Penelope Green wrote a story for the New York Times about an apartment that had a bunch of secrets waiting to be discovered. Eric Clough created a very elaborate scavenger hunt puzzle all throughout a high end renovation. The next family to live there took quite a bit of time to even discover the puzzle:
THINGS are not as they seem in the 14th-floor apartment on upper Fifth Avenue. At first blush the family that occupies it looks to be very much of a type. The father, Steven B. Klinsky, 52, runs a private equity company; the mother, Maureen Sherry, 44, left her job as a managing director for Bear Stearns to raise their four young children (two boys and two girls); and the dog, LuLu, is a soulful Lab mix rescued from a pound in Louisiana.
They are living in a typical habitat for the sort of New Yorkers they appear to be: an enormous ’20s-era co-op with Central Park views (once part of a triplex built for the philanthropist Marjorie Merriweather Post), gutted to its steel beams and refitted with luxurious flourishes like 16th-century Belgian mantelpieces and custom furniture made from exotic woods with unpronounceable names.
But some of that furniture and some of those walls conceal secrets — messages, games and treasures — that make up a Rube Goldberg maze of systems and contraptions conceived by a young architectural designer named Eric Clough, whose ideas about space and domestic living derive more from Buckminster Fuller than Peter Marino.
The apartment even comes with its own book, part of which is a fictional narrative that recalls “The Da Vinci Code” (without the funky religion or buckets of blood) and “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” the children’s classic by E. L. Konigsburg about a brother and a sister who run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and discover — and solve — a mystery surrounding a Renaissance sculpture. It has its own soundtrack, too, with contributions by Kate Fenner, a young Canadian singer and songwriter with a lusty, alternative, Joni Mitchell-ish sound, with whom Mr. Clough fell in love during the project.
It all began simply enough, Ms. Sherry said, when she and her husband bought the 4,200-square-foot apartment for $8.5 million in 2003.
“I just didn’t want it to be this cookie-cutter, Upper East Side, Fifth Avenue kind of place,” she said.
The six-foot-tall Ms. Sherry doesn’t fit the mold of Fifth Avenue either: she is a former triathlete and nonfiction writer who is more interested in her children’s sneakers than in the offerings of the shoe department at Barneys.
Architects she met with made very cookie-cutterish proposals, until she met Mr. Clough, now 35, who was a friend of a friend, and they got to talking. He had smart ideas, like moving the front door and eliminating the very grand and formal front hall, the kind with marble floors and too many doors “that you’d put a round table in the middle of and flowers on top of that,” Ms. Sherry said. “A total waste of space.”
Eric Clough, puzzler
What Ms. Sherry didn’t realize until much later was that Mr. Clough had a number of other ideas about her apartment that he didn’t share with her. It began when Mr. Klinsky threw in his two cents, a vague request that a poem he had written for and about his family be lodged in a wall somewhere, Ms. Sherry said, “put in a bottle and hidden away as if it were a time capsule.” (Ms. Sherry said that her husband is both dogged and romantic, a guy singularly focused on the welfare of children, not just his own. Mr. Klinsky runs Victory Schools, a charter school company that seeds schools in neighborhoods around the country, as well as an after-school program in East New York that his own children help out with regularly.)
That got Mr. Clough, who is the sort of person who has a brainstorm on a daily basis, thinking about children and inspiration and how the latter strikes the former. “I’d just read something about Einstein being inspired by a compass he’d been given as a child,” he said. The Einstein story set Mr. Clough off, and he began to ponder ways to spark a child’s mind. “I was thinking that maybe there could be a game or a scavenger hunt embedded in the apartment — that was the beginning,” he said.
Before long, his firm, 212box, was knee-deep in code and cipher books, furnituremakers were devising secret compartments, and Mr. Clough’s former colleague, Heather Bensko, an architectural and graphic designer who had been his best friend at the Yale School of Architecture, found herself researching the lives of 40 historical figures, starting with Francis I of France and ending with Mrs. Post.
Ms. Bensko said she began writing chapters for a book, imagining scenes from the childhoods of those inspirational figures and trying to connect them. When that didn’t pan out as a narrative technique, she invented two best friends living in New York City who discover a mystery in an apartment and, in the course of unraveling the mystery, a sort of treasure hunt, they “meet” the historical figures.
All of that was tied into gizmos Mr. Clough, Ms. Bensko and others in their office hid in the apartment — without telling the clients — in a way that is almost too complicated to explain.
The renovation took a year and a half, and Mr. Clough, who acted as construction manager, brought it in for $300 a square foot, a rather conservative figure given the neighborhood and the scope of the project. Designing and producing the apartment’s hidden features, however, including its book and music, took four years, said Mr. Clough, who absorbed much of the cost in terms of his own billable hours, and relied on the generosity of more than 40 friends and artisans who became captivated by the project. He said he “begged, borrowed and stole” from them “in the collaborative process.”
“People were definitely not paid,” he said, “and we extend our thanks. It absorbed the minds of many people.”
In assembling talents for his project, Mr. Clough aimed high. His first choice for the author of the book, which contains clues to the scavenger hunt in addition to the mystery story, was Jonathan Safran Foer, whose work contains its own sort of coded narrative pyrotechnics. Mr. Clough sent him a little tease, a Rubik’s Cube of a sculpture made of anodized aluminum, encased in an acrylic cube that opens into a puzzle stamped with his firm’s phone number and the word “Please.”
Mr. Foer was intrigued and gave him a call. In an e-mail recently, Mr. Foer recalled that his daughter had just been born, and he was adrift in a fog of new parenthood. “It was a very good piece of mail that came at a very bad time,” he wrote. “I was losing and ignoring all kinds of things that I shouldn’t have. Did we speak on the phone? The whole thing was so dreamy I can’t really remember. In fact, the project was never described to me as simply as you did in your e-mail. Had it been, I would have rushed to do it. I suppose that’s the price one pays for being as mysterious as Clough is. Or as skeptical as I am.”
The sculptor Tom Otterness was another hoped-for collaborator, but Mr. Clough said Mr. Otterness’s acquiescence was conditional on Mr. Foer’s, and anyway he would have needed to be paid. “Of course I couldn’t have done it for free,” Mr. Otterness said this week.
The apartment is quite attractive and perfectly functional in all the typical ways, and its added features remained largely unnoticed by its inhabitants for quite some time after they moved in, in May of 2006. Then one night four months later, Cavan Klinsky, who is now 11, had a friend over. The boy was lying on the floor in Cavan’s bedroom, staring at dozens of letters that had been cut into the radiator grille. They seemed random — FDYDQ, for example. But all of a sudden the friend leapt up with a shriek, Ms. Sherry said, having realized that they were actually a cipher (a Caesar Shift cipher, to be precise), and that Cavan’s name was the first word.
His response, which might have taken a less adventurous person aback, was that she take a wait-and-see attitude, that the bed bit was part of a larger “story” and that all would be revealed in good time. Oh, and he told her to just snap the piece back into the bed. (Ms. Sherry learned later that the piece of wood is meant to be wrapped with a leather strap — part of a decorative molding in another part of the house — which in its coiled shape reveals a message.) That Ms. Sherry gamely complied is another example of how flexible she is as a client. “Most people” — like her friends and her mother, she said — “couldn’t believe how hands-off I was about the whole project. But I do think you have to trust people. You can’t stand behind them breathing down their neck, particularly if they’re creative.”
Finally, one day last fall, more than a year after they moved in, Mr. Klinsky received a letter in the mail containing a poem that began:
The letter directed the family to a hidden panel in the front hall that contained a beautifully bound and printed book, Ms. Bensko’s opus. The book led them on a scavenger hunt through their own apartment.
- We’ve taken liberties with Yeats
- to lead you through a tale
- that tells of most inspired fates
- in hopes to lift the veil.
But not all at once. The 18 clues were sophisticated and in many cases confounding. The family, Ms. Sherry said, worked in fits and starts over a two-week period, calling Mr. Clough for help when they got bogged down, which happened with increasing frequency as they approached the last of the clues. Indeed, as Ms. Sherry and Mr. Clough told their tale, this reporter had to ask Ms. Sherry if she ever questioned her architect’s sanity. “Yes,” she replied cheerfully.
In any case, the finale involved, in part, removing decorative door knockers from two hallway panels, which fit together to make a crank, which in turn opened hidden panels in a credenza in the dining room, which displayed multiple keys and keyholes, which, when the correct ones were used, yielded drawers containing acrylic letters and a table-size cloth imprinted with the beginnings of a crossword puzzle, the answers to which led to one of the rectangular panels lining the tiny den, which concealed a chamfered magnetic cube, which could be used to open the 24 remaining panels, revealing, in large type, the poem written by Mr. Klinsky. (There is other stuff in there, too, but a more detailed explanation might drive a reader crazy.)
The Sherry-Klinsky clan remains largely bemused by the extent to which Mr. Clough embellished and embedded their apartment. But Ms. Sherry and Mr. Klinsky are not immune to the romance of objects or messages hidden in walls, or what Ms. Sherry called “winks from one family to another.”
“You move into a place and you have your life there, and your memories, and it’s all temporary,” she said. “Especially with apartments, which have such a fixed footprint. I like the idea of putting something behind a wall to wink at the next inhabitant and to wish them the good life hopefully that you have had there.” Two years ago, when Ms. Sherry and Mr. Klinsky left the El Dorado on Central Park West to move into their new apartment, Ms. Sherry tried to create such a wink. She loaded an MP3 player with music they had loved and listened to during their time there — James Taylor singing “Jellyman Kelly,” songs by U2 and Jakob Dylan — and tucked it behind a panel filled with electrical equipment.
Six months ago, “someone drops off the MP3 player with our doorman here,” she said, “along with a note that read something to the effect of — You cannot believe where we found this thing. Good luck in your new home.”