In 2019, when the designer Michael Thomas Murphy first visited the grand one-bedroom on the parlor floor at 36 East 69th Street, it looked like a suite for a president who didn’t exist. There were busts of Jefferson and Jackson, winged eagles and Ionic columns, and below it all, a blue-and-red carpet with yellow stars. “She had a lot of American flag memorabilia.” The furniture was puffed and velvet, and the walls were painted a patriotic red. Toning them down would eventually require “like 30 coats of white paint,” Murphy remembered. “And it kept going pink.”
The one-bedroom with a library, three Juliet balconies over 69th Street, three small terraces, and a private elevator had been designed to the last square inch by Francine Coffey, a fashion director at Singer who had worked as a buyer for Yves Saint Laurent and the Duchess of Windsor. The designer had told Architectural Digest that her inspiration for her apartment came when she was decorating a client’s home with Roman roundels and wondered what the hell she was doing: “This is America. Presidents are men I admire deeply. Why not live with them instead of the Caesars?” She called her vision “nouveau Federal,” a style somewhere between Oval Office and elite private men’s club. She walled the bedroom in heavy, Black Watch tartan, added moldings and a gas fireplace in deep mahogany, and stained the floors. In what might, in a past life, have been a useless hallway, she created a mahogany walk-in closet that wouldn’t have looked out of place at Brooks Brothers. The kitchen was black — even the ceiling. And a back bedroom became a library, whose shelves she capped with gilded lettering, spelling out Latin translations of her grandmother’s axioms: “Never trust a handsome man or an ugly woman” and “Money and power don’t change men, they just unmask them.”
Coffey’s “nouveau Federal” style wasn’t too much of a stretch for the six-story mansion. Like the neoclassical buildings in Washington that house government workers, 36 East 69th Street steals from Greek and Roman architecture. Columns around the entryway are most likely from a 1923 makeover of the façade by Carrère and Hastings, the architects responsible for the New York Public Library, who pushed a showier, Beaux-Arts style that translated those simple, classical elements through a French taste for luxury and froth. Their renovation was probably designed to please the family of Theodore Pratt, a banker and a founder of Standard Oil, who left when the Pratts divorced in 1930. The family home eventually sold to the Binger family, who stayed through the 1960s. The six-story building was then divided into 12 smallish apartments and went co-op in 1984. On the grandest parlor floor, whose 11-foot ceilings were designed to wow guests, Coffey had combined two units: A studio with French doors that opened onto 69th Street turned into her living room, and a former one-bedroom in the back had its living area transformed into her tartan-swathed bedroom. The renovation took walls down to the studs and built them up again with more moldings, columns, and finery; on the living-room ceiling, Coffey had a craftsman create a period-appropriate plasterwork seal. The hallway that once divided the units was no longer necessary, so the elevator became private.
“There’s nothing else like it,” says Murphy, who as a designer has seen his share of dated Upper East Side interiors (crimes, in his opinion: “bad brown marble,” “glass stairways”). His vision for this unit was “Haussmann style, French classic,” he said. “Like it would have been originally” if Carrère and Hastings’s Beaux-Arts vision had continued indoors. Murphy and his ex-boyfriend peeled off the tartan and sanded down and refinished Coffey’s dark floors to what they might once have been: a light ocher, with a simple, pretty herringbone pattern. They updated and lightened the kitchen and bathrooms but couldn’t bear to update the library, with their mahogany built-ins inscribed with Coffey’s grandmother’s sayings. “That was just too good to touch.”