“The house was in poor condition, but luckily it was in original condition. It hadn’t been chopped up or altered in any major way, which was important to us,” recalls Eric Brill. An oil trader now youthfully retired, he and his wife embarked on several months of major repairs before even moving in. The couple called in contractors to patch gaping holes in the plaster walls; to sand, prime, and paint 200 steel-framed casement windows; and to reroof the interconnected volumes that make up the structure. (At 10,000 square feet, sprawling over three levels and multiple wings, the Mandel House is huge.)
All the repairs have been mindful of original materials and finishes. When in doubt, the Brills consulted stacks of blueprints and period photos to make sure that restorations matched Stone and Deskey’s designs. As a result, the house now looks pretty much as it did in the pages of Fortune. Illumination designed by Kurt Versen remains intact, and the kitchen needed almost no work. Other rooms required sprucing up. In the dining room, glass blocks installed during a previous restoration were replaced by better reproductions. In the swank ground-floor lounge, cheap recliners, the Brills reinstalled an original Deskey banquette, weathered from years in storage, and re-created a plastic-laminate bar with stools covered in lemon-yellow leather. Behind the banquette, a mural by Witold Gordon was entirely repainted from vintage photos.
There are rooms that the Brills and their three children rarely enter: the squash court adjoining the three-car garage, the servants’ dining room, and the cactus-filled “plant room” near the front entrance. Other spaces have been adapted to more practical uses. The Brills combined three maid’s rooms into a rec room centered on an enormous pool table (designed by Deskey, of course). A chauffeur’s bedroom is now Nannette Brill’s ceramics studio.
The public areas remain mostly as they were in 1934, with Deskey’s elegant furniture anchoring vast spaces with broad views of the outdoors. The fact that the house came with about 60 Deskey originals–some production items and some custom pieces, including a Steinway grand piano, a Bakelite-and-chrome dining table, and built-in wooden cabinets and shelving–keeps the period look authentic. The owners hired William Louche, who has restored furniture for major art museums, to repair Deskey pieces including the piano, dining table, sideboard, and shelving.
When Louche arrived on the scene, the finishes on some of the wood furniture were “like powder,” he says. “You’d touch them, and they’d flake off. And they were so opaque you couldn’t see through them.” Several wooden pieces had lost entire swaths of finish; other pieces had even lost veneers. Louche applied rejuvenator to clear up the cloudy finishes, always being careful not to alter patina, and replaced missing sections of veneer with new ones. “As much as possible, everything we did had to be reversible,” he explains, in case original elements someday turned up. He cleaned the chrome legs of the dining table and various chairs with acetone, alcohol, and calcium carbonate, none abrasive to the original metal.
When furniture to match missing originals couldn’t be found, the Brills combed auction catalogs and antiques shops for items of similar vintage, mostly by Deskey. The couple also added collections of Soviet constructivist posters and machine-age artifacts to the ensemble. A Walter Dorwin Teague camera posed at the bottom of the spare, towering staircase is one of the family’s favorites. A perfect analogy to the house, the sleek and aggressively modern camera is aristocratic in its self-conscious sophistication.
With a listing on the National Register of Historic Places officially secured, some people might rest on their laurels or at least relax in their landmarked masterpiece. The Brills, however, are already contemplating the next improvement project in the unending series: the admittedly monumental task of waxing the original cork and terrazzo floors. Louche is planning to return to touch up some furniture finishes that have clouded again, probably from sun exposure. Then there’s the possibility of re-creating Stone and Deskey’s paint scheme, in which different colors articulated the planar composition of interior walls, like a cubist canvas. For the moment, however, the walls of this high-maintenance home are staying white. As Nannette Brill says, “White is just so easy.”
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