New York City Apartment Combinations: 5 Things to Know

An apartment next door or above you just came on the market and you, like everyone in New York City, need… more… space. One of the greatest luxuries in New York is having enough space to live graciously, but can you make a combination work?

The good news is, apartments can usually be combined; sometimes simply, sometimes . . . less simply.

Sideways connections are generally simpler than vertical connections, but both are usually possible with careful planning and a skilled architect. The most successful combinations are thoughtfully designed so the final sequence of spaces appears as if you hadn’t done a thing: the new, combined apartment feels as if it has always been the way it is from the start. As with most things architectural, you’ll want to find a balance between how the spaces should look, flow, and function versus the technical problems of structure, building code, and building management.

Tad and I once designed a duplex in Chelsea combining five studio apartments on two floors. It was an extraordinary-but-exciting challenge, especially inserting the new stairway. It required removing beams, rerouting plumbing and electric, and dealing with a surprise duct for a major building system which was hidden under a different large unimportant duct. An unwelcome surprise, but just another challenge to work through. The finished apartment was enormously greater than the sum of its parts, with views everywhere, multiple terraces, and a private master suite tucked away on the lower floor. This particular combination was in a desirable neighborhood with few large apartments, so the final design increased the total value of the units by a tidy margin.

5 Things to Know About New York Apartment Combinations | Rodman Paul Architects

Before you put in an offer on that very desirable increase in square footage, there are a few things you should check on:

  • Confirm with building management that they will allow a combination. Some boards are lenient, some are very restrictive, all have different policies.
  • You should get a few hours of time from a licensed architect to assess the layouts of the units – if you’re making a vertical connection, this is a must. An architect can help find a plausible location for the stair. It’s simpler (and less expensive) to avoid cutting beams, but even that is possible if building management can be convinced.

Some other things to consider:

  • You will need to remove at least the stove in one kitchen (only one kitchen per apartment is permitted by code).
  • You will probably not need a new Certificate of Occupancy unless you are connecting a different use group to your apartment, for example annexing a doctor’s office to an apartment (which we’ve actually done, so even this is possible).
  • If you are in a condo, you will need to amend the units tax lot. This is essentially just more paperwork.

So if an apartment combination becomes available to you, know that it needs some careful planning, but really, anything is possible, including (oh YES) more closet space.

If you find yourself in the enviable position of considering a combination, we can help you understand your options. Contact me at to set up a consultation.

Gatehouses: Little Structures, Big Design

One of my favorite aspects of designing house projects in Fire Island Pines is distilling the “big idea” of a house into the little gatehouses at the front of the property.

Fire Island Pines is a community located on Fire Island, one of several thin barrier islands off the coast of New York’s Long Island. Development of the island began in earnest in the 1950’s, and one of the earliest gestures in the design of the community has had the most profound impact on its built form.

Gatehouse Design | Rodman Paul Architects
Gatehouses: Little Structures, Big Design on Fire Island Pines | Rodman Paul Architects

There are essentially no paved roads; the built world is almost entirely lifted above the sand dunes on wooden piles. Sidewalks are a collection of interconnected wooden boardwalks sliding through the tall grasses and pine trees, over sand dunes, connecting to houses built in the same fashion.

Fire Island Pines Gatehouses | Rodman Paul Architects
Fire Island Pines Gatehouse Design | Rodman Paul Architects

Residents often put up small sheds or gatehouses at their walk connection. These hold beach chairs, umbrellas, garbage cans, and the ubiquitous handcarts used to lug everything around on the wooden boardwalks. Gatehouses also serve the basic function of letting your neighbors know “someone lives here.”

Fire Island Pines Gatehouses: Little Structures, Big Design | Rodman Paul Architects
Gatehouses: Little Structures, Big Design (Blog) | Rodman Paul Architects

By emulating the visual language of the main house, these gatehouses give a passerby a clue as to the identity of the often-concealed house beyond. They are like little windows peeking through the thicket on the hidden houses that lay beyond.

About That Greta Garbo Apartment

Many years ago, long before Google, I responded to a managing agent’s request that I meet with a client — un-named — to discuss “how to install a laundry” at 450 East 52nd Street, otherwise known as the Beekman Campanile. From the moment I walked into the apartment, it was clear that it had an aura. The client introduced herself as Gray Reisfield, and she indicated that she had recently inherited the apartment from “an aunt.” The apartment had an incredible view over the East River, but as a life-long Fortuny fabric aficionado and as an art lover, what caught my eye was that the place was awash with fine old Fortuny and an incredible art collection covering all walls. It was “pre-war” of the old school: the kitchen and maid’s room hadn’t been refreshed in decades, and the public areas were only marginally better off.

My new client, as she became, toured the apartment with me, and finally admitted that her aunt was none other than Greta Garbo. It all began to make sense: soft pinks and greens throughout; Fortuny and more Fortuny; faux bois pine paneling; rhodonite figurines; the “Closet Room,” still filled with Chanel suits, matching shoes below; the Bedroom, with more Fortuny and V’Soske carpets; and lovely French furniture, and the art, throughout—all under a thick layer of dust.

We started a long and difficult project, which involved coming to terms with the fact that Garbo had inexpensively patched up the apartment when she purchased in 1953, and hadn’t done much since. A “gut job” was soon agreed to, and a “gut job” it was. Apart from the beautiful living room, the entire rest of the apartment was re-planned with Gray Reisfield’s intense involvement.

With my partner, Tarek Ashkar, we created new floor plans and an intricate decorating scheme to pay homage to Garbo and her taste. After many new combinations of Fortuny, and almost two years of efforts with V’Soske on an immense new wool and silk carpet, I felt we had honored Garbo and her memory. Equally important to the occupants, the apartment also had gained central air-conditioning, a modern kitchen, numerous marble bathrooms, and the aforementioned laundry.

Gray was a generous client with regard to our detailing: for a dining room to showcase the fine Jawlensky paintings, we created a vaulted ceiling with strap work and tiny lights at the strap work intersections; beautiful plaster moldings were the order of the day; and the floors were intricate parquets.

Gray originally insisted on a complete ban of any kind of photos or publicity, and by contract we agreed to forego any of the usual photography or publicity. I am delighted to see in the New York Times that current efforts to sell the apartment have now resulted in so many photos being exposed to the public — nearly thirty years on, the rooms are untouched, and still look wonderful.

Takes me back!