Around the Town
House & Garden, October 2005
When home is a 12-room penthouse duplex that includes a suburbanlike
expanse of terrace and 360-degree, unobstructed New York City views,
“Wow!” pretty much sums it up.
That’s exactly how Andrea and John Stark reacted when they
first saw the space two and a half years ago during an epic house
search. When the hunt began, they were living in the fabled Waldorf
Towers. John missed having a duplex like the Park Avenue one they’d
occupied for more than 20 years, and Andrea yearned for the airy
sensation of their Palm Beach residence, yet they kept looking at
traditional, often dark, pre-World War II apartments.
Then their broker called, urging them to see something “entirely
different” - a post-World War II, white-brick building
with a soaring, two-story rooftop aerie so vast it included a greenhouse.
She recalls walking in, and saying, “This is it!”
She turned to interior designer Jeffrey Bilhuber whose embrace
of the traditional and modern impressed her. He, in turn, found
her wish list telling. “She wanted something with a modern
sensibility but didn’t want to turn her back on the past,”
Comfortable as a team, they faced the new apartment’s challenge:
how to create a sense of intimacy, of family, in a huge space defined
by showstopping views. Their references included iconic rooms by
twentieth-century tastemakers such as designer Billy Baldwin, couturier
Hubert de Givenchy, decorator William Haines, and Pauline de Rothschild,
who worked as a designer for Hattie Carnegie before marrying Baron
Philippe de Rothschild. Each of these visionaries, Bilhuber says,
“had taken a stand on how to reappreciate rooms.”
With Andrea, he edited the couple’s antiques, pieces that
the Starks had acquired or that came from a collection started by
John’s mother and father, who founded Stark Carpet which John
now oversees with his brother Steven. “I like to recycle my
pieces,” Andrea says. “It’s important to keep
Installed in the duplex and augmented by newly purchased contemporary
art and furniture, the traditional furniture took on the kind of
charged exuberance “that represents modern” Bilhuber
says. Exemplifying this joyful juxtaposition is an extraordinary
eighteenth-century French console that Bilhuber placed at the entrance.
Once ensconced in a baroque castle, it floats in space, anchored
to the front of a slab of ebonized mahogany. The display elevates
the piece to sculpture, its presence enhanced by a pair of mid-century
American chairs. “I felt the dichotomy of the lean chairs
against the gilded magnificence of the console makes you see both
for the first time,” Bilhuber says.
The suggestion of the home’s serious playfulness starts under
the nautilus curve of the staircase, where two polished plaster
orbs that are over-drawn with graphite in the spirit of American
artist Cy Twombly seem poised to roll. The stairs, with the white-lacquered
banister that references the Museum of Modern Art and a custom designed
Stark carpet, shimmer up into the light. At the landing, a significant
eighteenth-century French, blue enamel clock is displayed above
Study for an Angel’s Wing, an oil by Boris Drucker,
an artist known for his New Yorker cartoons.
Light also moves through time in the expansive drawing room, softened
- as is the rest of the apartment - with the generous
use of portieres, curtains hanging over doorways. The room has three
distinct seating areas. One has a gilded settee with contrasting
panels of brown and ivory fabric that evokes Pauline de Rothschild.
“She was channeling a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century solution
based on function,” Bilhuber says of the darker color on the
arms. Two chairs he designed complete the grouping around a pair
of custom-made faux tortoiseshell tables. Another seating area is
dominated by a low-slung sofa that so closely resembles one in a
circa 1962 Cecil Beaton portrait of the baroness that it almost
places her in the room. Two chaises designed by Bilhuber sit under
shells designer Dorothy Draper designed for Hampshire House, a Manhattan
The dining room also evokes the greats. A late eighteenth-century
French table of plum pudding mahogany contrasts with a twentieth-century
lacquered sideboard. Bilhuber mounted the low 1950s piece on a two-inch-thick
Lucite platform with Chinese-style legs. A Julian Schnabel work,
a painted-over photograph of Versailles, hangs above. Facing it,
a one of Kenneth Noland’s pieces from the Stripes
series. The room dances in light, from the Swarovski crystal chandelier
by Tord Boontje to a pair of polished brass mid-century sconces
that send pinpoints of light up to the ceiling and down to the floor.
Even the silk damask curtains add light; embroidered by hand in
Bilhuber’s workroom, they have mother-of-pearl and crystal
beads that create an array of constellations.
The breakfast room, which Andrea describes as “nesty”
counters the formality of the dining room. It faces east to catch
the morning sun, with pewter Chinese paper walls that hold the light.
Chairs upholstered in turquoise leather surround a Knoll table under
one of the apartment’s many light fixtures by the late modernist
architect Paul Rudolf.
Upstairs, Andrea’s glass-ceilinged office a winter garden
with a version of an eighteenth-century-style wallpaper panel from
the Stark archives, reproportioned for a modern sensibility. Butterflies
and birds flit through flowering branches on a tea-stained background
that complements the brown and gray of the Stark carpet, another
updated pattern. Overall, the look evokes Beaton’s country
place, Reddish House, where he updated the Edwardians. Here, a partners’
desk with two ebonized lacquer American chairs from the 1940s, grounds
the room. Playing off these traditional pieces are a cream lacquered
console by Tommy Parzinger, a Munich native who fled Hitler and
eventually opened a showroom near this building, and a corner banquette.
“I’m crazy for Tommy Parzinger,” says Andrea,
and indeed, his work influenced her dressing room, with nail-studded
custom-fitted closets floating against walls covered in grass cloth
A custom-woven carpet anchors John’s domain, the media room,
located in the former greenhouse. As he did for other rooms, Bilhuber
scoured the Stark archives and pattern books for inspiration. Here
he reintroduced a pattern, updating the colors and proportions to
work with the grid of the greenhouse structure. Bilbuber’s
beckoning sofa, with fringed seams popular in the late 1930s and
40s, adds a sensuality to the mix, which includes a vintage mercury-backed
mirror table from the late 1940s.
In the master bedroom, Bilhuber reengineered a chinoiserie headboard
purchased at Christie’s, a piece he believes originally served
as a valance over a country house window. He referred to the stairs
by placing a nautilus fossil in the center. The ornate piece contrasts
with the walls, upholstered in a simple French grey silk, a perfect
foil for a drawing of a ship by Victor Hugo, one of the inhabitants
of Andy Warhol’s Factory. With the platinum silk bed linens,
the room seems to enter the passing silvered clouds. The flawless
nightstands are a Modernist interpretation of a Chinese classic.
The carpet, woven for the apartment, is in the pattern used for
the edging on the stairs. Filling the room, it creates an illusion
of wind-stirred water, bringing the East River view into focus.
“I just feel so lucky,” says Andrea of the apartment.
It’s difficult to pinpoint the ultimate Manhattan moment in
an apartment that alludes constantly to the best of New York City,
but a standout candidate is twilight in Andrea’s south-facing
dressing room. Vibrating neon lights flash up into the sky. Brake
lights trace rush hour traffic on the avenues, and the lights of
jets in landing patterns trace lacy patterns in the skyline. A French
Regency mirror floats in the view, with a large piece of crystal
– Andrea call it “meditative” – in front.
This is the magic hour in a magnificent city.