Unofficial SJG Archive

The Unofficial Stephen Jay Gould Archive

Unofficial SJG Archive



Making it New in Soho:  Stephen Jay Gould and Rhonda Roland Shearer recast a downtown loft

by Suzanne Stephens


C
ity dwellers who acquire industrial lofts are usually quite zealous about keeping the large, undifferentiated spaces completely intact when they convert them for residential use. There are no "afters." With the exception of adding a bath, a kitchen and perhaps a sleeping balcony, the "before" is it. A loft in lower Manhattan designed by New York architect William T. Georgis violates this practice, and with good reason. It had to allow for a complicated array of living and work spaces, including two libraries: one for him and one for her. He is Stephen Jay Gould, the paleontologist, professor and author who has just published a revisionist argument on evolutionary theory, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin. She is Rhonda Roland Shearer, an artist and writer whose theoretical essays, such as "Real or Ideal: DNA Iconography in a New Fractal Era," appear in art journals.

"It was your typical loft building, a former doll factory whose rough-and-tumble decrepitude had been carefully preserved by the artist who had lived there," remembers Georgis of his first visit to the apartment. In transforming the 4,200-square-foot space, he ended up with a design that not only responds to the couple's personal predilections but acts as a metaphor for the themes of evolution and change that are integral to their intellectual pursuits. While Gould and Shearer share similar professional interests, their work patterns differ dramatically. Gould retreats each day to a Stickley roiltop desk in a library lined with books. Shearer, who does her writing, reading and preparatory work for her painting and sculpting in various quarters of the apartment, uses a semiprivate alcove just off the living room for her library. "Spaces reflect the people who make them," she says. "Steve likes to separate himself from people, but I'm more open."

In addition to the libraries, Georgis was charged with creating living and dining areas, four bedrooms, three baths, a family room and a kitchen as well as studio and storage space for Shearer's art. Moving into a house would have been easier. But the couple, committed to living in New York, rejected the notion of a town house. "They're too dominated by established geometries," observes Shearer. Instead, she and Gould preferred the diversity a loft would offer, since its raw space could be subdivided according to individual needs. "We just stripped it and began again," says Georgis. "The floors were a patchwork of wood with nails sticking out, and there were few interior walls."

An important consideration is that the loft lets Shearer work where she lives and still have access to a second studio that she maintains nearby. Her artistic process is complex, and her intriguingly cerebral, figural and abstract mixed-media works involve all the senses. "I do the 'clean' work at home, things like drawings and models," she explains, "and the dirty work, involving painting and making sculptures, at the other place."

Her twelve-and-a-half-foot-high work area merges unencumbered into the open dining and living areas, which reflect Gould and Shearer's desire for spatial and visual variety in their working and living arrangements. "It was a matter of careful negotiation to make everything function together," Shearer remarks.

Georgis, who had to accomplish this task, agrees. "It seemed impossible to keep both the openness of the loft and at the same time fit in different types of rooms and areas," he says. The fact that his clients came to their new residence with a collection of ostensibly unloftlike antique furniture was the least of his problems. "There actually is a strong affinity between the simplicity of eighteenth-century American furniture and an industrial loft," he says. "I just tried to deploy the pieces in a spare, modern way." In blending these two aesthetics, the architect proposed that wood moldings, doors, floors, cabinets and shelves appear throughout. "I wanted the same basic material everywhere for visual continuity," says Shearer, who favored cherrywood because its warm tones tend a richness to the high ceilings and off-white walls.

At the same time, it was important to preserve the architectural character of the original spaces. "Steve loved the cast-iron columns, the pressed-tin ceiling and the original windows that imbue the place with its nineteenth-century industrial character," points out project architect Silvina Goefron. But keeping those elements required no small effort. For example, much of the pressed-tin ceiling in the living, dining and work areas had to be removed, stripped and reinstalled. "We were determined to keep the old glass in the front windows," Georgis notes. "The contractor, Curt Royston of RBMc, had to reproduce the original windows with this glass, besides adding wood floors, ceilings, walls, fifteen tons of air-conditioning, a new electric service and extensive plumbing. And he had to do all this in four months."

The large axial gallery cuts a swath through the loft, punctuated by the cast-iron columns. Like a row of tall trees, they underscore the loft's approximately ninety-foot length.

The windowless middle section of the apartment contains Gould's library and the family room. The family room, which includes a dining area and kitchen, seems an anomaly—as if one had just stepped into a New England farmhouse. There are Windsor chairs, a William and Mary tavern table and nineteenth-century English iron lanterns. The effect is heightened by the cherry molding that defines the spaces.

Georgis, however, has subtly modernized the farmhouse vernacular by heightening the flow of spaces between the rooms and mitigating any suggestion of the claustrophobia that can settle like a cloud over windowless interior rooms. He installed sliding wood doors to separate the family room from the gallery. "You can catch glimpses of other rooms from various vistas and angles," Georgis notes. "Yet you still have a feeling of privacy and enclosure."

ABOVE: The family room features a William and Mary tavern table and Windsor chairs.

The architect then dropped the ceiling in the family room, which endows the room with a more intimate scale than the living areas at the front of the loft. And he countered the possibility of a closed-in effect by installing a cove on which is mounted a strip of incandescent lights. The softly suffused light bouncing upward makes the actual height of the ceiling somewhat ambiguous. "The ceiling was essential in unifying the kitchen, dining and family area," Shearer comments.

This intermediate zone, where private and public spaces come together, is backed by a row of bedrooms for the couple's children and guests. The master bedroom is located at the end of the gallery, and it exudes its own distinctive atmosphere, with a fireplace, dark wood, paneled walls and trim and a mix of period furnishings. While lofts rarely come with fireplaces, Gould was clear about his desire for the comfort of a crackling fire, as was Shearer, since she writes in the bedroom. "I'm like Descartes," she adds. "I like, to write in my bed. I'm not a desk person."

From the master bedroom a back passage leads through a couple of baths to Gould's library. There, tiers of shelves hold antiquarian books on the natural sciences and other scientific tomes as well as Gould's own books which include The Mismeasure of Man and The Panda Thumb.

Gould, who spends half the year teaching at Harvard, naturally took a particular interest in the design of the library. Yet there was one other place where he participated extensively in the selection of furnishings—the dining area. Instead of placing a single suite of chairs around their Stickley table, Gould and Shearer carefully constructed an arrangement that characterizes the evolution of the chair from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. "The selection reflects my concern for geometries and stylistic change, and Steve's for evolution," says Shearer. It begins with a seventeenth-century American slatback armchair, followed by a William and Mary side chair, an American Queen Anne, a Hepplewhite, an Empire chair, a Stickley side chair, a Ruhlmann side chair and, finally, Robert Venturi's 1980s reprise of a Queen Anne chair. "Steve did quite a bit of research on the collection," says his wife. "But we still want to add an out-of-control rococo Victorian chair and an International Style modem chair." The ensemble underscores one of Gould's main points in Full House: Evolution is not a matter of progress from simple to ever more complicated forms but to a variety of types and forms.

Gould and Shearer's loft seems to operate as a metaphor for the theoretical concerns they express in their work. Its straightforward plan yields a variety of opportunities for their activities, while the changing character of each area and room continually redefines the mood and sensibility of the whole. The result, to borrow from Stephen Jay Gould, well demonstrates "the spread of excellence."


[ Suzanne Stephens, "Making it New in Soho," 1997 Architectural Digest, 54 (2): 108-115, 190. ]


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