Two years ago, Brad Zizmor showed his parents the apartment that he and his wife, Susan, were buying a half block from Central Park on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Despite the plum address, the purchase went over poorly with mom and dad. The two-bedroom is only 912 square feet. Worse, it is situated off the lobby on the first floor—an ugly duckling previously occupied by the building superintendent.
"It was dark. It was small. It was completely cramped," notes Dag Folger, Brad’s partner in the architecture firm A+I Design Corp. who came along for support. "The outside space was dismal."
Like any architect, Brad saw possibilities, but his parents saw only small, dark rooms looking onto a grim alley.
"I was managing the shock and horror of Brad’s mom," Folger adds. "She said, ‘You paid how much for that apartment?’ I can only imagine the conversation on the way home."
Today, after a yearlong renovation, light streams through an expansive glass wall as Brad and Susan come and go between a new living room and a deck lined with ipe wood capped by a wall of English ivy. In the evenings they eat beneath the limestone spires of Central Park West while their son, Ezra, rides his tricycle among hostas, Hollywood juniper, and bamboo in the landscaped alley below. "It’s like Central Park is our front lawn," Susan says, "and this is our backyard."
Even Brad’s mother has to acknowledge that ingenuity unexpectedly transformed the diminutive underdog of a property. "At first I said, ‘Oh my God it’s like a jail cell,’" she recounts. "Now they’ve opened it up entirely. It’s like they’re living in the suburbs."
What could be more New York than a story about real estate redeemed? The upstairs neighbors, with their gaudy square footage and Central Park views, are more likely to land in the pages of shelter magazines, but apartment #1C, off a dark corner of the lobby, is the place to find the creativity that divides gloominess from greatness.
No strangers to limited square footage, for eight years Brad and Susan lived contentedly in a 500-square-foot one-bedroom at the busy intersection of Broadway and 77th Street. But with a family on the way, they began the inevitable search for more room. Increasingly, young couples like the Zizmors want the best urbanity has to offer tempered with the most attractive aspects of suburbia. "Unlike most people, we like spending our summers here," notes Brad. "We felt that if we had just a little outdoor space we could stay in the city."
But if there’s one thing that is hard to come by in Manhattan, it’s open space. "Our broker said, ‘Forget it,’" Brad recalls. "If we made outdoor space a criteria, he told us we’d never find a place."
What the couple desired most was a penthouse that would allow for seamless integration of indoors and out on one level. But in the course of inspecting more than 100 apartments—a marathon of open houses that lasted two years—they gave up on penthouses as too pricey; plus, the prospect of outdoor living ten or so stories above the street was understandably unnerving to first-time parents. The bottom two floors of a townhouse were an option, but a long, narrow backyard accessed through a bedroom would never holistically integrate the outdoors as the couple imagined.
Undeterred, Brad kept looking until he found a forsaken super’s apartment listed by a co-op on West 83rd Street. The co-op—trying to raise money for building improvements by selling the diminutive apartment—had been unable to find a buyer, largely because the space looked onto an alley sunk six feet below the first floor.
"This is a case where being an architect helped," says Brad. "I understood that legally you could build an extension out back. Of course most buyers don’t know that city code allows this."
With the necessary approvals in hand, the Zizmors bought the apartment and added a terrace that extends eight feet off the living room. Indoors and out are synthesized by an 8-by-15-foot glass door—the largest expanse that could pass through the alleyway—and ipe wood slats that run from indoors to out.
"We’ve lifted the outdoor space up so it becomes part of our living experience," Brad says. "The outdoors isn’t a destination, it’s part of the house. Every night when we come home we can see all of our plantings as easily as we can see our sofa."
The backyard of any Manhattan apartment brings to mind Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with its chorus of nosy neighbors. For privacy, instead of a barrier of curtains, the Zizmors created a living wall at the far end of their outdoor room. Working with Kari Elwell Katzander of Mingo Design, a landscaper specializing in pocket-sized city gardens, the Zizmors built a perforated green wall with English ivy that climbs wire mesh and hanging boxes sprout-ing with herbs and spider plants.
To encourage family and guests to linger under the ailanthus tree, Brad designed steps based on the inviting long and low proportions of those outside Low Library at Columbia University. Alongside it he fashioned a ramp for their dachshund, Roxy, who is impaired by a spinal injury.
The result is an unexpectedly welcoming outdoor annex, and a gathering place for friends. After school, parents sit around the outdoor dining table while the kids play below. "It’s become a mini-playground," Folger says. "I have a hundred photos of my daughter using the ramp as a slide."
Adjoining the outdoors may have been the bravura gesture, but the renovation’s unsung feat lies in conquering the struggle for storage. "A first-time parent tends to underestimate the growing volume of stuff that comes with kids," says Folger, who collaborated with Brad on the design with input from designer Victoria Partridge. "You’re only successful to the degree that you can create storage solutions."
In such a small home, every storage decision is also, by necessity, an aesthetic decision. Brad found solutions with the added virtue of sculptural presence, and material programming to distinguish the rooms. For example, a gallery of shelves in the front hallway stands behind a handsome wall of walnut veneer (which was purchased in sequence off the lumberyard palette, so that the grains match up as they would with high-end millwork in an office lobby). Much of the plywood cabinetry throughout the apartment is edged in hardwood to give it a sense of solidity. The master bedroom is dominated by two wall-sized sliding maple doors that conceal his-and-hers wardrobes.
"The key is doing something that doesn’t look like storage," adds Folger. "It’s a bit of a magic trick: storage in the guise of architecture."
Given Brad’s wizardry in mastering the miniature, it’s no surprise that the apartment is a showcase of other unlikely innovations, like the light tube that illuminates the bathroom backsplash and the doorknobs made from toilet-paper holders. Off-the-shelf fixtures are employed in unexpected ways, like seven Ikea cabinets meant to hang above refrigerators doing time as bench-height storage around the living room, and the two maple CD holders screwed to the bedroom wall to act as floating bedside tables.
The renovated apartment could translate on paper as an elaborate treatise proving more space isn’t better space, but Brad has a different take: "This may not be a Supersized meal, but it’s a Happy Meal."