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The Lenox Hill Townhouse Designed Around an Eccentric Railing

A railing (upper left) stands out in a townhouse otherwise designed around clean lines and simple finishes. Photo-Illustration: Curbed; Photos: Vandenberg

Paul Guilden descended from two families that obsessed over — and profited from — the craftsmanship of luxury goods. His mother, born Louise Bulova, was from the watchmaking clan. His father started out selling gold rings, and ended up in finance; eventually, he bought Stetson, which Guilden went on to run with his siblings. Not that you’d have known any of this by looking at him. Guilden wore his suits until they tattered, packed for weekend trips in a paper grocery bag, and drove a Honda Civic (practical, but far from fancy). One evening, Guilden showed up at a French bistro on Lexington Avenue in a flannel shirt and slippers, getting stares from patrons who might not have recognized him from his photo on a wall of illustrious guests.

When Guilden died in 2022, he left behind his own luxury product, one that he fussed and fawned over for decades: his townhome on East 65th Street, which he bought in 1981. Inside, Guilden’s perfectionism is easy to spot. There are rows of built-in cabinets that hide what the engineer hated most — knickknacks — and the drawers have no fussy pulls. (They pop open.) In the kitchen, utensils are tucked into wooden compartments that are the exact lengths of forks and spoons. “It’s so precise and so perfect,” says his daughter, Xiao Li Tan, who now oversees brand development for Stetson.

The sleek, clean lines of Guilden’s townhouse are an ideal backdrop for something you likely won’t see in any other townhouse in New York: a stair railing bedecked with clouds and sinewy plants in swirls of iron that recall Hector Guimard’s Parisian metro entrances and Louis Comfort Tiffany’s pastoral stained-glass windows. The railing sweeps down from a shooting star on the fourth floor and was created by Dimitri Gerakaris, a sculptural metalsmith who got a call from Guilden in 1997. Gerakaris has built big civic projects — a tableau of the history of the neighborhood in the Woodside, Queens, MTA station; the arch just off Boston Common. But Guilden had come across Gerakaris’s more domestic work, in a 1988 issue of Home magazine. He called Gerakaris with the idea of a railing inspired by the cosmic drawings of William Blake. “But ‘happy Blake,’” Guilden told Gerakaris. “No one needs a downer in this house.”

The railing begins on the fourth floor with a shooting star, which evolves into cloudy bursts. Artist Dimitri Gerakaris says he was alluding to the story of creation. Photo: Vandenberg

Guilden loved the design and loved Gerakaris. “What I do is, I think, a really fun combination of engineering and art,” Gerakaris says. “And I think Paul was pretty much that way as well.” Despite the frothy imagery, the bands of starshine and cloud fluff are also structural. “There’s nothing superfluous,” Gerakaris says, “and that’s Paul’s entire approach.”

A portrait of Pacifico. Photo: Vandenberg

The two men got along in just about every way. Guilden visited Gerakaris in New Hampshire for ski weekends. In Manhattan, he would host Gerakaris and his wife and present new projects for the townhouse: iron numbers for the facade, a new iron door. The railing was extended down another flight; this section includes a picture of subterranean life: fish among swirls of water and seaweed. When Guilden wondered if his black Lab, Pacifico, couldn’t be a part of the picture, Gerakaris added a floating wall near the home’s entryway — a tableau that shows a dog in profile looking toward the doorway as if waiting for his owner. The railings have outlasted Pacifico and his owner, and Gerakaris says they should last many more lifetimes. Although eventually, of course, they’ll start to rust. “We’re all going to oxidize,” he says.

159 East 65th Street is one of a dozen brownstones that were renovated in the 1920s to center on a shared backyard known as Jones Wood Garden. Photo: Vandenberg
On the parlor floor, the railing design references sinewy plants and vines. Photo: Vandenberg
At the parlor level, a living room looks over the gardens. Photo: Vandenberg
Guilden preferred clean lines and installed built-ins throughout the house to hide away clutter. Photo: Vandenberg
Between the modern rooms, the railing provides a frothy, organic counterpoint. Photo: Vandenberg
Past the railing, a dining area looks over the street. Photo: Vandenberg
Guilden slept upstairs, overlooking the garden. Photo: Vandenberg
A solarium on the top floor, where Guilden practiced yoga and kept a serious garden; the metal grid was installed for vines to cling to. Photo: Vandenberg
Owner Paul Guilden worked in fashion at Stetson and was friends with designer Yeohlee Teng, who staged her 2014 spring ready-to-wear collection in the green space. Photo: Vandenberg
A view of the garden shared by homes on 65th and 66th Streets between Lexington and Third Avenues. Photo: Vandenberg
The Lenox Hill Townhouse Designed With an Eccentric Railing