Tour a Prewar Penthouse That’s Built Around a Rooftop Water Tower

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A rooftop garden surrounds the windows like a lush green cushion. Photo: Jason Schmidt

There’s no more familiar symbol of New York grit than the exposed rooftop water tank. In the chic stretches of the Upper East Side, though, the utilitarian tends to get dressed up, and prewar buildings typically have their tanks elegantly encased in towers that match the architecture below. Lili and Lee Siegelson’s penthouse not only lies on the floor directly below one of those towers; like no other apartment you’ve seen, it also reaches up into the water tower’s brick shell, with a few thousand gallons stored directly overhead.

When Olson Kundig Architects began an overhaul of the apartment five years ago, Lee had been living there for a half-decade, having purchased the eccentric tower space — effectively the building’s 18th floor, and tall enough to have its own small mezzanine — as a bachelor in 2004. After he married Lili and they had two kids, the couple added the (much more conventional) 17th floor, and now they had to figure out how to put it all together. “At some point,” says Tom Kundig, principal of Olson Kundig, “you just go, ‘At what point are we grown up? When do we start to make a true home?’ They might not agree with that,” he adds, starting to laugh, “but I see it all the time.”

Making a true home entailed completely gutting the 18th floor and cutting a stairwell through from below. The architects custom-designed many of the interior fittings, including a banquette-bench-table dining nook in the corner of the living room. Their polished refinements of utilitarian materials can be seen in details like the exposed-pulley handle that opens the upper windows. The Siegelsons “came to us because of our industrial sensibility,” Kundig says. “What I think of as industrial is authentic; it embraces the function of the place, the materials, and it’s an expression of how it all works together, and that is what they really liked.” To that end, they left the exposed brick walls alone and used steel-chain mesh to cover the huge arched windows in the living room, which extend nearly to the 19-foot ceiling. “It’s really tough and filters the light, and it’s never going to deteriorate in the sun.” They also added a fireplace and chimney — which, if you think about it, is a little funny with all that water overhead. “Thousands of gallons, just right up there above the apartment!” says one of Kundig’s colleagues when I mention it. No wonder the surrounding rooftop garden is so green.

*This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of New York Design Hunting.

Tour a Penthouse Built Around a Water Tower