There is no doubt about it. No matter how “forward looking” we live our lives, in the way we think, live and work, we are always informed by history. The past swirls all around us. Our personal histories inform our very actions consciously and unconsciously, every day. We embrace the past. We shun the past. We pay homage to the past. We marvel at it. And sometimes, we simply put up with it. But we are always looking to the future, with the past in our bones. The future could not exist in a vacuum…it needs the groundwork of history to make sense.
I was driving into the city over the 59th Street Bridge last week, and as the traffic inevitably slowed, I took the opportunity to scan the ever-astonishing NYC skyline. Looking South, I saw the Freedom Tower, rising up as a symbol of defiance to tragic events of the recent past. Slightly to it’s left, the Woolworth building’s compact mansard roof managed to peak out, emerging from a century ago. It was the tallest building in the Wall Street area when it was built in 1913, and remained so until 1930, when the Chrysler building was built. The Woolworth looks to the past because it is Gothic in architecture, but when it was built it was the very symbol of current urban planning. As it rises up, it is stepped back. This was to allow sunlight to reach the ground level sidewalks. Urban planners at the turn of the century foresaw that this area would ultimately be jammed to the gills with tall buildings. After all, elevators were installed into “skyscrapers” 50 years previously, and architects could only dream how high their buildings would rise into the future.
What does this have to do with design? Everything. Think about the very language of interior design. We refresh and renew furnishings. We renovate homes. We update. We keep up with trends and current color fads. And we also restore. Restoration in design is vital to the integrity of our common history. Without restoration, design of the future would not have a meaningful and appropriate context.
I had the privilege of carefully and lovingly restoring an historic Neo-Georgian Jackson Heights apartment over the last 6 months. Real estate alert: these apartments, built in the 1920’s – 1930’s have the space, architectural details, huge windows and ceiling heights of the big Upper Westside apartments we all covet, for a fraction of the cost. The buildings all have carefully manicured interior courtyards, and elevators that open right into the apartments. They exude charm and old world elegance and are one of the secret treasures of NYC.
My clients purchased a three-bed room, two full bath apartment as a home for their growing family. The challenge? The former homeowner had completely denuded the entire apartment of any vestige of that old world. We founded dropped ceilings with recessed lighting, and popcorn ceiling surfaces. The original solid mahogany doors with working glass transoms had been removed and low, hollow core doors were the inexplicable replacements. All the rooms had at least one wall that was completely mirrored. All window, door and wall moldings were gone. I could go on, but why? None of it made sense! But underneath all of this my clients and I knew there lay a treasure. I knew what these apartments should look like and I set out with the mission to restore the space to the original look and 1920’s feel. This was a complete gut renovation that involved 3 solid weeks of demolition!
The images above show the 2001 Space Odyssey black marble monolith fireplace that we found, and the restoration that I created from images of the fireplaces that existed in the apartments from 80 years ago. This is just one example of many details that were hand cut and installed by my contractor and millworker, who were dedicated to bringing my vision of the past to life. We renewed the space while simultaneously bowing deeply to the past. It was an inspiring and invigorating project and I kept my balance while each foot bridged a different century. I love this kind of design opportunity because it helps me to deepen my connection to what led me to interior design in the first place: architecture, history and people.