House Proud: A New York Townhouse

A major collector creates an Upper East Side townhouse from the ground up.

Eric Piasecki
OF 6

Who gets to build a Manhattan townhouse from scratch these days? It’s a rare opportunity, and one that Upper East Sider that Upper East Sider Rodney Miller was in a perfect position to appreciate. The Indiana-born financier had occupied several New York City apartments over the years with his wife and two children, shoe-horning his growing passions for art, music, cooking, and wine into whatever space he could find. But his fantasies ran toward a 4,000-bottle wine cellar, and maybe a kitchen where he could turn out homemade pasta with friends. A room just for listening to jazz. And what about walls big enough to display the contemporary paintings he was starting to buy?

When he heard about a lot for sale on the Upper East Side—vacant since a fire gutted the previous house in the early ’80s—the now single Miller saw a chance to make a home for himself that would indulge all of his hobbies. It was an easy decision.

Miller had big ideas, but he also had an ace in the hole: David Mann of MR Architecture + Decor, an architect deeply schooled in modernism, both its functional hierarchies and its almost spiritual dimension. The two had previously worked on two apartments together, and during that time Miller had moved up the professional ladder while Mann’s portfolio had grown to encompass country houses; boutiques for such fashion brands as J. Mendel, Pierre Hardy, and Trina Turk; and grand apartments for art-collecting clients, including Adriana and Robert Mnuchin.

In a little more than three years, the architect and client built a five-story townhouse on a highly accommodating slab of Manhattan bedrock. “I’m not a very excitable person, but I wouldn’t call it overly stressful, either,” Miller says matter-of-factly of the process.

“Rodney loved being in the thick of it,” adds Mann, who gave Miller a crisply detailed modern residence that displays classical proportions from the sidewalk but opens up in back by way of a gridded all-glass façade. The 25-foot width of the lot, generous by Manhattan standards, allowed the architect a chance to bring light into the core of the house with a soaring atrium that cuts through the first and second floors, creating expansive walls for Miller's burgeoning art collection.

As a collector, Rodney is bound by his deep curiosity—he is always eager to look, to see, experience art, and meet artists,” says his friend Thelma Golden, director of the Studio Museum in Harlem and a recently appointed board member of the Barack Obama Foundation. She has known Miller for two decades and in 2001 invited him onto the museum’s board. For Miller, art isn’t an investment but a cultural privilege. “I’m holding works that should outlive me in their contribution to the world,” he says. “That guides you to work where the artist has something to say about art and society. A lot of the artists in my collection are African American, but certainly not all of them.” Romare Bearden, Beauford Delaney, Alma Thomas, and Glenn Ligon are among those represented, and Miller changes up the installation twice a year, often in consultation with Golden. He stores most of his holdings off-site and prides himself on never having sold a piece in the 20 years he’s been collecting. “Rodney collects with a commitment not only to honor the past, and to the artists who paved the way, but also to support new and upcoming artists,” says Golden.

Miller’s home and collection also mirror his midwestern pragmatism. “There are no trophy rooms—every space is used and lived in,” he says, and guests get a taste of that from the minute they enter. A highly functional stainless-steel kitchen is immediately to the left, while a bluestone-paved hallway opens onto the atrium gallery and offers views straight out to the terrace through a relaxed family room. A walnut staircase leads up, with an increasing air of ceremony, past a living-and-dining floor, a children’s floor, and a master bedroom level, before reaching a media room and terrace on top.

Mann made sure that Miller’s personality was front and center throughout the house, from its façade of limestone quarried in his home state to the well-thumbed cookbooks on his study’s shelves. Among Miller’s favorite pieces are a low table and a desk from the studio of master woodworker George Nakashima; he traveled to Pennsylvania with his daughter to see how the work was done. Such expressionistic pieces are balanced with simple contemporary furnishings from BDDW and choice examples of Scandinavian modernism: a vintage Hans Wegner table and chairs in the dining room, chairs by Eero Saarinen and Finn Juhl in the bedrooms. A quiet neutral palette predominates, and with the exception of a museum-quality Swedish Deco rug in the study, the house is nearly pattern-free.

“One of the things about Rodney’s art— first of all, a lot of it is political, and a lot of it is very powerful,” says Mann, laying out an aesthetic equation he has solved many times before. “So having simple, pared-down spaces seemed right.” In the dining room, Glenn Ligon’s searing portrait of Malcolm X commands one wall; the family room holds a dystopian photo-realist work by Richard Mosse.

Golden, a frequent visitor, savors the experience of bringing to the house artists whose work Miller collects. “Museums create narratives in their presentations,” she says. “But in a domestic space, you can take a personal, rigorous, but idiosyncratic approach—that’s how one wants to live with works of art. Rodney and I are always in dialogue about how an artist he is getting to know relates to others in his collection. And these relationships can really be explored at home.”

The art on the walls may change constantly, but the questing intelligence of the place Mann has made for it—and for everything else Miller cares about—is sure to remain a constant. “It’s a little bit of a challenge, but I like that,” the architect says of his client’s well-accessorized life. “What’s of interest in any place is really the alchemy of everything.”

Click through our slideshow to see more images of the townhouse »

Pictured: From left, architect and interior designer David Mann, museum director Thelma Golden, and homeowner Rodney Miller.