Greg Tankersley and Mary Robin Jurkiewicz always knew they wanted to live in New York City. And in 2015, after a lifetime spent in the South, they finally took the plunge, moving from Montgomery, Alabama (with their cat, Bump), to Manhattan.
“To a lot of people it’s the wildest idea in the world that you’d do this,” says Tankersley. “It’s a wild adventure, but it’s something we planned.” He and Jurkiewicz, both architects, had been thinking about this move—she calls it a “mid-life adventure”—for years. In 2006, the couple bought a one-bedroom loft in Chelsea, choosing to rent it out until they were ready to move.
And once their daughter graduated from high school, they were ready; as Tankersley says, “we dropped our daughter off at college on a Wednesday, and moved here on a Saturday.”
Of course, the process wasn’t quite that simple: In Alabama, the couple lived in a 6,000-square-foot house, and downsizing from that space to a 1,000-square-foot apartment was not easy. “This was an experiment in editing down our life,” says Tankersley, comparing the process of choosing which items to bring to picking out a “greatest hits” of their 30 years together.
The items that made the cut are, unsurprisingly, pieces that are particularly meaningful to the couple. Some are cherished heirlooms, such as the Egyptian tapestry that Jurkiewicz’s grandfather brought back from a trip to the country in the early 20th century. Others are pieces that the couple has had for decades, like a Venetian lamp that they purchased in Italy. And others are reminders of their life in the south: the walls are lined with artwork by friends from Montgomery, including a painting by their daughter’s godfather. “We wanted to bring a little bit of home with us,” says Tankersley.
But creating that feeling of home in a new city wasn’t simply about picking the right pieces to fill out the space. “It’s funny being a southerner in New York,” explains Tankersley. “New Yorkers seem to like their walking-around space. We as southerners are so used to entertaining and sitting, that you want to have as many of those kinds of spaces and furnishings as possible.”
Back in Montgomery, the couple’s home was able to accommodate large-scale dinner parties, the sort that they love, but most New Yorkers probably would never dream of throwing. They wanted to replicate that feeling in their Chelsea apartment, a feat that was accomplished, according to Tankersley, with “zoning.”
Even though the common area is essentially one great room, they split it into distinct sections: a “family room” with a sofa bed and plush velvet wing chair; a “dining room” with a table that has accommodated up to 11 people; and a living room with a custom-made couch that takes up the length of a wall, and plenty of other places to get cozy.
Other parts of the apartment required a little less work. The kitchen, for example, remains basically the same as it was when the couple first purchased the apartment. (The previous owners were also architects.) But they had to adjust to the new reality of a much smaller space. Jurkiewicz still has the sheet of paper that she used to diagram the kitchen and how the couple would fit their items in the space, “down to the cubic inch.”
She continues, “You can’t just show up with extra stuff. What are you going to do with it?” They culled their appliances and wares down to what’s visible in the space today—and continuing the theme of bringing the South to New York, one of the pieces that made the cut is an Alabama-shaped cutting board that was a gift from their daughter.
Of the couple’s style, Tankersley calls it “traditional, but … not old fashioned.” He points to the dining area as proof: a midcentury modern Saarinen table is surrounded by antique wooden chairs, and topped with an angular, contemporary candelabra. In theory, the pieces shouldn’t work together; but in this setting, they look utterly complementary. “I like bringing in fresh stuff,” he explains. “A lot of New York apartments can seem extremely traditional or extremely contemporary, and I like to bridge the two.”
Now that the couple has been here for a while, they’re starting to feel more settled. They love the convenience of their neighborhood, the proximity to the myriad cultural amenities New York has to offer, and the fact that their home is walking distance to Tankersley’s office (which itself has a view of the quintessential New York icon, the Empire State Building). And their apartment is an oasis in the midst of the chaos of Manhattan to come home to. With all of that in place, they have no regrets about this next phase of their lives. “I told Mary Robin once we got here, ‘It’s so nice to live in a city that looks like the inside of my head,’” Tankersley says with a laugh. “All of the stuff that’s going on … it intimidates most people, and to me, it feels homey. I love it.”