Welcome to Urban By Design Online! This blog is a notebook of my travels as a city planner, historic preservationist and nonprofit advocate. It's a virtual collection of the many things that I adore, featuring cities, the arts, architecture, gardens, interior design, and retail. Enjoy! - Deena
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Philips Saeco and Lavazza event at Eataly

Philips Saeco co-hosted an event with Lavazza at New York City’s famed Eataly to present a history of espresso and technology. It was an intimate gathering of professionals who specialize in food, design, coffee, and Italian heritage. 

Salvatore Foto of Lavazza

The day was full of information about the fundamentals of coffee, including the brewing process, and the regions of the world where it is produced. There was also a special presentation made by Salvatore Foto from Lavazza, a company that is the number one coffee selling brand in Italy.  Each attendee received a gift bag that included Qualita Oro, an aromatic, medium roast coffee made with 100 percent Arabica beans from Central America, and the highlands of Africa.  I’ve used it in my Syntia machine, and consider it a delightful late afternoon treat.

Isaac Cohen with the Syntia Brew Group

Isaac Cohen from Philips gave an informative presentation of the history of the company’s espresso machines and its numerous design innovations.  In 1985, the company premiered the first brew-to-cup machine.  He also gave a detailed overview of the Philips Syntia Focus espresso machine, and explained the function of the brew group, a patented feature that is considered the heart of the fully-automated machine.  The device allows the machine to tamp, brew, and dispense coffee in one cycle.  Alessandra Rovati, who edits the blog, Dinner in Venice, closed the afternoon with a lively discussion of the history of coffee and café culture in Venice, Italy.



The evening was capped off by a visit upstairs to La Birreria at Eataly, a rooftop restaurant and brewery.  The restaurant has a retractable roof, with unparalleled views of some of Madison Park’s most iconic skyscrapers, including the Flatiron building. 


A special menu was prepared for the occasion, and below are a couple of photos of the delectable meal.  The restaurant served the most wonderful tiramisu that I’ve ever had.  Overall, it was a joyous occasion, full of fantastic food, and the unprecedented opportunity to gain more information about coffee.  It is not something that I will soon forget.  I’m very grateful to all for the extraordinary experience.


Philips Saeco Syntia

Recently, I received the Philips Saeco Syntia espresso machine.  Normally I use a traditional coffee maker to make my morning coffee, so the Syntia was a phenomenal upgrade.

Honestly, for the first few days, I hesitated to test-drive this machine out of fear that somehow it would be complicated.   Thankfully, I was wrong, because this solid machine was surprisingly operational right out of the box!  Both the easy to read product manual, and the detailed instructional videos on the company’s website were extremely helpful.

The Syntia has a sleek, sophisticated, and elegant black exterior.  Its modern and stylish design is a testament to the storied legacy of Saeco, known for producing extraordinary espresso machines.  I am impressed by the chrome finish, which gives it a rather polished finish. Its compact size makes it easy to store on the kitchen counter, taking up minimal space, without having to rearrange existing appliances.

The control panel, with its LED display was incredibly intuitive. Adjusting the coffee length is a matter of touching the appropriate button. There is also a convenient hot water and steam selector switch.

One of my favorite features is the aroma preference. So far I'm still on the one bean setting, but each new brew has presented a deeper and more flavorful result than I ever would have imagined.

There is a manual button to modify the coffee to either a coarse or fine grind. I've also used pre-ground coffee, but prefer using the whole beans, because of the bolder taste. However, I also enjoy hearing the gentle whirl of the ceramic grinder prior to the brewing cycle, because it makes for a more complete espresso experience.


I made my first cappuccino with this machine. The Pannarello wand was not difficult to use, and made rich, frothy milk with ease. The result was an incredibly flavorful cappuccino that tasted even better, because I made it myself!


The front loading 40-ounce water tank was a huge plus. I have low kitchen cabinet clearance, so this was an excellent feature.

The machine is easy to clean and maintain. Overall, I highly recommend the Syntia for its ability to provide a delicious espresso, without ever leaving the comfort of home.


The Bronx is Modern: Below East 161st Street

Entrance to the Melrose Community Center [Deena Parham]

This year, I've decided to include a few posts dedicated to architectural treasures in the Bronx.  Today's installment is about Bronx modernism.

Recently, I mentioned to friends that I went on a tour of modern Bronx buildings.  I received several quizzical looks, followed by a collective, “Really?” 

As quiet as it is kept, several giants of the modern architectural movement such as Paul Rudolph, and Marcel Breuer had early commissions in the Bronx.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the Bronx is still stuck in the “buildings are burning” narrative, so this fact is not widely disseminated.  This post will venture into territory where most tours fear to tread- celebrating the borough’s modern architectural heritage!

The Melrose Community Center, 286 East 156th Street, Bronx, NY

[Formal name of building: South Bronx Classic Community Center at Melrose Houses]

A mere five minutes from Manhattan are the Melrose, Morrisania, and Jackson public houses in the South Bronx.  It’s a typical Post World War II, superblock, Robert Moses-era assemblage of functional architecture that met basic housing needs, but was miserably low on inspiration.  The formidable brick buildings with small patches of green space were meant to resemble towers of park. Unfortunately, the sheer density of the high-rise apartment buildings makes the community feel closed, like an impenetrable fortress. 

The gym at the Melrose Community Center [Deena Parham]

After walking past several mature trees, I was pleasantly surprised to see the Melrose Community Center.  The 20,000 square foot building was designed by Agrest and Gandelsonas Architects and Wank Adams Slavin (1998-2001) for the New York City Housing Authority.  It’s currently used as a cultural, recreational, and educational center for local teens.

The Melrose Community Center [Agrest and Gandelsonas Architects]

 Agrest and Gandelsonas Architects made the following design statement:

The design of the Bronx South Classic Center reflects a desire to avoid a fortress-like environment and instead provide the community with a building that conveys a sense of openness and accessibility. The symbolic aspect of the project is of major importance in its social function for the local residents who live amongst one of New York City's highest crime rates; it has generated a point of identification and pride for the community. The Melrose Community Center is composed of two main volumes enclosing programs, the bar and the oval gymnasium connected by a link which provides the entry space. The gymnasium, with its strongly recognizable form, is a symbolic element of identification for the entire community.

We chose to make the classrooms building as transparent as possible. Curtain wall glazing along the length of the bar exposes the interior to public view in both directions. The various activity rooms have a glass wall oriented towards the circulation corridor, enabling its users to see the activities of everyone else. This visual exchange creates a great sense of energy and excitement.

The Bronx Criminal Court Building 215 East 161st Street, Bronx, Harrison and Abramowitz

A travertine sculpture by Constantino Nivola at the Bronx Criminal Court Building. [Deena Parham]

This $31 million imposing courthouse was designed by the architectural firm of Harrison and Abramowitz (1973-1977).  It currently houses the Family Court, Criminal Court and their associated offices, the District Attorney, and offices of the Departments of Probation, Human Resources, Corrections, and NYPD.  The bulky limestone clad building is 13-stories tall, and is 600,000 square feet. This building's unwelcoming public presence resulted in a radical design approach when the Bronx Hall of Justice was proposed.  

 The Bronx County Hall of Justice 215 East 161St Street, Bronx, NY, Rafael Vinoly Architects

The glass facade of the Bronx County Hall of Justice [Deena Parham]

Architect Rafael Vinoly’s courthouse project opened to the public in 2008.  It is two blocks long, and is one of the largest courthouses in the country. The East 161St Street facade is known for its accordion-fold curtain wall of windows that reflected the brightness of the sunlight.  This building’s facade is a stand-out primarily because its intent was to show the transparency of justice, while maintaining a level of privacy. 

The $421 million, nine-story, 775,000 square foot building was constructed between 2001 and 2007.   The windows were made of translucent glass that was tested at a blast simulator in New Mexico, to ensure that they were resistant to any potential terrorist attack.  Overall there are 47 court rooms for the Supreme and Criminal courts, seven grand jury rooms, as well as offices for the Department of Corrections, the Department of Probation, and the Bronx District Attorney. 

Rear of the Bronx County Hall of Justice where the view of the public plaza is blocked. [Deena Parham]

While the building was supposed to be a shining example of superior public architecture, the courthouse has had its share of detractors since its opening.  Several newspaper accounts have quoted court personnel who have complained that the building is allegedly structurally unsound, has leaking ceilings and sewage pipes, and that overall, it is not very well-maintained. 

In the rear of the courthouse building is a public plaza that was meant to soften the institutional building, which faces a residential neighborhood.  However, the public space has not been open, due to structural problems with the two-story underground garage.  The plaza is currently hidden behind a series of fences that block most of the view.  Others wonder if it will ever be open to the public, due to security concerns in the post 9/11 era.  Apparently there's also a rooftop Zen garden that was intended for community space, but it is currently not accessible to the public.


Via Verde: The Bronx Continues to Rise


Via Verde under construction, May 2011 [Deena Parham]

There are times when I am surprised to find brand new real estate developments in the most unexpected places.  In May 2011, I was in the South Bronx for an event at a community garden, when I noticed the striking building across the street (above photo) under construction.  I later learned that it was Via Verde (700 Brook Avenue), a much-heralded new affordable housing complex.

Fortunately, I do occasionally find myself walking on the streets of the Bronx to witness neighborhood transformation first-hand.  The larger than life historical narratives that I've read about the borough's brushes with urban decay, and abandonment, are usually shattered the moment that I meet residents who are working hard to improve their communities.  The truth is that large swaths of the South Bronx have long-risen from the devastation.

Yes, 2011 was a banner year for the Bronx, as several prominent projects emerged that forced the media to take notice.  The borough continues to make tremendous strides in economic development. Here is a new real estate development on my radar this year:

 Via Verde (“the green way”) the South Bronx

View of Via Verde from the street [Phipps, Rose, Dattner, Grimshaw]

In September 2011, Michael Kimmelman, the new architecture critic at the New York Times, visited Via Verde, a new housing development in the South Bronx.  His first review brought considerable attention to the affordable housing complex.  The innovative environmentally “green” building, starts at three-story townhomes, gradually rising to a 20-story tower, and offers 151 rental and 71 co-op apartments to mixed-income families. Phipps Houses and Jonathan Rose Companies developed it with Dattner Architects and Grimshaw. 

Looking South from the Rooftop Garden [Phipps, Rose, Dattner, Grimshaw]

The building incorporates elements of nature, which includes a 40,000 square foot roof deck that will be used to plant fruit trees, and will have garden plots for tenants to plant their own gardens.  Via Verde is designed to achieve LEED Gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, for its innovative environmentally responsible design.  It also promotes physical activity, by placing staircases in prominent locations, to discourage residents from using the elevators, whenever possible.

 The 20-story rental apartment tower [Phipps, Rose, Dattner, Grimshaw]

What was most noteworthy about the New York Times article was the praise for Via Verde’s design.  Over the years affordable housing developments have rarely garnered accolades.   Michael Kimmelman said:

The rebirth of the South Bronx isn’t news. But Via Verde is. And it makes as good an argument as any new building in the city for the cultural and civic value of architecture. The profession, or in any case much talk about it, has been fixated for too long on brand-name luxury objects and buildings as sculptures instead of attending to the richer, broader, more urgent vein of public policy and community engagement, in which aesthetics play a part.

Via Verde helps shift the conversation. Like all good architecture, it is handsome. Unlike too much, it goes out of its way to be healthy. It evolved out of a competition five years ago, organized by Shaun Donovan, then commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, now President Obama’s secretary of housing and urban development. The idea was to spur developers to team with architects in combining the latest green concepts with high-quality architecture for a public-housing project, a “beacon,” as Mr. Donovan put it to me the other day, that would “re-engage design with the issue of affordable housing.”

 Occupancy is expected in March of 2012.

More information


David Byrne and Janette Sadik-Kahn

 David Byrne and Janette Sadik Khan at the Center for Architecture

Recently, I went to the Center for Architecture to hear a talk by David Byrne, the musician, visual artist, filmmaker and co-founder of the musical group Talking Heads.  In 2009 he released Bicycle Diaries, which chronicled his travels throughout many world cities via bike.  He has owned a fold-up bicycle for more than 20 years, and it is his transportation of choice on the streets of New York. In 2010, Mr. Byrne completed a series of commissioned bicycle racks for the New York City Department of Transportation.

Mr. Byrne gave a brief slideshow of his  travels throughout Latin America.  He raved about the public architecture and transportation projects that have been implemented fairly recently in cities like Quito, Ecuador, and Bogota, Colombia. “There were new libraries in the middle of incredibly poor neighborhoods. It created new public space, which for many neighborhoods it was the first time that they had a dedicated public space.  The architecture of those libraries is something that any major city would be proud of. It gives them a different perspective of themselves, and it connects to the bike lanes, and pedestrian lanes.”

The city has installed nine new bike racks designed by David Byrne. Each has an evocative name. Top row, left to right: MoMA, Olde Times Square and Villager. Middle row, left to right: Coffee Cup, Wall Street and Ladies’ Mile. Bottom row, left to right: Hipster, Chelsea and Jersey. (Photos: New York City Department of Transportation)

Mr. Byrne was later joined by Janette Sadik-Khan, the New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner.  As the NYCDOT Commissioner, Ms. Sadik-Khan has spearheaded a number of ground-breaking roadway projects that have catapulted her into the international spotlight.  She has implemented pedestrian plazas, most famously in Times Square, and in Herald Square.  During her tenure she has also closed off streets on several weekends, exclusively for recreational use in a program called Summer Streets.  However, her most controversial turn has been her tireless efforts to expand the network of bicycle lanes throughout the city.




Throughout the evening, Ms. Sadik-Khan cited numerous polls to show that New Yorkers overwhelmingly supported many of the new transportation initiatives.  “Critics who have come out against Mayor Bloomberg’s focus on the pedestrian experience said that it is somehow elitist for us to be doing this work, because the pedestrian plazas, the bike lanes, making buses go faster is only for a small number of New Yorkers. I think that the good news is that a majority of New Yorkers really don’t see it that way, and they see past the rhetoric that has been in some of the newspapers.  I also think that’s a very important message going forward for other cities, particularly for design of our cities, and transportation policy around the world.”

Ms. Sadik-Khan mentioned that she was amazed that human activities such as walking have been neglected within the public policy realm.  Surveys across the city have shown that walking accounts for the highest share of how New York City residents actually get around.  The audience laughed when she said that initially many people had been fixated on the design of the “lawn chairs” in Times Square, but that at least 58 percent of New Yorkers now supported the changes and improvements in pedestrian plaza. 

Overall it was an evening filled with vigorous head nodding in agreement, and rounds of applause from the staunchly converted.  The bicycle advocates came out en masse to make it a standing-room-only crowd in a matter of minutes early on a Monday. I’ve never seen a city official have such a dedicated constituency, and the majority of the audience appeared appreciative of Ms. Sadik-Khan's ongoing efforts. 

In this day and age where people are often jaded about the state of the government, and question the intentions of celebrities, it was refreshing to hear people actually applaud for pedestrian plazas, bicycle lanes, and even David Byrne’s quirky collection of bicycle racks NYCDOT bike racks.  The entire event restored my faith in the possibilities of government, and the effectiveness of campaigns that are endorsed by well-known personalities.   Change will always have its share of challenges, but at least there are still people willing to make the effort to try something new. 

Three of my favorite NYCDOT pedestrian plaza projects:

Dumbo Pedestrian Plaza

In 2007, the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn, received a vibrant pedestrian plaza adjacent to the Manhattan Bridge.  This space once housed a 12-car parking lot at Front and Pearl Streets, and was transformed into a triangular-shaped living room, complete with outdoor furniture.  The Dumbo Improvement District asked the NYCDOT for help in turning this into a pedestrian space.  The Brooklyn Botanic Garden was also summoned, and together they created a space with a green-painted floor, café tables and chairs, umbrellas and planters filled with flowers and trees. Great granite blocks from the Williamsburg Bridge delineate the space, which also showcases a large abstract sculpture.


Madison Square Plaza

While most people venture over to the popular Madison Square Park, there is also a unique plaza that offers an interesting vista to see New York City’s historic landmarks The Flatiron Building and the Empire State Building. Completed in 2008, this space is an unexpected surprise in the heart of the bustling city.

Chelsea Plaza

In 2007, Chelsea Plaza on West 14th Street and Ninth Avenue was transformed from one of the most dangerous pedestrian crossings, into a gracious pedestrian plaza.  Located near Gansevoort Plaza, the Apple Store, and steps away from the High Line, it is one of my new favorite public plazas.  The dynamic public space also offers weekly Salsa and Capoeira classes.  Streetfilms has an excellent documentary of the before and after:


Living with History: The Beacon Theatre

Part II of the report from the  Living with History forum.

The legendary Beacon Theatre was built by theatrical impresario Samuel “Roxy" Rothafel.  Constructed between 1927 and 1928, and designed by Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager, the 2,800 seat theater is located on Broadway and 74th Street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  It was bought by the Warner Brothers in 1929, and remodeled to accommodate vaudeville acts, musical productions, plays, and movies.

The theater’s interior was designated as a New York City Landmark in 1979.  In the Guide to New York City Landmarks, Andrew Dolkhart wrote that, “The lavishly appointed lobbies, stairways, and auditorium of the Beacon, with their eclectic Greek, Roman, Renaissance, and Rococo detail, are characteristics of the great movie palaces built in the 1920s.” The theater is also well-known for its nearly flawless acoustics.

Cleary Larkin, a preservation architect at Beyer Blinder Belle Architects and Planners, gave an excellent overview of the seven-month, $16 million renovation of the storied venue.  Madison Square Garden purchased the theater in 2006.  Beyer Blinder Belle was hired in 2007 to do an infrastructure upgrade and renovation of the Beacon Theatre. 

Ms. Larkin said, “The Beacon Theatre is one of the premiere rock houses in Manhattan. It’s been used as a rock venue since the 1980’s.  The acoustics are superb, but the decoration was not.  Over the years it had been overpainted, and it had a gritty interior that exemplified a rock house experience.  The original intent of the project that was created by Madison Square Garden was to really keep this rock house vibe.” 

The theater was built to give visitors the feeling of entering into another world, a place to escape and engage in fantasy.  Ms. Larkin said that there was always an element of surprise, and that attending a performance was meant to evoke a magical journey.  However when Beyer Blinder Belle surveyed the space before renovation, it had undergone severe years of wear and tear.  The theater had an illustrious history as a “gilded palace” and the “Baghdad on Upper Broadway” but they had no initial idea of what the colors and finishes were.  Part of the extensive renovation process included a thorough examination of the original and decorative painting elements that had been hidden under 10 layers of paint. 

“We did a finishes analysis all throughout the theater, and because it was an interior landmark, we had to go through LPC (Landmarks Preservation Commission) review.”

Madison Square Garden was very interested in the restoration of the theater, and encouraged the team to push beyond “a gritty renovation.  Some locations had sponge-finishes.  Others walls were gilded, glazed, and gold-leafed, and stippled paint. It was really a wild interior.  We decided to do a historic interpretation that brings out the aspect and finish of the original intent.”



Ms. Larkin mentioned that Beyer Blinder Belle worked with Brooklyn-based muralist Mason Nye to recreate a custom mural above the entry doors.  She said that the original mural was designed by Rambusch Studios, and it was an advertisement.  It was removed, and replaced by wallpaper in the rotunda.  Fortunately, they found a color palette that reflected the time period, and recreated the Rambusch mural.

More than 1,000 people involved in the crafts, trades, and other artisans worked on the project.  The entire theater was modernized from its infrastructure to the backstage functions.  Overall, the renovation was deemed a great success, because the client took an interest in revitalizing one of New York's landmark theaters without any hesitation.  The theater reopened in February 2009, and continues to attract major musical acts from across the globe.

All photos: Madison Square Garden


Living with History: Gracie Mansion

Gracie Mansion, New York City

Last weekend, I attended an outstanding program at the Museum of the City of New York entitled, "Living with History: Restoring, Redesigning, and Reviving New York’s Landmark Interiors."  It was a half-day symposium that highlighted several extraordinary projects that have successfully managed to bring historic buildings back to life.  It was presented in conjunction with the New York School of Interior Design.

The museum staff did a superb job of selecting some of the liveliest speakers that I’ve ever heard talk about historic preservation.  From start to finish, the presenters were passionate about their projects.  Each gave solid evidence as to why some of New York’s most iconic buildings are truly incredible gems that must be protected and celebrated.

Donald Albrecht, the museum’s Curator of Architecture, and Design, stated that the museum decided to host a symposium to showcase, “preservation as a living tradition. How do you take interiors and bring them up to date to modern times? How do they change in the broader sense?”

Originally I was going to write a general post. However, due to the depth of each project, I’ve decided to write a series of separate entries that will appear over the next several days.

Jamie Drake's Gracie Mansion

Jamie Drake of Drake Design AssociatesJamie Drake, a celebrated New York City based interior designer, gave an illustrious talk about his work on the renovation of Gracie Mansion in 2002.  The ceremonial residence of the Mayor of the City of New York was built in 1799 by Archibald Gracie, a shipping magnate.  Over the years the house was expanded by Mr. Gracie, and Mr. Drake jokingly referred to it as “the McMansion of its day.”

Overlooking the East River, the 11-acre country estate was appropriated by the City in 1896, and incorporated as a part of the newly built Carl Schurz Park.  The mansion was used for a variety of purposes, including the first home of the Museum of the City of New York, from 1923 until 1932.  

Eventually Parks Commissioner Robert Moses convinced city authorities to designate it as the official mayoral residence.  Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and his family moved into the home in 1942.  Nine mayors have lived in the mansion.  However, the current mayor Michael Bloomberg does not reside there. For the first time, the building is open to the general public, and about 40,000 people visit annually.

The home had not been renovated since Mayor Edward I. Koch’s administration in the 1980’s by interior designers Mark Hampton and Albert Hadley.  Mr. Drake was hired by Mayor Bloomberg.   There were $7 million secured in private funds to complete the renovation of the four-bedroom, seven-bathroom home which was his first historic preservation commission. While doing the project, Mr. Drake said that he learned what it meant to be a preservationist, by doing in-depth research about the home, and its former occupants.  Mr. Drake said some of the challenges included the fact that there was little information about the Gracie family, and only one room in the house had maintained all of its original moldings to do paint analysis.

Sitting Room, Gracie Mansion

Mr. Drake chose a Brunschwig & Fils striped wallpaper, with an overprinted border, for the foyer, which is furnished with antiques from the collection of the Gracie Mansion Conservancy.  Previously the fireplace had been covered up.  Mr. Drake said that the floor was restored by members of the Alpha Workshops.  The nonprofit organization trains people with HIV/AIDS in a variety of the decorative arts.  Trainees learn gilding, decorative paint finishes and faux finishes, color theory, and wallpaper design and production.  Mr. Drake is currently the chairman of the board.


The Parlor, Gracie Mansion

Mr. Drake showed this photo of the home’s parlor.  The John Boone chairs are upholstered with Green Schumacher velvet.  Brunschwig & Fils rosette-patterned silk on drapery swag, open-arm chair and sofa.

He described the room:

The house is a living, breathing house.  It is open to the public, but it is not a museum.  The furniture arrangements are still contemporary for usage and conversation. We did purchase many pieces for the house’s collection that were period antiques.  All of my decorative schemes were based on historic precedent.  This patent yellow was popular at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The wallpaper borders in this room, and the wallpapers throughout the house were based on documents from the Nancy McClelland historic wallpaper company. The fabrics were woven to order, and those off the rack were all historically correct. The carpets were woven to order from a mill that has been in existence since the 19th century on original looms.

The Dining Room, Gracie Mansion

The scenic Zuber Les Jardins de Paris wallpaper was installed during the mansion’s 1984 restoration by Albert Hadley.  Most of the lighting throughout the house is either English or French, which would have been typical of the nineteenth century. 

A circa 1810 French chandelier, from H. M. Luther Antiques, was added to the dining room to complement the wallpaper.  There is also Scalamandré trim and silk taffeta drapery.


The foyer of the Susan E. Wagner Wing leads to the ballroom and reception area.

Mayor John Lindsay had a wing added to the home in 1966 that was designed by architect Mott B. Schmidt.  Mrs. Wagner requested the addition to meet the concurrent space needs of entertaining and raising a family.

Mr. Drake decided to use a blue runner to compliment the faux limestone gold walls.   A blue-and-gold wool carpet by Patterson, Flynn & Martin highlights the space.

Gracie Mansion is open to the public on most Wednesdays by reservation. For more information visit their website here.

Additional Links:

Alpha Workshops

Brunschwig & Fils

Jamie Drake

Museum of the City of New York

Photos: Architectural Digest