Topping Themselves

When Scot Armstrong sold his East Village apartment, he passed the keys to the new owners along with a sage bit of advice: hire my architects. In 2006 he had commissioned Melissa Baker and Jon Handley, of Pulltab Design, to convert part of the roof of the fifth-floor walk-up into an airy cabanalike penthouse that opens onto a pocket garden. But for budgetary reasons, the husband-and-wife team left much of the silver roof untouched—until May of last year, when the new owners recruited them to build out the rest of the space. The completed rooftop, with a mix of warm wood tones and textured concrete, at once offers a refuge from the bustle of urban life and honors the gritty beauty of New York.

From the edge of the original garden—marked by tall, wavy grass in rusted Cor-Ten planters—the architects built a ramp that gently slopes past an outdoor shower (the clients’ only demand) before extending the length of the roof. “We wanted to create this interesting sectional quality as opposed to having one massive roof deck on the same level,” Baker says. At every step, the partners maintained a visual connection to the city. Even the shower, which has thick concrete walls to protect from voyeuristic neighbors, features a well-placed window that frames a slice of Manhattan skyline (the New York Life Insurance Building, to be exact). The deck then opens up to a restful seating area with two wooden benches, one with a wisteria-draped canopy that casts dynamic shadows as the daylight passes through its wooden slats.

While the effect is one of sublime tranquility, the roof is hardly pristine. Decaying iron railings were left in place—a move that reflects the architects’ appreciation of weathered materials. Nowhere is that aesthetic more evident than in the garden’s water feature: a large block of white oak that could be mistaken for a Donald Judd sculpture. “The whole idea is that it just gets better with age,” Handley says, pointing to a rough-hewn surface that is already beginning to crack. “Things can turn gray and weather and still be beautiful.”

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