New York property developer Michael Stern grew up admiring the city’s Skyline. Now he’s smack bang in the middle of it, with a home in a landmark twenties tower that he’s converted into luxury apartments; by Luke Tebbutt
When New York developer Michael Stern shops for property, he shops for skyscrapers, not houses, and one of his latest, a historic 24-storey stone tower in Chelsea, Manhattan, is so special that he has also made it his home.
"When I first visited, it was sort of neglected," he says. "But the first thing I did was get in the elevator and go to the roof. As soon as I saw the view, I knew I had to have it. It's pretty spectacular."
In a city encircled by ferries and helicopters, scrambling for the perfect shot of the skyline, Stern has it all laid out at home. The entire Midtown panorama, Freedom Tower, the Statue of Liberty and the Hudson River are his on demand, morning, noon and night.
Hand-painted walls give off a subtle metallic gleam, and their blurred-edge stripes are echoed in the upholstery. The chandelier over the dining table is by Lindsey Adelman. Photography by Tim Street Porter
The 1929 building was owned by telecommunications company Verizon and used for office space and storing copper wire when Stern's company, JDS Development Group, bought it at the end of 2009. It's now been renamed Walker Tower in honour of its architect, Ralph Walker, who pioneered the use of ziggurat-inspired set-backs and art deco ornamentation to make skyscrapers that were as beautiful as they were monolithic.
In the marble lobby hangs a blown-up historic photograph worthy of the age of surrealism, depicting Walker and other architects at the 1931 Beaux-Arts ball, dressed as the buildings they had designed.
The bespoke kitchen, by Smallbone of Devizes, was designed exclusively for Walker Tower. Its richly toned macassar ebony units are framed in ebonised walnut. Photography by Tim Street Porter.
"It was very important to tell the story of the building," says Stern. "Its architectural pedigree is what gives it its soul and character."
To do this, he hired architectural firm CetraRuddy - the firm behind another of the city's new ultra-luxury developments, One Madison, where Rupert Murdoch recently bought a penthouse for $57m.
Custom marble and timber detailing in the bathroom; Photography by Tim Street Porter
For Walker Tower, it created 47 high-end apartments, many with ceilings around 4m high, and more than half with the ultimate New York luxury - a large outdoor terrace - which was possible because of building's stepped design. They also added seven floors at the top, and packed every apartment with luxury features, including a Crestron home automation system, which controls lighting, blinds, climate, audio and video, on-site or remotely. The penthouse recently sold for just over $50m - double the $25m Stern paid for the entire building at the end of 2009.
"It's a testament to the vision of this project, and also to the market - there's an incredible appetite for property here," says Jarvis Wong of Jarvis Studio, who worked on the interiors for Stern's own apartment, which is about two-thirds of the way up the building.
The pebblelike bath is perfectly placed to take in the skyline of manhattan. Photography by Tim Street Porter
Stern says that he "wanted it to feel very downtown - not stuffy like an Upper East Side apartment." He uses it as his main residence (he also has homes in Long Island and Miami), sharing it with his girlfriend and daughter. "I wanted it to be a bit eclectic, but incredibly sophisticated, and comfortable for a family to live in."
Wong responded with a subtly quirky mix of furniture and accessories - antique armchairs share space with a contemporary chandelier by Lindsey Adelman - arranged in a classically symmetrical way, so the space still feels buttoned up and mature.
"It's a combination of uptown formality - because the building is very formal - with downtown vibrancy. It's like the yin and the yang. I wanted both," says Wong.
With its enormous windows and high ceilings, the apartment needs generously scaled furniture to match. Photography by Tim StreetPorter
The grand scale and ample light of the 465 sq m duplex apartment, which has four bedrooms and five bathrooms, meant he could play with a greater variety of colours and materials, including fabrics from Rubelli and Coraggio, and a hand-painted striped wall with a metallic sheen, which took six people two weeks to complete.
"Because the apartment is very bright, I was able to use darker tones. If you put all the materials from the living room in a box, the range of colours is pretty wide," says Wong, who, in addition to his architectural background, has worked as an assistant designer at Ralph Lauren and Kenneth Cole.
The kitchens in Walker Tower are conceived as a one-off collection by British company Smallbone of Devizes. All the cabinets are framed in ebonised walnut to pick up on the dark window frames, with door and drawer fronts in macassar ebony "Michael realised that a standard off-theshelf kitchen wouldn't do for a building like this, because no two apartments have the same footprint," says Hugh Owens, design director for Smallbone of Devizes in New York. It meant every cabinet and door for each apartment had to be handcrafted in England and shipped to the US: "It's the same as what we would do with a one-off residential project - only times 47."
Alongside the views and ceiling heights, the kitchens were given top billing when the apartments went on sale - a departure from the norm, where kitchens are often an adjunct that gets replaced as soon as the owners move in. "We wanted to make everything hang together so splendidly here, so that it felt like a cohesive apartment where people are comfortable from day one," says Owens.
Smallbone designed Stern's kitchen with dual functionality, to cope with both everyday life and full-blown entertaining. Informal features are at the front (coffee maker, sink, small fridge) with some serious Viking wall ovens and an induction hob, for professional-level catering, placed deeper at the back.
The photograph in the lobby shows architects at a ball, dressed as their recent creations (walker, third from right, went as one wall street). Photography by Tim Street Porter.
Stern describes living in the skyscraper he spent four years developing as a pinch-yourself experience. "We took the building back down to just concrete columns and beams, and then rebuilt it from the inside out, so to have that be my home now is surreal," he says. He's now selling apartments in another redeveloped Ralph Walker building in the Hell's Kitchen neighbourhood of Manhattan, and has also started building work on a brandnew tower near the foot of Central Park, which will be taller than the Empire State Building. And all this at the age of 35. It's quite a leap from Stern's modest upbringing just across the East River.
"Growing up as a kid in Long Island, you come into the city and see this skyline, and it's almost bigger than life," he says. "Then, fast-forward a few years and you're part of shaping that skyline, it's incredibly rewarding, and incredibly exciting."