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Photography by Eric Laignel and Paul Warchol

Open House

by Stephanie Murg | Manhattan magazine | August 28, 2011

“Business in the front, party in the back” usually describes the exotic, bi-level hairstyle known as the mullet, but the concept is infinitely more attractive—and enduring—when applied to a 163-year-old townhouse near Gramercy Park. Behind the traditional red brick facade of this two-family dwelling is a light-filled showplace that is equally adept at hosting playdates (colorful playground equipment can often be found on the main terrace) and formal gatherings. Guests munch on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or more elaborate fare beneath Ingo Maurer’s Porca Miseria! chandelier, a frozen explosion of shattered china and silverware that hangs opposite a green triceratops head molded out of clay created by one of the home’s five residents under the age of 7.

“When we embarked on this renovation in 2004, a lot of the design was about openness: open spaces, open to the public, open to anything,” says Mexican-born architect Ulises Liceaga, who masterminded the redesign of the townhouse and now lives in the loft-like top apartment with his wife and five kids. Liceaga’s father-in-law purchased the building in 1968, paying approximately $100,000 for a warren of rooms spread over four floors that he would ultimately give to his two children. The three-year renovation produced a true study in contrasts: The lower apartment (now home to Liceaga’s brother-in-law) was restored to highlight its more traditional charms, while Liceaga wanted a clean slate and more space, including a new 620-square-foot top floor, two terraces and a roof deck.

Preserved panels of crown molding in the entryway nod to the past, but the refinished wood staircase leads up to the future—and down Mexico way. Alfonso Barrera’s painting of a blue-faced caballero welcomes visitors to the high-ceilinged hub of Liceaga’s three-bedroom apartment. On one end of the floor-through space is the sleek kitchen, where stainless appliances and glass countertops gleam under a ceiling of protruding slit lights by Maurer. Beyond the breakfast bar is an oval of white Corian that seats 10. Topped with a series of small, mirrored sculptures, it is one of two prototype Trotzdem tables that Maurer created in 2004 for a Museum of Modern Art project. Getting the table into the apartment proved to be an undertaking in itself. Having by then almost exhausted the budget for the renovation, Liceaga improvised. “I just stood on the sidewalk waiting for a crane truck to come by,” he recalls. “I told the driver, ‘I’ll give you 200 bucks if you put this table up there.’ And he did.”

At the other end of the open-plan space, a sculptural installation and abstract canvas by the artist Emilio Garcia flank a two-story glass-curtain wall that overlooks the main terrace. At the flip of a switch, hundreds of tiny LED lights embedded in the glass create an instant constellation. “When we have a party, we always have it on,” says Liceaga, who commissioned the wall from a manufacturer in Germany. “And when people are on the terrace, the neighbors pop their heads out and say, ‘Hey, can we come over?’”

Transparency is a trade-off. “The glass wall reflects a lot of what is going on in our lives,” says Liceaga, noting that he’s been approached on the street by residents of the high-rise next door and neighboring townhouses that have a bird’s-eye view of his apartment. “People I had never seen recognized me, and they said, ‘Oh, I know your apartment up there. Your kids are so cute.’ That was weird.” It’s something he took into consideration when designing his next house, another remodel, this time on the Upper East Side. “The new house will be very closed, with smaller windows,” the architect adds. “I think the design sense has changed from open to kind of protected.”

Consistent in all his projects are a focus on the needs of the space and a respect for traditional architecture, with an eye to contemporary lifestyles and constraints. “I love the challenge of reconfiguring a space to serve new functions, and I think that’s where architects can be creative,” says Liceaga, who worked for Cesar Pelli and Robert A.M. Stern before founding his own firm, Fractal Construction, in 2006. “You have to listen to what the project wants, what the space wants, and try to navigate all of the restrictions, codes and landmarks—try to go around them to make the spaces attractive for modern living.”