[H&R] Mystery on 5th Avenue (this set my imagination on fire)
kayannjanet at gmail.com
Fri Jun 13 15:33:25 PDT 2008
>From the NYT
By PENELOPE GREEN<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/g/penelope_green/index.html?inline=nyt-per>
THINGS are not as they seem in the 14th-floor apartment on upper Fifth
Avenue. At first blush the family that occupies it looks to be very much of
a type. The father, Steven B. Klinsky, 52, runs a private equity company;
the mother, Maureen Sherry, 44, left her job as a managing director for Bear
Stearns to raise their four young children (two boys and two girls); and the
dog, LuLu, is a soulful Lab mix rescued from a pound in Louisiana.
They are living in a typical habitat for the sort of New Yorkers they appear
to be: an enormous '20s-era co-op with Central Park views (once part of a
triplex built for the philanthropist Marjorie Merriweather Post), gutted to
its steel beams and refitted with luxurious flourishes like 16th-century
Belgian mantelpieces and custom furniture made from exotic woods with
But some of that furniture and some of those walls conceal secrets —
messages, games and treasures — that make up a Rube Goldberg maze of systems
and contraptions conceived by a young architectural designer named Eric
Clough, whose ideas about space and domestic living derive more from
Buckminster Fuller than Peter Marino.
The apartment even comes with its own book, part of which is a fictional
narrative that recalls "The Da Vinci Code" (without the funky religion or
buckets of blood) and "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E.
Frankweiler," the children's classic by E. L. Konigsburg about a brother and
a sister who run away to the Metropolitan Museum of
discover — and solve — a mystery surrounding a Renaissance sculpture.
has its own soundtrack, too, with contributions by Kate Fenner, a young
Canadian singer and songwriter with a lusty, alternative, Joni
sound, with whom Mr. Clough fell in love during the project.
It all began simply enough, Ms. Sherry said, when she and her husband bought
the 4,200-square-foot apartment for $8.5 million in 2003.
"I just didn't want it to be this cookie-cutter, Upper East Side, Fifth
Avenue kind of place," she said.
The six-foot-tall Ms. Sherry doesn't fit the mold of Fifth Avenue either:
she is a former triathlete and nonfiction writer who is more interested in
her children's sneakers than in the offerings of the shoe department at
Architects she met with made very cookie-cutterish proposals, until she met
Mr. Clough, now 35, who was a friend of a friend, and they got to talking.
He had smart ideas, like moving the front door and eliminating the very
grand and formal front hall, the kind with marble floors and too many doors
"that you'd put a round table in the middle of and flowers on top of that,"
Ms. Sherry said. "A total waste of space."
What Ms. Sherry didn't realize until much later was that Mr. Clough had a
number of other ideas about her apartment that he didn't share with her. It
began when Mr. Klinsky threw in his two cents, a vague request that a poem
he had written for and about his family be lodged in a wall somewhere, Ms.
Sherry said, "put in a bottle and hidden away as if it were a time capsule."
(Ms. Sherry said that her husband is both dogged and romantic, a guy
singularly focused on the welfare of children, not just his own. Mr. Klinsky
runs Victory Schools, a charter school company that seeds schools in
neighborhoods around the country, as well as an after-school program in East
New York that his own children help out with regularly.)
That got Mr. Clough, who is the sort of person who has a brainstorm on a
daily basis, thinking about children and inspiration and how the latter
strikes the former. "I'd just read something about Einstein being inspired
by a compass he'd been given as a child," he said. The Einstein story set
Mr. Clough off, and he began to ponder ways to spark a child's mind. "I was
thinking that maybe there could be a game or a scavenger hunt embedded in
the apartment — that was the beginning," he said.
Before long, his firm, 212box, was knee-deep in code and cipher books,
furnituremakers were devising secret compartments, and Mr. Clough's former
colleague, Heather Bensko, an architectural and graphic designer who had
been his best friend at the Yale School of Architecture, found herself
researching the lives of 40 historical figures, starting with Francis I of
France and ending with Mrs. Post.
Ms. Bensko said she began writing chapters for a book, imagining scenes from
the childhoods of those inspirational figures and trying to connect them.
When that didn't pan out as a narrative technique, she invented two best
friends living in New York City who discover a mystery in an apartment and,
in the course of unraveling the mystery, a sort of treasure hunt, they
"meet" the historical figures.
All of that was tied into gizmos Mr. Clough, Ms. Bensko and others in their
office hid in the apartment — without telling the clients — in a way that is
almost too complicated to explain.
The renovation took a year and a half, and Mr. Clough, who acted as
construction manager, brought it in for $300 a square foot, a rather
conservative figure given the neighborhood and the scope of the project.
Designing and producing the apartment's hidden features, however, including
its book and music, took four years, said Mr. Clough, who absorbed much of
the cost in terms of his own billable hours, and relied on the generosity of
more than 40 friends and artisans who became captivated by the project. He
said he "begged, borrowed and stole" from them "in the collaborative
"People were definitely not paid," he said, "and we extend our thanks. It
absorbed the minds of many people."
In assembling talents for his project, Mr. Clough aimed high. His first
choice for the author of the book, which contains clues to the scavenger
hunt in addition to the mystery story, was Jonathan Safran
whose work contains its own sort of coded narrative pyrotechnics. Mr. Clough
sent him a little tease, a Rubik's Cube of a sculpture made of anodized
aluminum, encased in an acrylic cube that opens into a puzzle stamped with
his firm's phone number and the word "Please."
Mr. Foer was intrigued and gave him a call. In an e-mail recently, Mr. Foer
recalled that his daughter had just been born, and he was adrift in a fog of
new parenthood. "It was a very good piece of mail that came at a very bad
time," he wrote. "I was losing and ignoring all kinds of things that I
shouldn't have. Did we speak on the phone? The whole thing was so dreamy I
can't really remember. In fact, the project was never described to me as
simply as you did in your e-mail. Had it been, I would have rushed to do it.
I suppose that's the price one pays for being as mysterious as Clough is. Or
as skeptical as I am."
The sculptor Tom Otterness was another hoped-for collaborator, but Mr.
Clough said Mr. Otterness's acquiescence was conditional on Mr. Foer's, and
anyway he would have needed to be paid. "Of course I couldn't have done it
for free," Mr. Otterness said this week.
The apartment is quite attractive and perfectly functional in all the
typical ways, and its added features remained largely unnoticed by its
inhabitants for quite some time after they moved in, in May of 2006. Then
one night four months later, Cavan Klinsky, who is now 11, had a friend
over. The boy was lying on the floor in Cavan's bedroom, staring at dozens
of letters that had been cut into the radiator grille. They seemed random —
FDYDQ, for example. But all of a sudden the friend leapt up with a shriek,
Ms. Sherry said, having realized that they were actually a cipher (a Caesar
Shift cipher, to be precise), and that Cavan's name was the first word.
Another evening, Ms. Sherry and Mr. Klinsky were lying in their custom-made
bed when a rod running along its foot snapped off. "I'm thinking, What the
heck kind of cheap bed is this?" said Ms. Sherry, who phoned Mr. Clough the
His response, which might have taken a less adventurous person aback, was
that she take a wait-and-see attitude, that the bed bit was part of a larger
"story" and that all would be revealed in good time. Oh, and he told her to
just snap the piece back into the bed. (Ms. Sherry learned later that the
piece of wood is meant to be wrapped with a leather strap — part of a
decorative molding in another part of the house — which in its coiled shape
reveals a message.) That Ms. Sherry gamely complied is another example of
how flexible she is as a client. "Most people" — like her friends and her
mother, she said — "couldn't believe how hands-off I was about the whole
project. But I do think you have to trust people. You can't stand behind
them breathing down their neck, particularly if they're creative."
Finally, one day last fall, more than a year after they moved in, Mr.
Klinsky received a letter in the mail containing a poem that began:
We've taken liberties with Yeats
to lead you through a tale
that tells of most inspired fates
in hopes to lift the veil.
The letter directed the family to a hidden panel in the front hall that
contained a beautifully bound and printed book, Ms. Bensko's opus. The book
led them on a scavenger hunt through their own apartment.
But not all at once. The 18 clues were sophisticated and in many cases
confounding. The family, Ms. Sherry said, worked in fits and starts over a
two-week period, calling Mr. Clough for help when they got bogged down,
which happened with increasing frequency as they approached the last of the
clues. Indeed, as Ms. Sherry and Mr. Clough told their tale, this reporter
had to ask Ms. Sherry if she ever questioned her architect's sanity. "Yes,"
she replied cheerfully.
In any case, the finale involved, in part, removing decorative door knockers
from two hallway panels, which fit together to make a crank, which in turn
opened hidden panels in a credenza in the dining room, which displayed
multiple keys and keyholes, which, when the correct ones were used, yielded
drawers containing acrylic letters and a table-size cloth imprinted with the
beginnings of a crossword puzzle, the answers to which led to one of the
rectangular panels lining the tiny den, which concealed a chamfered magnetic
cube, which could be used to open the 24 remaining panels, revealing, in
large type, the poem written by Mr. Klinsky. (There is other stuff in there,
too, but a more detailed explanation might drive a reader crazy.)
The Sherry-Klinsky clan remains largely bemused by the extent to which Mr.
Clough embellished and embedded their apartment. But Ms. Sherry and Mr.
Klinsky are not immune to the romance of objects or messages hidden in
walls, or what Ms. Sherry called "winks from one family to another."
"You move into a place and you have your life there, and your memories, and
it's all temporary," she said. "Especially with apartments, which have such
a fixed footprint. I like the idea of putting something behind a wall to
wink at the next inhabitant and to wish them the good life hopefully that
you have had there." Two years ago, when Ms. Sherry and Mr. Klinsky left the
El Dorado on Central Park West to move into their new apartment, Ms. Sherry
tried to create such a wink. She loaded an MP3 player with music they had
loved and listened to during their time there — James
"Jellyman Kelly," songs by
Jakob Dylan — and tucked it behind a panel filled with electrical
Six months ago, "someone drops off the MP3 player with our doorman here,"
she said, "along with a note that read something to the effect of — You
cannot believe where we found this thing. Good luck in your new home."
Kay A. Sterner, MAIS
Research Grant Writer
Office of Research Support | Evans School of Public Affairs
207 Parrington Hall | Box 353055
Seattle, WA 98195-3055
P: 206-616-5284 | F: 206-616-5769
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