Renovating against the clock

The story of a bold Park Avenue co-op makeover that met the challenge of strict summer renovation rules

It took several attempts to achieve just the right shade of high-gloss brown on the mahogany panels in the library.
It took several attempts to achieve just the right shade of high-gloss brown on the mahogany panels in the library.

It’s a fact that’s probably well known to any co-op dweller who has had to hire a contractor to sand floors or switch out a sink: Strict renovation rules make the task a lot more difficult.

So, the challenge that faced renovation guru Lee Stahl almost strains credulity. He was hired to update a 3,800-square-foot Park Avenue pad that hadn’t really been touched since the 1980s. (Think sea-foam green carpets and earth-tone checkerboard shower tiles.) And do it over the course of a single summer.

Even though it is universally known that most renovations take longer than expected, Stahl and his firm, The Renovated Home, a design/build firm, were required to complete the job in the 14-week stretch between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend, a restriction at numerous co-ops in the city, when neighbors are presumably away on some beach and won’t be bothered.

And if he didn’t hit his tight deadline for the apartment, the building’s co-op board would slap Stahl with hefty fines of “five figures” a month, he said. “It could have been torture,” said Stahl, during a recent tour of the home, reflecting on his mad dash to the finish line. “But the client relationship was unusually incredible,” he said.

Stahl raised the ceiling in the kitchen.
Stahl raised the ceiling in the kitchen.

Fortunately, the renovation, which added some unconventional bling and zing to what was previously a humdrum Upper East Side apartment where the owners moved in 1998, cost just six percent more than the original budget, which one of the owners, an artist, declined to share. “I don’t want my husband to know,” she laughed.

While the first contractors trudged inside in late May, the team did get a head start on the action. Four months earlier, the owners and Stahl pulled together a battle plan.

First, they chose materials, knowing that there would be no time for dithering once the work began in earnest, a point that the owners, unlike other clients, seemed to grasp immediately.

Veiny travertine, for instance, was selected to replace the brown square tiles in the shower off the guest bedroom, which was converted to a home office as part of the renovation.

Similarly, four mother-of-pearl slabs for the master bath, which provide a far more exotic and glamorous look than the ceramic tile there before, required a lengthy fabrication time.

If he didn’t hit his tight deadline,
renovator Lee Stahl would have been hit
with hefty fines of “five figures”
a month by the co-op board.

Kitchen appliances, too, were stockpiled in advance, like a wide cabinet-faced Miele fridge, which took the place of a tired and narrow Sub-Zero model. Stahl also made sure he had eight-inch-wide American walnut planks for the kitchen floor, ready to go come May. “No one wants to walk on stone anymore,” to be mindful of joint health, he said.

Of course, there are limits to what can be done ahead of time. Stahl, like other designers, believes one can’t really get a sense of a color until it is applied in the room it’s intended for, which meant waiting till the job was underway.

After it was, he tried out several finishes of brown paint to enliven the mahogany panels in the library, where the clients sought to create a less-stuffy vibe. But it took 18 samples on the walls until they nailed the color, a high-gloss custom mix from the heralded Fine Paints of Europe.

“We were looking for a pure brown,” Stahl said, “and some were too rusty and others were too flat.” Though initially sprayed, the paint was brushed on for its final coat, to show the brushstrokes. The lustrous blend was also used on the trim in the dining and living rooms.

The painters got a break because the co-op would allow them to apply the paint in the fall, after the deadline, since that kind of work isn’t too dusty or loud. It took two weeks.

Closet doors now have family photos on them for a modern look.
Closet doors now have family photos on them for a modern look.

The owners decided to remove the Oriental rug that made the place feel traditional and instead installed cheetah-print wall-to-wall carpet, from the New York-based Stark, which also strikingly covers the floors in the home office, hallway and master bedroom, replacing that pale-green predecessor.

“I didn’t want a cookie-cutter thing,” the wife said.

Though barely any walls in the apartment were relocated or taken out, which undoubtedly saved weeks of time, Stahl did move a door to better showcase the owner’s quirky collection of toy penguins, which was inspired by a curio purchased by the client’s parents on their honeymoon and subsequently amassed from finds in antiques shops around the country. The collection, which numbers in the hundreds, is displayed in a wall-hung glass case.

To allow for extra-airiness, Stahl also raised the ceiling in the hall, kitchen and master bedroom, which was possible after he re-oriented overhead ducts for the central air-conditioning system.

Elsewhere, one of the three bedrooms in the apartment was turned into a dressing room. There, examples of the owner’s oeuvre — photos of toy trucks mysteriously deserted in the woods — occupy a wall. The other bedroom, once cramped, became a home office, adding to the sense of openness.

In that room the closet doors were like windows, lined with panes of glass. But now, many of those panes are covered with black-and-white photos of a family trip or party, giving the space a new coziness — and, like the apartment, an artsy, modern feel at last.

While soup-to-nuts preparation may have served Stahl well, he also credits his frequent presence onsite. “This job was never handed over to the prototypical project manager,” he said, adding that he was in the apartment on most days and wore two hats: designer and general contractor.

In the end, the owner said, “It was thrilling to see what they did here.”