name-brand folks like Tom Brokaw, Ralph Lauren and Jane Fonda
all homesteading the wide open spaces of the Old West, what's
a famous film maker in search of seclusion to do but put up
his log cabin right in the heart of New York City?
wanted to be able to tell people he was going away to a weekend
cabin without revealing that it was just upstairs," said
Abigail Shachat, the designer of the not-so-far-off getaway,
who has been sworn to secrecy regarding her client's identity.
one-room cabin, though located atop a brownstone in residential
midtown, is invisible from below. Only four stories above the
street, it feels as isolated as if it were on the frontier,
not with expansive vistas of the plains and the mountains but
of the tarred rooftops and water towers of the East 30's.
The commission was deceptively simple: a one-room expansion
to a floor-through apartment on top of a generic brownstone.
More idyllically put, the clients wanted a Lilliputian-size
place to write, to sleep and to dream; no more. Besides, the
couple are expecting a child and needed more room than their
modest two-bedroom apartment allowed. The reticent movie maker
(known for highly stylized sets) and his wife did not dictate
an overall concept or specific details to the designer, leaving
her to conjure on her own whether this escapist dwelling should
look more "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" or "Bonanza,"
or more "Walden Pond" than "Little House on the
"They came to me with a hope chest of disparate ideas,"
Ms. Shachat said, recalling in particular a sketch for a carved
bedstead featuring a bronco branded with the film maker's initials,
a desire for a crescent moon cut out of the bathroom door (a
common outhouse motif), and the dream of a wood-burning stove.
plunged into more in-depth research. Luckily, log cabins are
in vogue right now and there are quite a few books on the subject
covering everything from old Adirondack fishing camps to the
stone and beam lodges of Yellowstone Park, not to mention the
monthly magazine Log Home Living.
"I knew I didn't want to design a modern log cabin,"
Ms. Shachat said. "They look so fake to me because even
though they're made of real logs, the spaces are usually oversized
and the wood for the logs has been stripped of all its notches
and personality. "My clients were after something more
primitive and old fashioned, like Abe Lincoln's cabin or even
the one shown on Log Cabin syrup." In other words, this
wasn't about shopping for cowboy style, but rather about investing
a rooftop addition with all the humble and hopeful feelings
of pioneers experiencing a strange new world.
Come to think of it, New York does a pretty good job of simulating
life in hostile territories. In this project, the first setback
came when Ms. Shachat learned that no exterior in the city can
be made of more than 20 percent wood, as a fire prevention.
So nix to the log half of the log-cabin equation. Then came
the realization that in order to have a wood-burning stove with
the proper clearances the overall space would have to be much
larger than planned. A certain square footage for additions,
in this case 25 percent of the total square footage of the rooftop,
is permitted to converted multiple dwellings, in this case a
brownstone, but to exceed that requires a special variance and
would have added $50,000 to the cost of construction. Dreams
of a wood-burning stove went up in smoke and the project shrank
from 400 square feet to 280 square feet (but rebounded to 400
with the front porch).
Built off of an existing stairway to the roof, with its small
landing incorporated into the bedroom, the so-called cabin is
constructed of a steel-beam foundation with concrete block walls
surfaced on the exterior with stucco and stone veneer and on
the interior with hemlock log facings. The doors, window trim,
rafters and floors are all of pine, oak and chestnut recycled
from old barns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
"Even though it's not a true log cabin, a tremendous amount
of craft went into making it feel authentic," said Ms.
Shachat, who was trained to appreciate craftsmanship at the
Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., adding
that the contractor, Ron Attinello
of Montauk, L.I., is actually a cabinetmaker. A close friend
of the clients, Mr. Attinello lavished attention on the job
as if it were a fine cabinet rather than a building. The hemlock
facings, which normally would have been sliced off the logs
and discarded, were preserved and cut especially to scale for
the project at a small mill in northeast Pennsylvania; then
the bark was chiseled off by hand and the facings were stacked
to cure for the winter. When they were finally attached to the
supporting wood and lathe structure, it was with old-fashioned
square nails. The roof beams were all hand hewn and joined on
The roof itself is made of standing-seam copper so that the
sound of falling rain could sometimes block out the noise of
drive-by sirens coming up from the street. A crescent moon has
been duly carved in the bathroom door, although the walls inside
are not of wood but China multicolored slate tiles ($7.80 a
square foot at retail). "To my mind wood and water don't
mix," said Ms. Shachat, who chose the motley colored stone
because it reminded her of rocks dredged up from a river bed.
Lolling in the tub -- a reproduction claw-foot from Waterworks
in Manhattan, with all-nickel fixtures -- it is possible to
see the Chrysler Building through a small window in a dormer.
The size and placement of the windows are, in fact, a further
instance of clever adaptation to Draconian ordinances. New York
City fire codes specify the relative size of windows. In addition,
windows adjacent to other buildings' property lines cannot be
operable. Undaunted -- "log cabins always had tiny windows"
-- Ms. Shachat placed small wire-glass openings on each wall
in addition to two larger working windows flanking a door onto
the small roof deck.
"I wanted the windows to function like an hourglass,"
she said, so that light would be thrown down in shafts to mark
the movement of the sun as it travels across the floor from
dawn to dusk. The bed is positioned to catch the first rays
of early light and the windows on the north side are deliberately
small to block views of various mechanical apparatuses sharing
Luckily, the project encountered no opposition from the neighbors
or from the tenants in the two other apartments in the brownstone
co-op. In fact, the latter generously donated some of their
potential square footage for expanding to allow the bathroom
to exceed the allotted space. In turn, the building's entrance
and stairwell were replastered and painted in the process of
bringing electricity to the roof. Because it is a turn-of-the-century
brownstone, today's stringent handicapped-access requirements
did not apply. Even so, it took five months to obtain all the
necessary permits for construction. In the end, the project
was approximately on budget at $270,000.
Although it may be ersatz, this "log cabin" manages
to convey the same kind of optimistic integrity and ingenuity
that went into building the real things. According to the reclusive
movie maker's wife, "No one knows this, but my husband
spends all his time up there." No commuting distance and
no Nosy Parkers: what more could you ask for a getaway?
SPECS: Building the 'Cabin'
A NEW YORK rooftop addition qualifies as one of those dare-to-dream
projects, but with bureaucratic diligence and a saint's patience,
it is possible. Start early: obtaining permits, necessary before
touching a single tar-covered brick, can take at least six months.
In this case, securing air rights was not necessary: Each building
has its own F.A.R. (for floor-area ratio) that defines its potential
for expansion, but it is the individual co-op boards that decide
if roof additions are occupying air-rights space. This three-co-op
brownstone classified as a converted multiple dwelling and needed
no variance for residents to build on 25 percent of the rooftop.
(The owners obtained permission to use 30 percent of the roof;
the additional 5 percent came from the tenants of the two other
apartments, who donated some of their allowable expansion footage.)
An independent expediter, Hannibal Galin, guided the designer,
Abigail Shachat, through the maze of city permits and codes.
His fee: $5,000.
Material integrity: The logs may not be whole -- they're sliced
log facings -- but Ms. Shachat strove for the greatest degree
of authenticity possible in all the other materials for the
For the interior, the wide plank flooring was made of pine recycled
from an old barn in western Pennsylvania. The boards were lightly
sanded ("It tends to look more worn when the edges have
been eased or softened with a sander," said Ron
Attinello, the contractor).
Pine and oak rafters were salvaged from an old barn in Pennsylvania.
The thick chestnut door leading onto the deck is not as stolid
as it appears: insulation material is sandwiched between layers
of wood panels re-sawn from old barn beams of chestnut. "They're
extremely stable," Mr. Attinello explained. "They
stay dead straight when you saw them, unlike newly dried wood,
which can twist and move." Because chestnut wood is no
longer available, Mr. Attinello pointed out, "the only
place you can find it is in old supplies, or from people who
salvage old homes and barns." Conklin Antique Lumber in
Susquehanna, Pa., provided the barn beams and old pine flooring;
Mr. Attinello made furniture to order,
including the carved bedstead ($2,800), an armoire ($3,500)
and medicine cabinets.