Feature > Living the High Life

There are 151 apartments in the seventeen-story highrise at 555 Canal Street in Manchester, but one unit truly stands above the others.

This penthouse, the home of Irwin and Margie Muskat, also is the height of elegance in which the minimalist, zero-edge interior serves to complement and enhance the striking panoramic views of Manchester and the Merrimack River Valley.

In an earlier incarnation, the Muskat residence was home to the High Five, a restaurant and dance club that was more renowned for those views than its food. When the High Five closed its doors in 1997, Irwin—the former chief executive officer of Jac Pac Foods—saw the chance to fulfill a dream. Well, part of a dream.

“I always had this idea that when I retired, I was going to build myself a glass house on top of a mountain,” he says.

Instead, he spent a year lobbying the owners of 555 Canal Street. They wanted another restaurant (or more traditional office tenants) atop the building, but when Irwin looked at the building on his daily commute, he saw a home. He continued to court the building’s owners, and he finally won them over. Now, rather than sitting atop a mountain, he gazes at two of them—the twin peaks of the Uncanoonucs lie to the west—from his glass-enclosed urban aerie. ‘

Designing for a view

As nests go, this one is rather roomy. It’s a twelve-thousand-square-foot space, and for all of the natural splendor that surrounds it, the interior has a grandeur of its own, thanks to architect Lisa Muskat from LKM Design in Bedford. (If you’re wondering, the architect’s name is no coincidence. Lisa is married to the homeowners’ son, Dan, but nepotism played just the tiniest role in her landing the assignment.)

“This was not my first Muskat project,” Lisa laughs. “The first project I did for Margie and Irwin was a simple bar, a piece of millwork. The next project was to renovate a guesthouse. That went well, and when this one came up, it was, ‘Will you do it?’”

Lisa hesitated but only for a nanosecond. “I knew it would be all-consuming,” she says, “but then, there would come a time when I had to take that hat off and spend the weekend with them, too. I wanted it to work on both the professional and the family level.”

There are two levels to the Muskat home. The upper level is suspended above the center of the apartment’s footprint, which provides an airy expansiveness to the lower level. From that lower level, the angled exterior windows rise to meet the ceiling some twenty-two feet above, and the result—that stupendous view of the horizon to all points of the compass—is unrivaled in southern New Hampshire.

“You can’t help but feel you’re a part of that view when you’re in that space,” Lisa explains. “Integrating the inside and the outside is just a natural response for me when I design. In this case, it was an imperative. The first time [interior designer] Charles [Allem] and I were there together with the Muskats, it was the height of the foliage season. It was twilight, one of those magical sunsets, and the color palette was right there for us.

“Charles and I are both very opinionated—so is Irwin, for that matter—but we really clicked on this.”

The resulting design palette reflects what they saw that evening. It is richly autumnal—bronze and umber, rust and cinnamon, coffee and cognac—and those earthy hues bring warmth to a space where the grand dimensions might otherwise give it an industrial chill.

Bringing renovation to a new height

The only access to the penthouse is via a small, six-person elevator. Thus, on three occasions, Lisa needed to close parts of Canal Street and bring in a large crane to hoist materials to the seventeenth floor.

“We made the newspapers with that,” she smiles. “The first haul was for the building materials. The second was for the bar and the bamboo for the garden—we used all mature bamboo trees, fourteen to sixteen feet high—and the final crane was for the furnishings.”

Given the scope of the undertaking, the sequencing was vital, and “sequence” is a key word that Lisa uses to define the challenge she faced.

“When I design, I always think sequence,” she says. “The fluidity of a space and how seamless spaces are—those are things I pay very strong attention to. Whether it’s organic space like this or more traditional colonial space, when you experience it, when you move from one portion to the other, you can’t be interrupted by different styles or materials. In this case, if it had been interrupted, the view would not be so serene.”

Artistic whimsy

Serenity abounds as you step off the elevator into the beige concrete foyer, where a gleaming twenty-foot water wall burbles its welcome. Vast glass doors lead into the garden area, where you are dwarfed by the bamboo and engulfed by the aromas of rich earth and orchids.

The natural flow of the space—not unlike the undulating Merrimack River to the left—brings you to the gallery, where whimsy abounds. Modern art sculptures tease the eye, but it is inevitably drawn to the neatly spaced wall hangings created by the Muskats’ daughter, Sue Knoll. The hangings are filled with small medicinal vials, dozens and dozens of them, and if the labels are to be believed, contained within are communicable diseases in serum form, ranging from bacillary dysentery to ringworm.

Upon entering the living space, it is another work of art that seizes your eye: a bar with the sensibilities of a Salvador Dali. “It was designed to be a piece of sculpture, but it is a functioning bar,” Lisa says.

In fact, it’s a brilliant marriage of form and function, a two-thousand-pound organic creation; layer upon layer of stacked wood with lush, sensuous lines that border on the erotic.

“It was modeled on a glamorous set of stairs at the Tel Aviv Opera House,” Lisa adds. “It’s bronze leaf on poplar. It’s funky and deconstructionist, and as an object, was incredibly difficult to explain so it could be built the way it was conceived. Not everyone would want it in his or her home, but it works in this space. It’s very rational here.”

Lisa and Joanna Reck, her project manager at LKM Design, dealt with fears—fortunately, they were not realized—that the one-ton bar might be too much weight for the tower to support. The same discussion was held in regard to the eight-person hot tub on the upper level (“It’s a great place to watch the fireworks,” Lisa grins) and the dining room table, a mammoth, fourteen-foot slab of walnut.

“For Margie and Irwin, this is their home,” Lisa says. “I wanted it to be a perfect fit for how they live, and entertaining is a large part of how they live. Family is so important to them, and they love it when their children and grandchildren can be with them, and the chance to sit down together was very important.”

Entertaining options

The Muskats’ love of entertaining required the appropriate culinary apparatus. Hence, the two Gaggenau® ovens, the two Sub- Zero® refrigerators, the two dishwashers and the custom-built Diva de Provence® range, which is incorporated into the onyx countertop that provides up-close, stoveside seating.
“I wanted to be able to seat at least twelve people at the island,” Lisa says. “Now we can get sixteen in there, and when someone is cooking, everyone can participate.”

Just steps away from the kitchen is the home theater. That reflects another Muskat passion, and it also requires some advance clarification. There are two Lisa Muskats. There is Lisa Muskat, the architect—you’ve already met her—and there is her sister-inlaw, Lisa Muskat, who is an award-winning film producer. Film producer Lisa Muskat is a past recipient of the Sundance Film Institute’s New Film Producer’s Award, and family members get to pre-screen her films in the home theater that was designed by architect Lisa Muskat.

The home theater is as much a feat of engineering as design. “The boiler room, the elevator shafts, all are on the other side of this wall,” Lisa says, gesturing beyond the playful cartoon cows painted by another Muskat relative, son-in-law Philip Knoll. “We had to put in sound proofing, of course, but we had to minimize vibration, too. So we built the room with three tiers—not unlike a traditional theater—and the tiers are on supports that minimize the vibration.”

For purposes of maintaining the proper theatrical atmosphere, the angled exterior windows also are covered with dark fabric, making the theater the only spot in the home—bathrooms included—from which the exterior views cannot be savored.

And those bathrooms? There is an elemental feel to them, from the leathery looking double sink in the master bath to the copper-colored rods that serve as heated towel racks. The rooms are spare, but rich, and Lisa acknowledges that seeming contradiction.

“I don’t typically do more modern spaces,” she says, “and for me, the effort that went into making everything look seamless—it was an arduous task. There is no molding anywhere in the home, and yet every surface is covered. Where you might ordinarily put a door casing, we don’t have any.

“With no baseboards, no crown moldings and no door casings, everything has to be perfect or it won’t work. To make something truly minimalist, you have to be very inventive and everything has to be clean.”

Lisa admits she still gets a thrill when she visits her in-laws, but she also likes to go home to her two-hundred-year-old Colonial in Bedford.

“That’s how I prefer to live,” she smiles. “Everything is old and crooked.”

Tour This Kitchen—and Several Others

If you’d like to cozy up to that custom- built Diva de Provence® range in the Muskat kitchen, you have the rare chance to do so while benefiting Manchester’s historic Palace Theatre.

Several of the finest kitchens in Bedford and Manchester are open for your inspection during the theater’s fourth annual Kitchen Tour, held this year from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on June 4.

Registration is at 9 a.m. at Granite State Cabinetry at 384 Route 101 in Bedford, where brochures will be handed out to guide you to each home.

Tickets are $45 in advance and $50 at the door, and the admission price includes a buffet-style lunch at the Manchester Country Club. For tickets, call the Palace Theatre box office at 668-5588 or visit www.palacetheatre.org.

Lead sponsors of this year’s tour are Granite State Cabinetry and Milford Lumber/Muir Kitchens. Supporting sponsors include Baron’s Major Brands, Design Gallery by Arclight, Granite State Credit Union, Holloway Motor Cars of Manchester, Mir Sultan Oriental Rugs and Shanner Homes.