A Rooftop Deck with a French Accent
C’EST MAGNIFIQUE!: A French expatriate turns a barren rooftop into a verdant garden that reminds him of home
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An entertaining area at the north end of the roof is defined by a pergola and ringed with ipe planters. Greenery chosen for its ability to withstand sun and wind includes sedum, allium, nepeta, astilbe, and heuchera mixed with juniper and boxwood. See more pictures in the gallery below.
Stephane Rambaud gave his real-estate agent a precise wish list when he asked her to find him a new home—but the feature that sealed the deal wasn’t even on it.
The unit she showed him, the penthouse of a newly constructed five-story building in Lincoln Park, had exclusive access to the rooftop. “The minute I went up there, I had an epiphany,” Rambaud says. “I was raised in Paris, but we spent weekends in our house in Normandy. I thought I could have a little touch of the French countryside up there.”
Never mind that the 2,200-square-foot roof was nothing more than a tarred expanse, riddled with the building’s vents and mechanicals. Rambaud had visions of a lush garden with stone paths, a massive hearth, and a dining area. “My father and I used to roast meat in our fireplace in France and the family would eat together outside,” he says.
He was lucky in several respects. The building’s steel, poured concrete, and masonry structure “would be strong enough to support almost anything he wanted to do on the roof,” says Dimitri Nassis of Tandem Construction, the general contractor and builder. And an existing brick chimney was big enough to accommodate Rambaud’s hearth. “We were able to cut a hole in it and turn it into a fully operational wood-burning fireplace,” Nassis says.
But there were major issues to address, most notably the roof’s irregular shape—a problem made even trickier by 26 four-foot-tall white PVC vents scattered in jagged rows across the center and a field of air-conditioning units clustered in a corner. “It was pretty awful,” says Abigale Baldwin, principal at Hoerr Schaudt Landscape Architects, who designed the rooftop garden. She knew Rambaud was hoping for a grill next to the entertaining area with clear sightlines of the city. “He wanted to be close to all the action and still have great views when he cooked,” Baldwin says.
Hoerr Schaudt realized Rambaud’s vision with a series of elegant spaces that flow from the entry stairwell on the south to the entertaining area and fireplace on the north; slate pathways are lined with beds and planters. The mechanical units are masked from view by strategically placed panels that resemble Japanese shoji, and a field of tall grasses in the middle of the roof camouflages the protruding vents, now painted black to be less obvious.
The landscape architects also added two steel porticoes—one over the walkway near the main entry and the other a 14-by-21-foot pergola that crowns the entertaining area. They weigh 3,000 and 7,000 pounds, respectively, but true to the builder’s promise, the roof was able to handle the load. “The hard part was getting everything up there,” Nassis says. They used a crane that, fortuitously, could be set up and operated from an adjacent empty lot.
The result is an outdoor space that is easy to maintain and, with its 360-degree views, ideal for entertaining. Sound and lighting systems can be operated from Rambaud’s apartment, hardy foliage was chosen for its ability to withstand wind and provide almost year-round color, and a built-in irrigation system takes care of watering. Stylish all-weather furnishings complete the look.
As a finishing touch to the rooftop retreat, which took two years to plan and execute, the porticoes were planted with grapevines that provide shade as well as loveliness. “I’m not trying to make wine, but it does remind me of home,” Rambaud says contentedly.
Photograph: Linda Oyama Bryan
Styling: Christine Oyama