A Rooftop Addition on a 19th-Century Building Suits a Growing Family’s Needs

An architect renovates his penthouse residence on the roof of the historic Gilsey House in Manhattan’s NoMad district—adding height, space, and outdoor access.
Text by

Since its construction shortly after the Civil War in 1869, the Gilsey House has been reinvented time and time again. Originally a posh hotel whose famous Silver Dollar Bar welcomed celebrities like Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, and Diamond Jim Brady, the cast iron building was converted into an apparel factory after the Great Depression to supply department stores on Lady’s Mile. In 1979, the dilapidated building was partially restored as artists’ lofts before a more thorough rehabilitation attracted young professionals in the media and tech fields. Today, the building rising above Manhattan’s happening NoMad district—North of Madison Square, that is—is topped by a contemporary glass-and-zinc addition by STUDIO V Architecture. Says principal Jay Valgora, who lives there with his family, "Our penthouse addition is just one more chapter in the interminable life of the building, and we purchased the original loft over 25 years ago, a bridge between the old and new guard."

Perched atop the historic Gilsey House, the J+K Residence also overlooks a storied neighborhood. The land, located north of Madison Square, was one of New York's last remaining family farms before becoming a bustling theater district. It then devolved into a neglected wholesale district until being rediscovered by artists and entrepreneurs.

The minimalist, open kitchen was built into freestanding millwork walls. Valgora strove to layer design elements from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. "Old growth wooden beams and angled timber columns from 1869 are exposed with riveted steel columns and tangles of pipes and infrastructure from the 1920s conversion to a factory," he points out. A modular On the Rocks sofa by designer Francesco Binfare breaks up the space and transitions into the living room.

"Our penthouse addition is just one more chapter in the interminable life of the building." -Jay Valgora

A blackened steel staircase by Delform leads to the upper level. A tall glass clerestory frames views of the Empire State Building and reinforces the indoor/outdoor motif.  

The double-height living room provided the perfect opportunity to combine the homeowners' love of art, literature, and travel, allowing them to fill the 24-foot shelves with books and collected artifacts. A wood-burning sustainable fireplace by Wittus adds a broad stroke of warmth.  

With the two boys growing up and business thriving, the family’s needs evolved. They wanted more space and the ability to repurpose it when the kids left for college. They wanted to entertain outdoors and capture skyline views. "Manhattan is all about verticality," says Valgora. "We decided to go up. With expanded rooms, gardens, and living spaces on multiple levels, we could achieve our goals and design flexible spaces for different uses." The renovation expanded the one-story loft to three levels, including a double-story living room with a 24-foot tall library and a master bedroom suite that opens onto a garden terrace. Fusing the indoors and outdoors, a second rooftop living room provides seating and dining areas, perennial gardens, and a second kitchen.

An expansive sliding glass door retracts into the zinc facade, opening up the master suite to a garden terrace with restored historic handrails. This echoes a 15-foot Corian wall that transforms a children's bedroom into an entertainment space, allowing flexibility and anticipating the time when the boys leave for college. 

A marble wet room features a freestanding tub by Victoria and Albert and dual showers, while another shower on the terrace offers the option of washing outdoors. A 12-foot wooden door swings back to reveal a dressing room.

"Manhattan is all about verticality." 

- Jay Valgora

Connected by an exterior stone staircase, the rooftop level offers seating and dining areas and an outdoor kitchen.

The proposed design precipitated a "perfect storm" of approvals from the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission, the Board of Standards and Appeals, the Cooperative Board, and the Department of Buildings, describes Valgora. "Of course each of these entities required the approval of the others before they could proceed—a Kafkaesque scenario that required all approvals to be performed both surgically and simultaneously," he says. Structure was another worry, but luckily, the project’s structural engineers discovered that during the factory conversion, additional columns and beams had been added that would support the rooftop addition. The new residence is a melding of opposites: old and new, inside and out, hidden and revealed. The J+K Residence, in fact, brings together two classic New York buildings—a historic loft and a floating townhouse—to offer both open, communal spaces and private, contemplative ones.

The luxurious Gilsey House was the first hotel in New York to have telephones and featured walnut and rosewood details, marble fireplaces, and bronze chandeliers. The AIA guide by Norval White has described it as having "a vigor that only the waning years of the 19th century could muster." 

Contemporary materials like zinc and glass contrast with a cast iron facade and slate roofs.

"Our ideal for the home must be authentic, flexible, and connected to the environment, even in the heart of the city," says Valgora. A skyward oasis nestled within Manhattan, the J+K Residence embodies the evolution of the times and adapts to fit the changing needs of the family within it.


Last Updated

Get the Renovations Newsletter

From warehouse conversions to rehabbed midcentury gems, to expert advice and budget breakdowns, the renovation newsletter serves up the inspiration you need to tackle your next project.