When a stylish and green-minded couple created their lavish Fifth Avenue aerie, they pulled out all the stops without breaking all the rules.
In 2005, when Ulla and Kevin Parker bought a vast apartment overlooking Central Park and the fluid ribbon of Fifth Avenue, they had an unbending conviction—that they could design a home on a scale reminiscent of those of Andrew Carnegie and Pierpont Morgan, yet accomplish its renovation in an environmentally friendly fashion, without sacrificing style. Then they upped the ante: They made their home into a virtual museum dedicated to the bold-faced names in Art Deco and Midcentury Modern design, and mixed in French Louis XV and XVI antiquities—all of it contained within an imaginatively detailed single-floor jewel box of a place reminiscent of the boudoir of a Baroque-era queen.
“I wanted the apartment to be an example of French savoir-faire,” says Ulla, a passionate, self-made green-living advocate descended from a French mother and a German father, and married to a leading expert on climate change who founded an asset management company focused on sustainable and environmentally conscious investing.
“We don’t believe in recirculated air or the sealed environment of a biosphere,” Parker explains, adding that the little handprints, cereal spills and smashed strawberries that are the hazards of a household with small children are not among the concerns that keep her and her husband, whom she met while working at Morgan Stanley, up at night.
Though it was challenging to find a contractor and a designer willing to work with suitable materials and methods, the Parkers prevailed. They were able to move into their new habitat in roughly 24 months, having spent only about 10 percent more money and a few more months’ time than conventional building methods would have required.
The apartment’s most salient eco-minded features include milk-based paints; manually operated toggle switches that ground wires and cut off electricity when devices aren’t being used; refurbished steam radiators; denim rather than fiberglass insulation for the seldom-used air-conditioning system; natural, vegetable-dyed fabrics free of stain-guards or other chemicals; and cinderblock walls that provide insulation and soundproofing. “We don’t believe in consuming a tremendous amount of energy,” says Parker.
In addition, antique flooring, paneling, moldings and mirrors, some of it dating to the 18th century, were reconditioned to suit the new home, with floors and wall panels assembled like tongue-and-groove puzzle pieces, without the use of glue. On the rare occasions glue was needed, it was plucked from the children’s arts and crafts bins—Elmer’s only.
Of the meticulously assembled flooring—which, like the mirrors, moldings and paneling, required the labor of second- or third-generation artisans—Parker quips, “We call it ‘parquet de Versailles.’”
Oriented on a central corridor that makes for a bright and elegant entry, the apartment’s living spaces are divided in two: At one end of the axis are public spaces that, in their variety of vignettes for conversation, bring to mind the parties hosted at Downton Abbey; and, enclosed at the other end, are the dining room, breakfast room and stainless-steel kitchen—an industrial relic from an earlier age, which Parker says is extremely hygienic—plus private spaces.
Click here to read more of "Savoir Flair" in the April digital edition of Manhattan magazine!