In the early 1960s, the modernist master Paul Rudolph, dean of Yale’s School of Architecture (and designer of its famed Brutalist home), rented a small pied-à-terre in an 1867 townhouse on Manhattan’s Beekman Place. In 1976, after the real estate market cratered, he was able to buy up the whole four-story structure, which backs up on the East River. He set about remaking it into his home and studio, a monument to a profoundly idiosyncratic vision.
While Rudolph left the elegant facade intact after dressing up the rental units, at the top he cantilevered what may be the most eye-catching addition to any 19th-century building in the city: a jagged multilevel aerie that hangs out over the staid residential enclave. With Plexiglas floors, reflective steel beams, glass walls, and six terraces, several with full views of the river and the coursing FDR Drive below, the interior blended the verve of Russian constructivism, the sleek International Style of Mies van der Rohe, and the fractured, geometric imagination of Piet Mondrian.
Over the decades, the house has been called audacious, awe-inspiring, and absurd; it was landmarked in 2010. But one sobriquet has rarely been used to describe the space, at least until now: homey. Rudolph favored cutting up volumes into Escher-like planes with subtle asymmetries, with mezzanines and staircases galore (even within a single “room”). He never cared much for railings (tales from the 1970s abound of Liza Minnelli and other tipsy stiletto-shod guests scaling the floating staircase in Halston’s Rudolph-designed townhouse on 63rd Street). He preferred transparency over privacy and was untroubled that walking over clear floor inserts with views to the space below might make people queasy.
Still, for Christine and John Gachot, the married couple behind the ELLE DECOR A-List design team Gachot Studios—known for residential projects including Marc Jacobs’s West Village townhouse and such hotels as the Smyth in TriBeCa and the Shinola in Detroit—the chance to turn the legendary space into a home for their family was irresistible. “You get to a point in your life when doing something sort of crazy like this is exactly what you want,” says John, whose lively household includes sons Boris, 18, and Jackie, 14, as well as an English springer spaniel named Slim.
For the Gachots, the idea to turn the legendary space into a home for their family was irresistible.
After a decade in a NoLIta loft, moving to a sedate neighborhood east of Midtown was a bit emotionally fraught for the clan. Surprisingly, adapting to Rudolph’s convention-defying floor plan was less so. “Sure, it took a little getting used to,” says Christine, who has already mastered ascending and descending the vertiginous stairs in her ever-present heels. “But after a few weeks, it felt really natural.”
The couple were both on staff at Studio Sofield when they met more than 20 years ago. Christine then joined the hotelier André Balazs’s design team, while John worked with Thad Hayes and David Easton. They founded their own firm in 2011. In the Rudolph residence, they transformed the once chaste and chilly space into a true family abode. With the exception of a custom-built sofa made for one of the living areas, they were even able to reuse most of the furniture from their loft, an amazing feat considering the odd nooks that Rudolph created in the 3,800-square-foot space.
The sunlight-washed penthouse is now a highly edited environment that is also warm and winsome. The previous occupants had, with the blessing of the landmarks commission, painted some of the shiny metal surfaces white and installed unobtrusive glass panels to make the mezzanines seem less treacherous. The Gachots brought in classic chairs and lounges (Charles and Ray Eames, Norman Cherner, and Ole Wanscher), Moroccan pottery, and artworks by Raymond Pettibon and Nancy Lorenz. A long, low shelf original to the house now holds a set of matryoshka nesting dolls.
Throughout, minimalist sophistication is leavened with relaxed whimsy. Such casual charm might have been anathema to Rudolph but seems pitch-perfect in the current era of pared-down comfort, when the hard edges of classic modernism may seem too sharp. On one of the terraces, with junipers in the original Rudolph planters, a low table is surrounded by outdoor chairs the Gachots had made from original plans by De Stijl icon Gerrit Rietveld. In the boys’ multilevel room, Boris’s keyboards are set up on a catwalk-like balcony near Farrah Fawcett’s iconic bathing suit poster; his bed seems to float in midair. Below, Jackie’s space holds a vintage cocktail table and an inflatable armchair. “There are a lot of ways to honor an amazing structure,” says John. “You can stick to a literal interpretation, but we wanted to see if we could keep the spirit yet warm it up in a way that was true to us.”
Styled by Lili Abir Regen
This story originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE