators. My bedroom radiator is the noisiest of all. It jumps to life on winter mornings with a steel-on-steel clanking that disturbs neighbors and frightens house guests. The radiator in my living room is quieter but occupies valuable space along a window wall that would be perfect for a reading chair or plants.
The plumbing system is on the brink of failure. Each time I use Drano to unclog my tub, which is at least once a month, I stand back and hold my breath, waiting for some sort of internal collapse. My kitchen sink is perpetually clogged so that after rinsing dishes it takes almost five minutes for water to drain completely.
And there is not nearly enough closet space. I have separate coat and linen closets but the main closet, in the hallway, is too small to hold all my clothes. (Of course a compelling argument could be made that I have too many clothes.)
But the charms of my apartment outweigh all these inconveniences. The ceilings have expressed beams. The walls have a handsome base and a functioning picture rail. These details give the rooms a sense of scale and particularity.
There is real grace in the high double-hung windows throughout the unit. I have two in my bedroom, two in my living room, and one in my kitchen. They are five feet tall and sit rather low in the wall. They have solid wood frames and single pane glazing, which is not energy efficient but offers a fine, clear view. When I stand in front of my living room windows on a sunny day I feel as if I am outdoors.
The hardwood raised panel doors have a nice heft to them and make entering a room a bit slower and ritualistic. I have grown so accustomed to them that when I handle a hollow core door in someone else’s home it feels insubstantial. The doors and frames have been painted so many times that some doors don’t close properly and the original profile of the frames and raised panels remains a mystery.
There are oak floors in the main rooms, with a tongue and groove border and a field of 12″ x 12″ parquetry panels. This gives each room a smaller, finer, scale. When I moved into the apartment I sanded the original maple-colored floors and stained them a walnut color. I applied a wax finish that requires special care but allows more of the oak grain to show through than a varnish would. Except for a few broken boards, which I chipped when I walking over them with heels, the floor is in good condition.
The heart of my apartment is the built-in bookshelves in the living room. They are not original to the building and are not well detailed. But they are sturdy and immensely practical. I love my books and enjoy having my collection all in one place. In addition I have my telephone, stereo and television components all tucked inside. My friend Robert, a stylist with a keen eye for interiors, reorganized the shelves for me this spring. He removed knick-knacks and grouped books by size. His work re-energized the whole room and is part of what inspired me to undertake a remodel.
Although I’m an architect it’s not the overall layout and design of my place but these smaller elements that are most meaningful. They give the place character, warmth, and a sense of stability. When I finally decided to to address some of my apartment’s problems and do some sweetening, my main concern was how to remodel without losing the overall feeling of the place.