Annabelle Selldorf: Rising star architect makes her big debut

In an increasingly celeb-filled world, it’s only fitting that the story of 520 West Chelsea starts with Gwyneth Paltrow.

Three years ago, Keith Jacobson, the building’s co-developer, was interviewing designers for his own apartment at Richard Meier’s glass tower at 176 Perry Street. He met a then-emerging talent named Annabelle Selldorf and was blown away.

“She had done a house in Tribeca for Gwyneth Paltrow,” he said, “which was unbelievable for its creativity. She took a cookie-cutter townhouse, cut a core down the middle, and created a beautiful space.”

While that collaboration didn’t pan out, Selldorf went on to finish the Urban Glass House, a Hudson Square condo started by Philip Johnson. Recently named an “It architect” by the New York Post Home section, she is now responsible for both interiors and exteriors for the first time. It’s a major-league debut: her 11-story project on West 19th Street will face off with new projects in the area by Frank Gehry, Gary Handel, Audrey Matlock, Jean Nouvel and Robert A.M. Stern.

“I wanted this project to be very special to whomever chose to do it, not just one of 10 projects they were doing,” said Jacobson.

It’s the first ground-up building for the developers, too. Brothers Keith and John — who call their partnership Bishopscourt Realty — acquired the land before the High Line park project had been approved.

“We knew it was coming, and took a risk,” said Jacobson.

It was a bet on the continuing rise of an emerging neighborhood. Once a home to gas stations and riff-raff, West Chelsea became a gallery destination as art-world brokers were priced out of Soho.

Just after the rezoning of the area in June 2005, “people came out of the woodwork giving us offers,” said Jacobson. “We could have easily flipped the property and made quite a lot of money. But we wanted to go through the process and make a beautiful building.”

While brother John had produced luxury residences in the past, they’d all been conversions of loft buildings in Soho and Tribeca. (His portfolio includes the high-profile 76 Crosby Street, now home to Nicole Kidman, Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos, and Harvey Weinstein.)

So the three are debuting their new building, with three apartments to a floor, together. Apartments at 520 West Chelsea are priced from $1.7 to more than $8 million. The building is being sold by Core Group Marketing and should be ready for occupancy next winter.

“Sales are going well,” said Jacobson. “We’re selling one or two a week.”

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Selldorf was aware from the beginning that her project would be within a block of Frank Gehry’s new tower — the IAC/InterActiveCorp headquarters designed for Barry Diller. That building, still under construction on the West Side Highway, is Gehry’s first tower in Manhattan.

“I enjoyed watching the building being built,” said Selldorf of Gehry’s billowing glass structure.

The site for 520 West Chelsea lies between two low-rise buildings, one belonging to performance space the Kitchen. “Since the building is mid-block,” said Selldorf, “it was important that there be a presence at the ground level and that we take advantage of the opportunity for light and air.”

According to Selldorf’s design partner, architect Sara Lopergolo, it was apparent that views would be blocked on the east and west sides of the building by new construction, “so we had to exploit the north and south. It was important to get as much light as possible.”

The solution: a glass facade clad in a midnight blue-glazed terra cotta.

The idea is to call to mind iconic terra cotta buildings like the Woolworth. Of course, added Jacobson, “hanging the terra cotta on the building will not be a simple task.

“It’s not like a brick, stucco or aluminum that you can just stick to the building,” he said. “There’s a brow between the floor-to-ceiling windows where the concrete comes out. The terra cotta hooks onto that.”

The building’s 26 apartments range from 1,500 to 2,300 square feet. “The layouts are open, logical, well-proportioned spaces that maximize the light,” said Lopergolo, noting, “The developers wanted a lot of wall space for art.”

The two- and three-bedroom apartments have open kitchens with Arclinea cabinets, honed Marmo Grabla marble countertops and Opus Romano glass tiles by Bisazza.

In designing the large three-bedroom units, said Lopergolo, “we needed to provide a way to close off the kitchen because [buyers] might be entertaining more and might want a caterer. We left it open but created a way someone could put a pocket door in and have a staff there. People still have some formality to them, even if it’s in a seemingly casual way.”

The bathrooms feature dramatic black glazed ceramic tile floors by Heath Ceramics, “which echo the exterior’s glazed terra cotta,” said Selldorf. The floors throughout the apartment are black oak.

The building will offer a 24-hour doorman and storage lockers, but not much else in the way of amenities, not even a mailroom. “You walk in,” said Jacobson, “and the mail is kept behind the concierge desk and they hand it to you as you walk in, like in a Fifth Avenue or Park Avenue building.”

Next up for Selldorf is another West Chelsea project that’s generated a lot of buzz. The 16-unit building, 200 Eleventh, developed by Young Woo & Associates, will be located on 24th Street and feature a drive-in elevator. The technology will allow buyers of the $5 million-plus apartments to park their cars in interior garages adjacent to their units. The new condominium is expected to be completed in fall 2008.