It could be argued that the redesign of Marcy and Sid Emmer’s 16th-floor condominium in Mies van der Rohe’s 1963 building Highfield House began in the laundry room.
“When we bought the condominium, I knew we would renovate,” says Marcy. “Because the laundry room was actually just a stackable washer/dryer in the powder room. And, with a family of five, we needed room for a big washer and dryer.”
Now, following a six-month renovation, Marcy has a heavy-duty washer and dryer—not to mention ample space for ironing and folding—tucked into an alcove off the master bedroom. But more to the point, she and her husband have fulfilled what many consider an impossible dream: They’ve created a comfortable family home in an urban loft-like space.
In undertaking the renovation of the Emmers’ U-shaped end unit on the top floor of the North Charles Street apartment building, architect Virginia Navid of Cho Benn Holback+Associates took inspiration from Mies himself, whose modernist designs emphasized the permeable border between indoor and outdoor space. “When we started, the condo was more like a suburban home, with all the furniture and focus facing inward,” says Navid, who specializes in designing modernist spaces. “It wasn’t about the windows, the perimeter or the city.”
Navid first removed a small room near the front door that served as storage space and an office area, allowing visitors to walk in and immediately orient themselves to the airy open space and the windows that frame the city beyond. She then removed the home’s many built-in Formica bookshelves, revealing Mies’ original plaster walls, which are only two inches thick, contributing to a feeling of elegant fluidity. She added translucent glass sliding doors throughout the apartment to provide privacy without permanently partitioning the space.
In the living area, which is toasty even on a chilly day thanks to the sun streaming through the many windows, there’s an L-shaped couch where the family lounges to watch TV. Just beyond, two Mies Barcelona chairs and a Mies bench are arranged in an intimate and slightly more formal seating area. “When we lived in houses, some people were in the kitchen, other people the bedroom,” says Marcy, an art teacher at Boys’ Latin. “Here there’s no hierarchy in the space. There’s no basement or formal room that’s not used. When the kids’ friends come over, we all hang out together.”
The simple lines and subdued colors of the furniture, as well as the sheer lack of clutter—there’s nary a shelf or knick-knack in the living room—put the focus on the Emmers’ art collection, which includes paintings and drawings by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, as well as sculpture by Henry Moore. As Navid says, “I kept telling Marcy that all these walls are the palette for the art. The art gives the color.”
The living area blends seamlessly into a north-facing foyer—where Sid sits and takes in the view eastward and westward—that leads to the kitchen and dining room. In the kitchen, Navid replaced the white laminate cabinets with gray high-gloss lacquer cabinets from Studio Snaidero and installed concrete tile floors and cast concrete counters dyed to match the cabinets. Here again, she removed a wall, this time one that formed the west side of Mies’ original galley kitchen.
“When Mies van der Rohe did kitchens, they weren’t about a gathering place for the family,” says Navid. “The Emmers wanted the kitchen and dining room to be hangouts. That’s why they have the large table in the dining room. Sid can use it as an office and the kids can do their homework there.”
In fact, the long custom-made ebony-stained veneer conference table and molded plywood chairs by Charles and Ray Eames are the only furniture in the dining room, which features Robert Motherwell’s “Elegy Study 1” and Helen Frankenthaler’s “Yellow Jacket.”
From the dining room, an original Mies pivot door—which, like all the doorways in the apartment stretches 8 feet from floor to ceiling—delineates the boundary between public and private. Beyond, the bedrooms for the Emmers’ 18-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter include dark gray concrete built-in shelves and desks. The bedroom for the Emmers’ eldest daughter is tucked into an alcove near the front door. Just 44 inches wide, it accommodates a single bed and built-in shelves and little else. “Creating enough private space was one of the challenges with a family of five,” says Marcy.
In the master bedroom on the east side, Sid and Marcy fall asleep to the winking lights of the city—retractable window shades provide privacy, but Marcy doesn’t draw them at night, preferring the city lights as night lights. “We dine to the setting sun and wake to the morning sun,” says Sid, a land developer.
The master bathroom features signature minimalist features such as hidden doors and hardware. “I did lots of lofts in New York City, where you need storage but you don’t want to see all these closet doors,” says Navid. “Everything is concealed—it just looks like planes. But it’s a challenge for a lot of craftsmen. This kind of modern design requires amazing precision.”
The Emmers, who once lived in an 1880s house in Mount Washington, have thoroughly embraced their modern home, as well as the man and the movement that gave birth to it. “This building is an architectural gem that’s under-appreciated in Baltimore,” says Sid. “Occasionally we’ll see a tour bus out front, people from out of town coming to study the building.”
“Hopefully we’re putting new life into an old building,” says Marcy.