For Mark Lender, who grew up in a poor neighborhood of Boston, nature always hovered a little out of reach. He wanted it closer.
What he and his wife, Valerie Pettis, have created is almost surreal: a Japanese pond replete with goldfish sunk into the middle of a loft in Manhattan's TriBeCa district - a slice of the natural world in a most unnatural setting.Visitors take a freight elevator up five floors and are transported from the commercial block below to a stunning setting infused with natural light and a swath of wall-to-wall water. Navigating from living room to kitchen and bedrooms requires stepping across a bridge of rocks.
The idea for the pond, which bisects the apartment, came to Lender shortly after he bought the old warehouse in 1985. The building had no windows, water or electricity, and the floor beams were severely swayed. But when Lender saw the center skylight in the roof, inspiration struck.
"I'd always dreamed of someday having an interior garden open to the sky," said Lender, who is fascinated with Roman atriums and the concept of opening up the center of a house to the natural world, where gardens and fountains become the focal point. "I'd made many drawings over the years of how I'd build one. Finally, my idea was doable."
The couple began a gut renovation, keeping the top floor and roof for themselves and selling the other floors as co-op apartments and the ground floor as commercial space.
Knowing that he had to build up the floors 9 to 10 inches to make them level, Lender ordered richly colored maple boards from Vermont, specially cut and milled to include tiger and bird's-eye planks. He pegged them, then placed them on an insulated plywood base that runs the 85-foot length of the loft - everywhere, that is, except for the 10-by-18-foot section under the skylight.
There, he crisscrossed layers of smooth lumber core and sealed it. "What you're looking at is a rowboat filled with water - it's screwed, caulked, sealed and fiberglassed," said Lender, a former goldsmith and sculptor who had done a renovation on Martha's Vineyard. Because he did most of the work himself, the pond's cost was held to about $20,000.
For three years, Lender, 48, has been a full-time conservationist. As founding director of the Wildlife Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving habitats and endangered species, he is setting up cameras worldwide to bring live images of wildlife to the Internet.
Pettis, 50, a graphic designer who opened her own firm in New York City in the late 1970s, said the pond itself was loosely based on Japanese garden techniques and her interpretation of minimalist design.
Painted jet black, it is divided into two formal squares. Bordering one are two eight-foot granite stones set perpendicular to each other, which serve as the walking bridge. In the other, Lender created a fountain between two smaller square stones. He cut and finished the rocks himself at a Vermont quarry.
The fountain is important for the health of the pond as well as for the dozen dazzling goldfish the couple keep. "It aerates the water and gives the fish oxygen," she said.
Unusually tame and friendly, the fish, called oranda, cavort for food when the couple cross the bridge. "They're like dogs," Pettis said.
Maintaining lush plantings in the pond is a constant challenge given the lack of strong sunlight and shallow water. "We've been experimenting for years to see what will grow best here," Pettis said. In the summer the pond is full of waterlilies, but in the winter, with less light, Pettis and Lender rely on sturdy varieties of dief-fen-bach-ia as well as snake and banana plants. "Right now, we're going to remove a lot of the large plants and get into grasses," she said.
The calculated weight of the pond, including the rocks, is 6,000 to 7,000 pounds, or 38 pounds per square foot. Lender said this was well under the limit for a warehouse floor load.
Commercial pool equipment housed in a soundproof closet keeps the pristine water filtered and circulated. The pump is suspended on nylon cord to eliminate vibration.
By rotating the direction of the return nozzles in the pool, Lender can fine-tune the sound of water. "If I aim them up so the water bubbles above the surface, you hear rushing water," he said. "Valerie and I find the sound soothing, and it also cuts out the street noise."
Lender and Pettis said that in the 12 years since they installed the pond, there has been one flood (which they don't like to talk about much). Lender did say that he accidentally left a valve open, went out and the apartment was flooded, "no worse than an overflowing bathtub." No, the downstairs neighbors were not pleased. They moved. Some floors and walls buckled, Pettis added, but they have since been repaired.
"Now I've installed automatic safety devices so that the water will shut itself off if it gets too high," Lender said.
The layout of the floor-through loft is similar to a railroad flat. At the entrance is Lender's home office, followed by the large open living room, the pond, an open dining area, a kitchen and the bedroom area.
The galley kitchen is a jewel, built to scale for Pettis, who not quite 4 feet 8 inches tall, and Lender, who is 5 feet 5 inches. "Both of us can put a pair of hands on either side," he said. Handsome granite counters have iridescent blue flashes that shimmer like the goldfish in the water a few feet away. The cabinets are the same virgin maple as the floors, which, after 12 years, remain perfectly scuff free. (Len-der and Pettis leave their shoes at the front door, and require the same of all visitors.) They consider their loft a natural refuge from the outside world and treat it as a shrine.