This Historic New York Apartment Went From ‘Downton Abbey’ to Gallery Chic

Photo credit: Simon Upton
Photo credit: Simon Upton

The challenges of renovating a historic property are myriad. Do you restore it to a mirror image of its past self? Must the furnishings be period? How do you impart your own aesthetic identity on someone else’s? For Julie Hillman, the answer to the latter question is simple: You tread lightly and thoughtfully.

“I’m not going to be the designer who changes [a] historical space—it’s just not what I’m about,” says Hillman, a New York–based designer who recently overhauled this Beaux Arts Fifth Avenue home. “I don’t need to put my mark on something that’s been around forever and is spectacular as it stands.”

Photo credit: Simon Upton
Photo credit: Simon Upton

The apartment in question is actually a maisonette (a street-level residence with its own separate entrance) situated in a landmarked McKim, Mead & White–designed building overlooking the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The owners, a pair of native New Yorkers with three grown children, enjoy hosting events on behalf of their preferred philanthropic causes. They were taken with the maisonette’s meticulous preservation and generous social spaces.

“It was like walking into Downton Abbey,” recalls Hillman of her first visit to the property.

Photo credit: Simon Upton
Photo credit: Simon Upton

Still, the very qualities that made it so appealing also proved to be some of the biggest hurdles Hillman needed to clear when readying it for 21st-century living. For one, the three-bedroom apartment featured a perfectly maintained wood-paneled entry with an original decorative plaster ceiling, both designed by Stanford White of McKim, Mead & White; however, the sweeping space was extremely dark. The grand living room had been broken up, by previous owners, into three separate seating and dining areas, rendering it more in line with contemporary needs but less majestic in appearance. And oddly, the main bedroom was right off of the entry, near the apartment’s public quarters.

Photo credit: Simon Upton
Photo credit: Simon Upton

Working with the architect Joe Vance, Hillman tweaked the layout, moving the main bedroom to a quieter back corner of the apartment. In its former place near the entry, she created a deep mauve-gray den with lacquered walls and a custom velvet sofa bed, the latter a reluctant concession to the clients’ desire for ample sleeping options for guests (“I’m sometimes not the world’s most practical person—I’m so visual,” Hillman concedes). And next to the den, Vance added a small library whose shelves teem with the couple’s vast book collection.

Then it was time to reimagine those capacious social rooms. In that tricky entry, whose decorative ceiling implicitly vetoed most fixture ideas, she and Vance ingeniously added tiny pin lights to brighten things up. Since Hillman wanted to return the living area to its uncompartmentalized glory, she decided to allow the spacious entry to serve as an ad-hoc dining spot. She designed six angular bronze-based tables on casters, each of which can seat six people; when lined up together, they can host 25 guests, and when not in use, they can be pushed against the wall like consoles.

Photo credit: Simon Upton
Photo credit: Simon Upton

For the living room itself, Hillman sought to create intimacy within an oversized framework. Instead of cluttering the space with loads of furniture, she focused on striking seating, like a pair of custom Jean Royère–style sofas and bearish chairs by Fernando and Humberto Campana that play with the couple’s contemporary art from Vik Muniz and Doug and Mike Starn. A chandelier by Christopher Trujillo, fashioned from paper plates and staples, takes the stuffing out of an otherwise formal room.

Come to think of it, that’s a fitting encapsulation of Hillman’s overall approach. “I think it’s important to look at the space and still feel the history, but it also feels like the people who live there. It does everything they need it to do,” explains Hillman of the maisonette, which will be featured in an upcoming book by the photographer Simon Upton (whose images are seen here). “It is still expressing why the apartment is different from anything else they had seen in New York. You’re not overshadowing that.”

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