The Beautiful Headache

Owner: Paul Rudolph
Started building: 1977
Interesting factoid: The absence of railings on the apartment’s stairwell terrified Rudolph’s cleaning lady, among others.

Owner: Anonymous
Year purchased: 2003
Interesting factoid: Among the controversial renovations made to the apartment were two practical ones: air-conditioning and a sprinkler system.

When the architects Jared Della Valle and Andrew Bernheimer started renovating Paul Rudolph’s legendary apartment on Beekman Place, they soon discovered how it had served as a laboratory for its designer, the influential modernist and dean of the Yale School of Architecture in the sixties. Obsessed with reflective surfaces, Rudolph wedged mirrors and Mylar everywhere. Pieces were found throughout the apartment, sometimes buried in the walls and ceilings. The renovations also uncovered a piece of Sheetrock with the words MELAMINE EVERYTHING (a reference to the shiny white Formica chosen for his cabinetry), and an abundance of clear acrylic.

For Della Valle and Bernheimer, these discoveries served as inspiration. If the master used the materials of the seventies and eighties to generate more light and space in his four-level, Rubik’s Cube–like home, they would continue his exploration using newer materials such as Corian and mirror-polished stainless steel. In the living room, gleaming white epoxy replaced gray carpeting; two-way mirrors appeared in bathrooms and on doors; and the kitchen island was conceived as a white block.

But these choices are bound to provoke controversy among architectural historians who would prefer that the apartment remain sacrosanct—the flamboyant, decaying laboratory of design it was when Rudolph died in 1997. Hearing of the renovation, the previous owners, the Santa Monica–based modernist collectors Gabrielle and Michael Boyd, confessed to being “saddened.”

A controversy at 23 Beekman Place would hardly be surprising. When Rudolph submitted his plans for adding his modernist apartment atop this townhouse in 1977, the neighbors objected. Today, its owner is embroiled in a civil suit against his immediate neighbor, who erected a wall high enough to block the southern-facing windows.

What has never been in dispute is the great imagination on display. “It’s a view inside his mind: clear but so complex,” notes Gregory Horgan, the project manager on-site for the past three years. As one enters the apartment’s small, stainless-steel-floored lobby, there’s an unnerving sensation. Thanks to glass panels on the right, a two-story-high bedroom suite looks to be almost floating out into Beekman Place.

The Beautiful Headache