For many interior designers, inspiration for projects can come from any number of modern sources– be it a snap on Instagram, or an HGTV host showing off the latest trend. But for interior designer Kelly Weldon, her life’s work has been greatly inspired by taking a bold look at the past. “I consider myself someone who appreciates the classics,” explains Kelly. It’s definitely something that heavily influenced my work. And for this award-winning designer, it's a philosophy that has served her career well. Over the years, she has been celebrated for her ability to combine modern form with vintage sensibility, mixing various styles in surprising new ways.
So, when Kelly was approached by a former client to assist him with renovating an apartment at one of New York’s most well-known addresses, she saw the opportunity of a lifetime. “He had recently purchased an apartment in the San Remo building and wanted help making the space his own,” Kelly says. “And because he knew of my work and my love of historic places, he felt I would be the right person to turn to.”
A Storied Past
Built in the 1930s, the San Remo, on Central Park West between 74th and 75th Streets, has enjoyed an interesting history among New York City’s jet-setting elite. Over the years, the building has been home to an eclectic mix of actors (such as Demi Moore and Bruce Willis), athletes (Tiger Woods) and even the occasional rock star (Bono). It has even played a supporting role in movies, including The Odd Couple. And yet, beyond being the playground of choice for some of the Big Apple’s most famous people, the building itself has an amazing legacy.
The San Remo was the innovation of legendary architect Emery Roth of Emery Roth and Sons. Renowned for weaving a liberal mix of multiple design elements throughout his works, Roth is largely credited with designing some of New York City’s most famous hotels and apartments during the early part of the 20th century. Today, many of his buildings, such as the Normandy and the Beresford, have achieved landmark status. Indeed, the bulk of Roth’s designs, including his notes and blueprints, are permanently part of the archives at Columbia University for future generations to study.
The San Remo has remained one of Roth’s most celebrated projects. At the time of construction in 1929, it was one of the first buildings to take advantage of the city’s multiple dwelling law. This ordinance modified New York’s existing construction laws to allow towering structures to be built for housing purposes, provided they offered extra amenities like yards. To accommodate the legislation, Emery created San Remo’s units as part of a large, U-shaped structure with an elegant courtyard facing away from Central Park. He then drafted two 10-story towers using basic styles from both Art Deco and Beaux-Arts architecture. The result is a unique space that has become an integral part of the New York City skyline.
Meeting the Challenge
For Kelly Weldon, the chance to work in a space with such an amazing heritage was too good to pass up. And yet she knew that making significant changes would come with its own set of issues. For one, the San Remo was converted to a cooperative building in the 1970s, which meant that Kelly’s work would be limited by the building’s bylaws. Plus, the apartment itself had undergone multiple renovations in the past, leaving fixtures such as water pipes exposed.
And then there was the “little” matter of the San Remo having achieved landmark status in 1987. This meant that any alteration or new construction affecting the outside property must be approved in advance by the city ’s Landmark Preservation Commission — a detail that further affected Kelly’s ability to expand the apartment’s overall footprint.
“I would definitely say that the biggest challenge was the landmark status issue,” recalls Kelly with a hearty laugh, “which made some of the work we did a big balancing act, meeting all the requirements. For example, there was a stipulation that anyone who bought into the building had to replace the windows, which caused problems because the air conditioning was window-box units.” Her team would have to find a way to bring in an HVAC unit without damaging the walls or ceiling—a tricky task made more difficult by the special restrictions.
Realizing she would need a hand with this and other aspects of the renovation, Kelly reached out to her good friend, Michael Smith of Michael Smith Architects, for assistance. A firm principal with almost two decades of experience, Kelly knew that Michael would be the perfect partner in her quest to restore the San Remo space to its former glory. “Being brought on to the project by Kelly was really a treat,” says Michael from his office in Norwalk, CT. “The San Remo is one of the most iconic fixtures in New York City, so we wanted to do what we could to restore some of the pre-war details.”
As the team worked on the space, they found that the restoration process often required some creativity. For example, there was a large exhaust vent in the kitchen that they were not able to move. “That exhaust vent was one of the biggest design challenges we had going in,” Michael says. “After discussing the alternatives, we realized our only choice was to hide it, so we built a column around it. Once we added other details, such as the countertop and island, it blended right in.”
Finding the Perfect Piece
As the construction was taking place, Kelly worked hard to find the right furnishings for the apartment. Because she had collaborated previously with the homeowner on other residences, she had become familiar enough with his tastes that he respected her judgment implicitly. And that, according to Kelly, made the task of decorating an incredibly rewarding experience. “I was really fortunate in that,” she says. “Even though this was the client’s main residence, he travelled quite a bit for his job. So he placed an extraordinary amount of trust in me when it came to what pieces to use.”
Taking cues from the space’s historic vibe, the design team decided to incorporate vintage elements in some of the more modern pieces that Kelly selected. Doing so would not only give the space some much-needed warmth, it would also be a nod to some of the old-world charm the apartment exuded.
Nowhere was this design strategy more evident than in the foyer, where visitors are greeted by a warm mixture of textures and styles spanning many centuries. The brightly colored wallpaper on the wall blends perfectly with the 16th-century castle chairs that Kelly had custom upholstered with zebra print. Meanwhile, a 17th-century trestle table is featured with a rare framed photograph of Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger perfectly positioned on the wall above it.
“The foyer was originally very dark,” Kelly explains, “so we wanted to brighten up the space as much as possible. The golden tones with the wallpaper and ceiling were by design, to add some warm elegance to the area.”
In the dining area, she deftly paired two new Ralph Lauren chairs with ones made in the 18th century, while on the wall sits a 16th-century velvet and gold tapestry that she had cut into a custom balance. To complete the look, Kelly added a 16th-century Japanese screen, with gold leaves woven throughout on the wall.
During the decoration phase, Kelly often pushed herself to locate the right furnishing, no matter where the search might have led her. In many cases, as with the bathroom tub and the foyer’s rug, the pieces were custom made. But often she would be on location hunting for the perfect piece herself—which meant she often found herself in some pretty unusual spots.
“Among the most unique things in the study are the end tables,” she says. “Everyone loves them, but honestly they are probably among the least expensive items in the room.” Indeed, she sheepishly admits that she found them in a garden shop. “As odd as it sounds, they just work with the custom upholstered chairs and antique furniture.”
A Space Fit for a Rock Star
Overall, the project took four years to complete. And, while the timing may seem drawn out for some, Kelly explains it was the perfect scenario for the client because it allowed the team the opportunity to build the design layers needed to finish each room.
The patience and planning paid off, as the client was thrilled with the results: an elegant yet approachable residence truly worthy of the San Remo’s glamour-filled past. And, for Kelly and Michael, that made the long process to completion worth it.
“We were grateful we got the time we needed to find the right piece for every room,” concludes Michael. “No matter if it was vintage furnishing or the perfect custom molding, we wanted to make sure everything was right for the customer.”
Today, the apartment stands as a testament to the detailed and intricate work that the Kelly and Michael put into the project. It's a perfect fusion of past and present, an emblem of New York City’s historic charm nestled within a modern metropolis. A space that truly embodies the spirit of the San Remo: classic, elegant, and timeless. Kelly and Michael's labor of love serves as a vivid example of what can be achieved when creativity meets historic preservation.