Zelda Cherner and brother Bram live in the coolest tree house in Manhattan. The penthouse apartment that they share with their parents, Ben Cherner and Emma O’Neill, both architects, is a modernist glass and concrete extension of a 200 year-old town house in the East Village neighbourhood of New York City. In the summer, the tall trees in the large public garden next door brush up against the glass walls and enclose the apartment in their vibrant green foliage. There is also a large outdoor deck, complete with a wading pool and shower, which allows the children to be outside most of the day without having to leave their home. Even on an overcast late summer day, Bram greeted a visitor by asking, “Guess how long I’ve been in the pool?” “Since 6 o’clock this morning,” he beamed proudly without waiting for an answer, and promptly dived back into the pool.
Although Ben and Emma designed the apartment before the children were born, they anticipated all the needs of an urban family life. One major obstacle was the restriction imposed by the New York City building code on the allowable height and square footage of the apartment. Ben quickly turned these limitations to his advantage “because they allowed me to focus on materials, scale, natural light and construction. It was important and obvious to relate the adjacent urban ‘micro-forest’ to the apartment to create an expansive feel in a small amount of space. This was achieved by extending the exterior stucco finish inside the north end of the apartment.” Ben also made the most of the outside views by wrapping half of the apartment in glass.
Construction took two years, and the enchanted but highly functional apartment was finished just in time for Zelda’s birth. While the final penthouse was smaller than their original blueprint for it, Ben and Emma created an impression of light and space by ingeniously dividing the place into two. One half is left open as the living area, and all other rooms are tucked into the two storeys on the other half. The double-height ceiling gives the living room an airy and spacious feel, while the enclosing glass walls dramatically frame the amazing view of the lush garden outside. All the rooms are cleverly connected visually. The bedroom upstairs has slit windows that peek into the living room. The dining room, while neatly tucked under the second floor, is completely open onto the main space. Visitors to the apartment are always impressed by the light that floods into the space. As Ben explains, “Our favourite thing is having the time to relax and watch the light change during day.”
From the dining room, large glass doors swivel open onto the expansive deck with the city skyline in the background, blurring the distinction between the outdoor and indoor spaces. The children run in and out all day, going from the pool to reading on the bed designed especially for them by their father. They couldn’t have asked for a better place to live.