Robin Goldwyn Blumenthal in Bricks & Bucks on January 29, 2020
Renovating a building’s lobby is often a contentious process, one fraught with ego clashes, arguments over money, and conflicts over aesthetics and construction. Not so at 203 West 81st Street, where the lobby was designed by Sygrove Associates Design Group and undertaken with little fuss – after a major hallway renovation, also designed by Sygrove, was completed in the summer of 2017.
“I could imagine how the whole thing could degenerate,” says Ellen Cohen, former president and current board member at the 55-unit Upper West Side condominium, which was built in 1911. But in this clearly atypical case, she adds, “There wasn’t any acrimony.” Not only did the renovations, which cost $75,000 for the lobby and $370,500 for the hallways, come in on budget and on time, but the eight-member board conducted all the research and made the final choice of designer and design without the help of a committee – and with minimal pushback from unit-owners, once they accepted the idea that an assessment was necessary.
The secret, says Cohen, comes down to the initial choice of a designer. “We really took our time,” she says, noting that after hearing pitches from seven or eight designers, the board realized that many of them ignored the board’s parameters and insisted on doing things their own way. “I know with other people we could have chosen it would have been a disaster,” she says.
Cohen says that with Marilyn Sygrove, owner of the eponymous design firm, the board was able to strike a nice balance. “Sometimes she won, and sometimes we won,” Cohen says. “But there never was a real knockdown, drag-out fight.”
Sygrove credits her time-tested methodology and process, which involves working with boards to ensure they’re protected from the rest of the residents. “My philosophy is one of respect, to treat people the way you want to be treated,” she says, noting that there is always give and take, but the ability to listen to the board’s desires and concerns is a key to success. After getting input from unit-owners at a “Meet the Designer Night,” Sygrove drew up and presented the board with three design schemes. Once she got feedback from the board on the three options, Sygrove drew up a final version, which the board then approved. During the makeover, the board was updated with weekly notes, and unit-owners were periodically notified about scheduling and progress.
The pre-World War I brick building, which has an entrance set back from the street, had not had a lobby facelift in a quarter of a century. But structural changes weren’t necessary. This makeover involved more of a freshening of the lighting and decor. Sygrove’s goal was to make the lobby more appealing to a “a newer resident base” without sacrificing its century-old charm. So the design firm decorated around “the beautiful existing ‘bones’ of the lobby space,” which consisted of a mosaic tile floor, elegant wall moldings with inset mirrors, and ceiling moldings and frieze details. The design updated the decor with a new painted color scheme, decorative light fixtures, new upholstered furniture, and area rug. Because of the wall details, no artwork was necessary – which meant the board could niftily dodge another potential source of controversy.
“You don’t need massive budgets to do this,” says Cohen, adding that the crew was “impeccable,” with no unit-owner complaints about noise, dirt, or rudeness. This wound up becoming that rarest of lobby makeovers – one that seems to have made everyone happy.
PRINCIPAL PLAYERS – DESIGNER: Sygrove Associates Design Group. PROPERTY MANAGER: Siren Management. GENERAL CONTRACTOR: Off the Wallcoverings. CARPET CONTRACTOR: Robert M. Weiss & Co. SIGNAGE: Lucidity Awards & Signage.
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