Inside the Upper East Side Penthouse of Loida Nicolas Lewis
September 26, 2018
When Loida Nicolas Lewis stepped into the apartment with a view of the Jackie Kennedy Onassis Reservoir and saw the sculpture of Russian artist Archipenko on the sill, she knew her late husband approved of the place as her home.
Loida Nicolas Lewis was pretty much settled in the duplex apartment she lived in with her late husband Reginald Lewis and their two daughters. Mr. Lewis purchased the residence on 834 Fifth Avenue in 1992, and up until 2007, Loida continued to live there even after his passing. When the girls eventually moved to their own flats, her older daughter Leslie expressed a concern that the place had become too big for her mother to be living in alone. Younger daughter Christina recommended Kyle Blackman, a real estate broker whose services she had used.
Open to the possibility, she went with Kyle to see an apartment in the Upper East Side. It was in a good neighborhood and the apartment was well maintained. It was, however, a piece of art on the windowsill that clinched the deal. When Loida went to look out the window, which framed a view of the Jackie Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, her eye was immediately drawn to a sculpture piece on the sill. It was The Naked Turso, a piece by Russian artist Archipenko. Her husband had the same sculpture in his collection. “That was a sign,” she shared. “He approved that I move from our place to this new apartment.” And so she did.
Hand Painted Wallpaper
The penthouse unit covered 2,700 square feet. No reconstruction was necessary, and it remained essentially the same as when she first saw it. There was some refurbishing of the interiors, which Christina supervised. She worked with decorators Kristine Hein and Philip Cozzi of Design Studio to make it more suitable to a lady resident.
The original off white color became a restful green in the living and dining rooms. The color motif was carried to the cushy furniture in shades of apple green. The decorator softened the look of dark mahogany in the library by installing antique mirrors behind each of the shelves.
Ceilings in the library, the foyer and the dining room were given the gold leaf finish to reflect the water of the reservoir. Albert Gleizes’ cubist dancer inspired the hand painted curtains in the dining room. There is a distinguished elegance in the room where guests are entertained around the table. It glows in a soft light that sets off the hand painted wallpaper from China circle 1800.
Throughout the house are art works that Mr. Lewis collected. Loida narrates how her husband would keep postcards of his favorite artists on his windowsill. Every time he moved office, he would bring the postcards. He moved three times, and each time, the postcards were within his vision range by the window. Mr. Lewis kept them till the pictures were faded and spotted. When he sold McCall Pattern Company in 1987, he could finally afford to buy art and began to collect cubist and African American works.
He was an avid collector, and when he wanted something, he was persistent. There was painting by Norman Lewis entitled The Woman in a Yellow Hat that he had taken to and offered to buy from the window of the painter. She refused him for four years, but on the fifth year, she relented. “I guess she realized my husband was tenacious and maybe she needed the funds, so she finally said, “Yes, I will sell it to you,’” Loida shares.
Picasso in the House
Another particularly special acquisition was a Picasso he had won in an auction. Loida recalls that he told her it had been a very spirited bidding, and when the auctioneer banged the gavel in his favor, the room applauded. Le Journal, which now hangs in the residence as a rarity, more highly prized than the figurative museum pieces for being a prime example of high cubism.
Loida walks around the apartment, sharing stories that convey not just personal preferences but a connection that enhances the value beyond market valuation. She points to Filipino American painter Lolita Valderrama Savage’s Cezzane’s solid fence and gate at Aix en Pronvence, painted during a visit to France. “It’s one of my favorites,” she says. “Her impressionistic style can stand with other paintings by the masters.”
Loida stops in front of Francis Picabia’s Clown. “This is also a favorite because RFL likes it, too,” she says with a smile playing on her lips and referring to her late husband as RFL. “Picabia painted two more clowns that were recently exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, but they look malevolent and evil to me. Our clown is kind though sorrowful.”
Dees Van Dongen’s Spanish Veil lights up her face even more. “Christina was seven years old when RFL bought it, and when she saw it for the first time, she said ‘That’s mommy!’”. Loida beams at the recollection. “Bless her heart.”
While Loida lives by herself, the house is fully occupied when her grandchildren visit or when her sister Imelda Nicolas is in town. Each has their own bedroom. Her own bedroom is also Loidas favorite place where she starts the day sitting in front of the Jackie Kennedy Onassis Reservoir doing her Zen sitting.
While there is no significant difference from living in the duplex to her current address, she says the Upper East Side of Manhattan is more family oriented. “On Madison Avenue, there are stores, groceries and restaurants. Our previous home on Fifth Avenue has art galleries and haute couture stores. Supermarkets are three avenues away on Lexington.”
On an afterthought, she adds, “Here, I do not have to go up and down the stairs like we did in the duplex apartment Mr. Lewis bought for the family.” Then, she smiles in a quiet, happy way, in her home overlooking the reservoir.