If you’re thinking of living in one of those charming 19th century brick buildings in TriBeCa, first consider the downsides. The light drifting through the front and back windows probably won’t penetrate to the center. Nor are you likely to find an emotionally uplifting double-height space anywhere on the premises. There might be greenery on a roof deck, but will it be lush? Will it cascade? And will you discover that the home rises on and on, like the extra rooms in your dreams?
Well, yes, if it’s the penthouse at 13 Jay Street — transformed by its owners, Cary Paik, an architect who owns a design-build firm in Manhattan, and, Esther Lee, the global chief marketing officer at MetLife.
In 2012, the couple bought the fifth floor apartment in the 1887 Romanesque Revival building, and added two floors above it. Using 24 foot-long heart pine beams salvaged from the original roof as cladding, they built an abstract rectangular tree trunk that rises through the cutout first level of the addition and is the home’s poetic core. Above that is a pavilion with a kitchen and dining area that flows into outdoor spaces on either end. On top of that is a roof terrace.
The 4,700 square-foot property, which has three bedrooms, four full bathrooms, two half-bathrooms and 1,600 feet of outdoor space, is on the market for $13.5 million, with a monthly homeowner’s fee of $3,869. Sophie Ravet and Mike Lubin of Brown Harris Stevens are the listing agents.
Mr. Paik and Ms. Lee are both American-born descendants of important Korean families. Mr. Paik can trace his back 26 generations to scholars who helped formulate the Korean Hangul alphabet, while one of Ms. Lee’s forebears was a leader in the early 20th century Korean independence movement. A wall of their home displays calligraphy dating back 500 years, beautiful time-stained leaves with language dripping down like rain.
But it was architecture that brought the pair together, when around 2006, Ms. Lee hired Mr. Paik to renovate her SoHo loft. And it is mood, not heritage trophies, that defines this penthouse — a rigorously thought out, effortless-seeming bastion of tranquillity.
Leading a visitor through the home, Mr. Paik, who is soft-spoken and radiates calm in his very being, talked about the need to eliminate distractions like clutter, sharp edges, grating colors and hardware erupting unnecessarily from surfaces. Pointing to the shower control in the master bathroom, he described the beauty of “walking in and pulling one knob; that’s it.”
Design’s mission, he says, is to “reduce our stress by reducing the amount of decisions we have to make.” (Ms. Lee did confide that she sometimes misses having a sprayer attached to the kitchen sink, but was on board with chucking a red leather armchair the couple found jarring.)
Nature, incorporated symbolically, literally and with great finesse, adds to the illusion that you’re far from the urban scrum. And yet, this is not a California modern ranch that allows you to slide open the glass doors to smell the eucalyptus, but a lean former commercial building hemmed in by its neighbors.
At the entrance, daylight floats in from the front windows and a slice of cutaway ceiling, while a branchlike light fixture by the Canadian company Bocci stretches across the room. The oak floors, by Scheucher, of Austria, are blond, the walls a paler shade of cream that subtly changes color and texture when the surface shifts to concrete. One art wall is arrayed with dried, bleached slices of wood. “We gravitated to them,” Ms. Lee said, “but interestingly just now put it together that they’re a kind of tree.”
Toward the center of the apartment, the two-story “trunk” rises through the pierced upper level like a Bunyan-sized square pine, and light flows down from a chandelier by the designer David Weeks, who was a classmate of Mr. Paik’s at Rhode Island School of Design. The trunk is both a chimney (a wood-burning fireplace is embedded in the front-facing side) and a partition. It contains a couple of bathrooms on this floor as well. Behind it is a pair of bedrooms, one for guests and the other used by the couple’s 13 year-old son, Tyler.
The first level of the addition belongs to the couple. At the front, steel-framed glass walls define a home office and a sitting room where they like to watch movies and eat takeout. The master bedroom suite is at the back. The solid rear wall blocks views of a nearby building, but the couple can lie in bed and look through a strip of Velux windows set at the edge of the ceiling that reveals a vista of rooftop ivy and sky. Bedside controls open and close the panes.
The next flight up is the main social space, with its 16-foot long Henrybuilt walnut kitchen with Fisher & Paykel appliances; its dining table made with leftover rooftop pine boards that seats 16 in Hans Wegner CH20 chairs; its Bang and Olufsen walnut speakers warbling Patsy Cline and Prince (points off if you guessed woo-woo spa music).
A Panoramah guillotine window on the front wall lifts automatically to evaporate the border with a small outdoor terrace covered in soft fake grass. At the other end of the room is a sitting area next to a wall with a gas fireplace, and beyond that a large terrace with outdoor seating and dining areas and killer downtown views.
The discreet summit of this intervention is a roof terrace with a polished ipe wood deck cradled by ivy-covered ipe fencing and pots of shrubs.
And the owners are leaving because, “We’re kind of yearning to have a little bit more space and views and a little bit more peace,” Ms. Lee said. (P.S.: Tyler will be starting high school in Westchester.)