A Manhattan Townhouse Gets a One-of-Kind Makeover

Judith Zeng

When Adam Kushner first saw the townhouse he now calls home in Greenwich Village, it was dilapidated and structurally chaotic, with no kitchen and numerous code issues that impacted safety.

It was exactly what he was looking for.

“It was a total disaster. A mess on every level. I said this is it. This is what I do,” says the 58-year-old New York architect, known for his residential and restaurant designs, including many iconic breweries and buildings in the city. 

Mr. Kushner is known for his residential and restaurant designs, including many iconic breweries and buildings in the city.


Rayon Richards for The Wall Street Journal

He and his wife Louise Chuu, a 50 year-old obstetrician-gynecologist, bought the two-story building and rear carriage house for $3.75 million in 2012.

Mr. Kushner then spent the next nine years and $2.5 million turning the two buildings into a unified compound by adding a courtyard and three stories, creating balconies that double as lawns, and installing an 83-foot transparent climbing wall.

The renovation process required his wife and two teenagers to move their sleeping arrangements to different parts of the house at least five times. “All of my family members, including our rabbit, have learned to deal with my eccentricities,” says Mr. Kushner.

Dr. Chuu says fortunately she and the couple’s kids are laid back. “We are not very rigid people. We are able to adapt,” she says. Training to be a physician taught her that “anything is doable. I can sleep in a call room with three other people. You just tell yourself that this will be my life for the next couple of years,” says Dr. Chuu.

The reward for such flexibility is the opportunity to live in a one-of-a-kind, expansive, indoor-outdoor space on Minetta Lane in the heart of the Village, two blocks from Washington Square Park. The traditional, stucco shell of the front, street-facing building remains, but Mr. Kushner pushed back the new interior, forming a courtyard between the original exterior and the new façade. He then added three stories, creating what looks like a modern building rising in the backdrop.   

The renovation included the addition of an 83-foot climbing wall that becomes transparent above the rooflines, allowing a view of the city.


Rayon Richards for The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Kushner’s inspiration for the design came from the neighborhood and the history of the building, which dates to 1930. At one point, the property was flanked by trees growing over the Minetta Brook, a creek that shows up on maps as far back as the 1670s, which flowed through the farms and estate lands that made up much of Lower Manhattan at the time until it was covered up starting in 1820. Mr. Kushner says traces of the brook are still under his house—he can hear it flowing and sees it bubble up on rainy days. This narrative influenced his decision to drape the added exterior with a sculptural steel lattice, referencing the now-gone trees.

The tree theme infiltrates the home’s interior, starting at the entry on the main floor, where a large kitchen has wood shelving, oak floors and a kitchen bar made from a single slab of red oak.  One level up from the kitchen, reached by a curving wood stairway, is a cavernous, 24-foot high living room with a two-story lumber-sided fireplace. There’s a wall made of stacked logs, an enormous round chandelier and curved glass windows that let in light from the front courtyard.

Mr. Kushner says the room was inspired by the feeling of being in the hollow at the base of a tree and meant to evoke a wooded cathedral, with four pillars holding up a wooden canopy. All of the wood used throughout came from trees on the family’s property in Gardiner, N.Y., a town about 80 miles north of Manhattan, just outside Poughkeepsie. 

The third floor, which is the first additional story created where the roof used to be, is a space Mr. Kushner views as “transitional.” He therefore designed it to convey a connection between the inside and outside, the new and old. There’s a large outdoor patio, reached through sliding glass doors, covered in real grass, giving the illusion of stepping out to a backyard. (To cut the grass, Mr. Kushner uses barber shears, since a lawn mower would be overkill and the family’s pet rabbit doesn’t eat enough grass to help.)

The fourth floor, which holds two bedrooms and a bathroom for the couples’ sons, and the fifth floor, where the main suite is, both have grass-covered balconies. The main bedroom and bathroom are separated by a glass shower, allowing light to flow through both spaces. A skylight opens to give a feeling of sleeping in the open air. Stairs from the fifth floor lead up to a two-level roof deck with unobstructed views of all of lower Manhattan and uptown to the

Empire State Building.

Getting to the back building requires either going out the kitchen into an interior courtyard or taking an elevator to the second floor. There is the 83-foot climbing wall, constructed from transparent polycarbonate panels in order to give views of the city all around it. The former carriage house now has a bedroom (where Dr. Chuu’s mother will live) and a gym.

A cellar, reached through a glass door from the courtyard, has stone floors and walls, a fireplace and bar that houses a collection of vodkas from Poland, where Mr. Kushner owns property. 

Before Mr. Kushner bought the building, it was a seven-apartment rooming house. The switch to a one-home domicile was made by floral and party designer Robert Isabell, who bought it for $800,000 in 1992. Mr.  Isabell, was known for his work on Caroline Kennedy’s wedding to John F. Kennedy, Jr, the 1999 party celebrating Talk Magazine and numerous other events for billionaires in the 1980s and 1990s. 

The traditional, stucco shell of the front, street-facing building remains, but Mr. Kushner pushed back the new interior, forming a courtyard between the original exterior and the new façade. He then added three stories, creating what looks like a modern building rising in the backdrop.


Rayon Richards for The Wall Street Journal

When Mr. Isabell died in 2009, the townhouse made the news because of the collection of mid-20th-Century sculpture and furniture found there and auctioned off at Sotheby’s. News reports referred to the home as “the salad house,” because it was draped with ivy inside and out.

Mr. Kushner’s finished project on Minetta Lane shares some elements with the last personal home project he did: a two-bedroom, two-bathroom penthouse on Barrow Street, also in the Village. At that one, he used reclaimed New York City subway car doors and had a see-through soaking tub made of transparent materials and viewable from the kitchen below. 

He and Dr. Chuu sold that apartment in 2011 for $1.9 million when they realized they wanted more space for their growing children.

Both their former place and the Minetta Lane house have been on Open House New York Weekend tours, an annual event that started 20 years ago with visits of buildings in all five boroughs, gaining Mr. Kushner a devoted following. Kristin LaBuz, deputy director of Open House New York, says Mr. Kushner’s projects have been long-time favorites on its tours. “Pre-Covid, in recent years, the line of visitors seeking to peek inside Minetta Lane during OHNY Weekend would stretch down the block,” she says.

One groupie is Elisa Hz, a 49-year-old college administrator. She saw the Minetta house on a 2015 tour, when visitors were required to sign a waiver and wear construction hats. At the time, there was a makeshift plywood staircase, and wires and caution tape everywhere.

Children playing in the street on Minetta Lane, 1923.



When Ms. Hz saw the house in 2019, she says she was stunned by its transformation into a modern yet rustic, urban yet rural space. “It’s magical,” she says.

Dr. Chuu says she too was amazed at how her husband created a feeling of nature and space in a house so immersed in the city, with views of both the Freedom Tower and the Empire state building. 


What’s your favorite feature of the home Mr. Kushner restored?

As much as she appreciates that, however, this is likely Mr. Kushner’s last big, messy, challenging home project for the family. “We made a pact that the next place we go will be in move-in condition,” says Dr. Chuu.


  • Foundation: $450,000
  • Climbing wall: $60,000
  • Glass sliding doors and windows: $45,000
  • Kitchen: $200,000
  • Shower in the cellar: $100,000
  • Structural Steel and Framing: $350,000
  • Elevator: $85,000
  • Finished roof and exterior paving: $40,000
  • Cabinetry: $50,000
  • Stonework: $25,000
  • Flooring: $50,000
  • Sprinkler: $50,000
  • Plumbing: $75,000
  • Electrical: $90,000

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