In The Magazine

Bravura Brutalism

by Kristina Stewart Ward Photographed by COURTESY OF CORCORAN
Saturday, October 14, 2017

“Wear dresses above the knee at your own peril,” cautions André Balazs about the translucent-floored, four-story penthouse cantilevered high above Beekman Place—and the site of his birthday party in 1999. A decade before Balazs’ Standard Hotel was censured and celebrated for its patrons’ window-front exhibitionism, the raffish hotel magnate was gleaning a lesson

or two in provocation.

“Of all the incredible bathtubs I know of in this city, that one takes it,” Balazs recalls of the penthouse’s Plexiglas centerpiece, which is replenished by a thin sheet of water from above and is completely transparent to the floor below—one of many reasons that led the New York Times to label the site as  “the most important living space in New York, a vertigo-inspiring kinky progenitor of the ’70s disco aesthetic.”

The complex aerie was inhabited by its designer, the legendary architectural provocateur Paul Rudolph, for more than 30 years, until his death in 1997. Twenty years later, it’s on the market again. But it’s no relic of another era.

Balazs is hardly the penthouse’s only admirer. Another acolyte, Tom Ford, unveiled his latest homage to the designer a few weeks ago in the form of his new store on Madison Avenue, a minimalist study in white, gray, polished chrome, mirrored ceilings and spare lines—a fitting nod to Rudolph, who also happened to design Halston’s famed home just around the corner at 101 East 63rd Street. Reflecting on Rudolph’s streamlined masterpiece, Ford says, “I was fortunate to have been in the townhouse in the early ’80s, when I first arrived in New York, and I remember being stunned by the beauty of it. It really had an effect on me. In many ways I have integrated this design philosophy into my life.”

The former chairman of Yale’s architecture school, Rudolph was a controversial lightning rod, much like his votaries, and he’s widely considered one of the most influential architects of the 1960s. Rudolph was at the forefront of Brutalism, a movement

hallmarked by industrial materials and repeated modular forms, and the style’s presence in Manhattan exploded in 1965, when Rudolph decamped here from his eight-year tenure at Yale. He arrived for a commission, and, soon after, set about perfecting and expanding his pied-à-terre at 23 Beekman Place, a Georgian townhouse built in 1860. Rudolph had begun leasing the apartment in 1961, making it his primary residence when he left Yale, and bought the building in 1976.

The 20-foot-wide property had already passed through several owners (among them the actress Katharine Cornell), existing as both a single-family residence and an apartment building. Rudolph seized on the building’s oft-changing identity to make it his design laboratory, ultimately using it as a base for the 4,100-square-foot penthouse he created during his three decades in residence. Rudolph created a mazelike, 17-level floor plan of narrow catwalks and balconies encircling large-volume open mezzanines, a design played out in Lucite, Mylar, vinyl, Plexiglas, melamine, Formica, glass, acrylic and mirror-polished stainless steel.

It was an imposing masterwork for the architect, but like so many other Rudolph works—such as Yale’s Art and Architecture building, the magnum opus he designed after being appointed the university’s dean of architecture at the age of 38—the audacious, divisive 23 Beekman suffered from the callous caprices of trendiness. Fortunately for Rudolph, he inspired devoted followers. Mentored by Walter Gropius at Harvard, Rudolph counted among his own Yale protégés Robert A.M. Stern and Charles Gwathmey, both of whom teamed up to revitalize Rudolph’s blighted campus tower, which fell victim to suspicious arson, neglect and lack of continued innovation after Rudolph left Yale to work for high-octane private clients. The A & A building has since been renamed Paul Rudolph Hall, and a $126-million-dollar restoration was recently unveiled to wide acclaim.

Likewise, 23 Beekman Place required painstaking restoration and the right keepers of its flame. Upon Rudolph’s death, he gave the building to the Library of Congress, which sold it to collectors Michael and Gabriella Boyd in 2000. While their appreciation for Rudolph’s work was sincere, the perilous penthouse space proved too much for their young children, and the couple soon sold the building to Steven Campus, a technology entrepreneur who spent years faithfully restoring the modernist landmark with the help of architects Andrew Bernheimer and Jared Della Valle. The team completed unfinished work and introduced design innovations that kept with Rudolph’s vision.

Today, all of Rudolph’s signature winks and bravura still stand, but also present are such useful amenities as air-conditioning and working elevators, alongside new materials and design that meet current building codes. While many of Rudolph’s works have slipped through the preservationists’ nets, 23 Beekman Place is not likely to meet a similar fate. Alongside devoted owners and well-placed disciples, Paul Rudolph also counts not one, but two historic foundations devoted to him in Manhattan: the Paul Rudolph Foundation and the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation. And, presumably, someone with a spare $19,500,000 could always call up Corcoran’s Leighton Candler and set up a third one at the architect’s own midtown laboratory. André…Tom…you in? 


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