In The Heiress, the 1949 film adaptation of the play based on Henry James’s 1880 novel Washington Square, Catherine, the love-starved daughter of icy-hearted Dr. Sloper, opens the door to the family’s Greenwich Village town house to reveal overscaled chambers adorned with intricate moldings and hand-carved mantelpieces, ornate furnishings and pendulous draperies. It’s a set, of course, impeccably realized by Harry Horner and Emile Kuri. Yet, in serving the story—by showing the elegance of moneyed New York on the cusp of the Gilded Age, and the way in which Catherine is both cosseted and oppressed by privilege— it also reminds us of design’s special ability to express not only the physical reality of a historic moment, but its intimate life as well.
In real (as opposed to reel) life, little survives of that world beyond a line of Greek Revival town houses on the northeast leg of Washington Square. Yet they still powerfully exert the romantic allure of the past. Even as Washington Square Park swarms with skateboarders, students, and Bob Dylan wannabes, passersby who know James’s tale suspect that, behind the tall white doors, the ghosts of Catherine Sloper and her class yet remain. "I always wondered, Who lives there?" recalls filmmaker Mo Ogrodnik,
speaking for all the curious. "What’s it like inside?"
Regarding the former question: Today, she does. As for the latter, following the interventions of architect Matthew Baird and interior designer Janet Liles, Ogrodnik’s apartment, which she shares with her husband and two children, is a resonant interlocking of the modern and the historic: a design that—like the one in The Heiress—expresses both the aesthetic of the moment and its connection to our life and times.
In fact, the story of "the Row," as the town houses came to be known, is the story of the neighborhood in miniature. According to It Happened on Washington Square, by Emily Kies Folpe, the park was a potter’s fi eld until 1825, when Greenwich Village became fashionable, and real estate moguls—as long-standing and unkillable a part of New York life as cockroaches—realized that "an attractively landscaped green . . . could be expected to lure wealthy householders." The land was reconstituted as a parade ground and, in 1831, the Row’s developers leased property from Sailors’ Snug Harbor, a seamen’s charitable organization that owned acreage north of the park. The first seven houses were completed two years later, with the other six following shortly after.
The homes, with their luxurious appointments and elegant rear gardens, were an instant hit with haute New York; for the ensuing quarter-century, Folpe writes, "Washington Square was the place to be." By 1939, however, when the last of the leases expired, society had decamped, and the Village was a bohemian bastion struggling through the Great Depression. And so Sailors’ Snug Harbor—with a brutality that, in retrospect, seems shocking—converted the original town houses into a single rental-apartment block. The renovation preserved the buildings to a depth of 25 feet, then replaced the remaining structure with five floors of grimly institutional corridors that run the length of all seven houses. The builders also gutted the magnificent interiors and converted the parlor and second fl oors into two-bedroom duplexes, and the third and attic floors into studios and one-bedrooms. Although the duplexes can still be entered, in grand style, via the old front doors, all the other apartments are only accessible from the corridors (which are reachable through a rear pavilion that forms the building’s lobby).
Institutional architecture demands an institution, and New York University leased the structure in 1949 (eventually purchasing it outright) for faculty housing—which is how Ogrodnik found herself in residence: As a professor at NYU’s fi lm school, she was provided with an apartment. And as she and husband Matthew Bardin were expecting their second child, they were able to rent one of the duplexes.
No surprise: The couple was overjoyed. Most appealing were the rooms’ generous proportions—the main living space measures 25 by 18 feet, and has an 11-foot ceiling—and the incomparable location. "I just can’t believe that our children are creating these memories of walking up the stoop and living across from the park," Ogrodnik says. On the other hand, quips Bardin, "This was not Henry James." Apart from the overall dilapidation, the couple found only one bathroom, a tiny kitchenette tucked beside the stairs in the entry hall, and—despite the two large parkside bedrooms and an unobstructed southern exposure— a dark, oppressive second floor.
Ogrodnik and Bardin were not without ideas. They wanted the kitchen to be part of the main space, and planned to convert the 18-footlong master suite into a pair of children’s rooms with lofts. More important, however, was the quality of the home they sought: a place that, as Bardin puts it, "was going to honor its bones," but would also, in Baird’s words, "look more toward the future than the past."
Together, clients and architect devised a modern intervention, with a crisp material palette, that preserves those elements that evoke the house’s history. This approach, Baird believes, represents a cultural sea change. "For many years, there was a sensibility that, if you were in an old house, the cabinets you built had to look old, the materials you used had to be fatigued like stone-washed jeans," he says. "Americans are starting to be comfortable with putting something contemporary inside something that’s very old, in a way that’s been going on in Europe for centuries."
As for the design itself, says the architect, "there were spatial ideas about openness, and programmatic ideas about how you want to live with your kids." Both are encapsulated in the entry, where Baird demolished a vestibule to create a light-fi lled hall entered directly from the original nine-foot-tall front door. In so doing, he strengthened the connection to the stoop—the house’s most significant 1833 holdover—and effectively created a new room, one the children can enjoy while the grown-ups use the adjacent living space.
As requested, Baird converted that main room into a living/cooking/dining zone, using a counterintuitive strategy to tie it to the entry. Initially, the trio considered expanding the portal between the rooms by demolishing the wall that separated them, but balked because it was load-bearing. Instead, the architect added structure, in the form of a volume that begins as a storage loft above the stairs, drops down to become a combination coat closet/home offi ce in the entry hall, then flows in a continuous plane into the main room, where it turns a corner and follows the perimeter to form an L-shaped kitchen. Creating a bridging wall between the two spaces that aligns with the edge of the opening between them, Ogrodnik says, "is a very simple idea. But it makes a line that connects the rooms, and creates a harmony and unity."
On the second floor, Baird removed three huge closets, using the extra square footage to convert the narrow hallway into a generously proportioned family room. To draw natural light into the enclosed space, the architect constructed the walls of the children’s suite out of translucent acrylic, allowing sunshine from their parkside windows to filter through. And while Jonas, four, and Zibia, two, have rooms measuring only nine by eight feet, they did get their lofts—to each of which Baird added a hatch that overlooks the family room. While the children are young, the lofts will be used for play and the rooms for sleeping; as they grow older and require more space, these functions will reverse.
"That was a big thing," Ogrodnik recalls. "How can we make this apartment work with two children? I love my department, so we’re planning to be here for many years," she continues. "It’s our golden cage."
As was just such a house, in a different way, for Catherine Sloper. But a century and a half later, architecture and the intimate lives of families have changed, and Baird’s sleek modern design is refl ective of both: It remains emotionally as well as physically liberating. Creatively, too. "I think about this a lot—the effect that my home, growing up, had on my imagination," Ogrodnik says. "And I think this place appeals to me because it’s a home where stories are told, and that you’ll tell stories about."