Big City Lifestyle in a
Small-Town Penthouse
by Deb Dion
Jul 05, 2010 | 3631 views | 0 0 comments | 32 32 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Most people are drawn to the expansiveness of the West, but when the Zivians moved to Telluride from New York City three decades ago, they didn’t move into a 15,000-square-foot home on a mesa. Instead, they moved into a penthouse apartment in the middle of town, a unit that was even more modest in size than their former Manhattan space.

Bigger, they believe, is not always better. Irina and Michael Zivian were able to imprint their urban sensibilities on their new mountain lifestyle: Their living quarters waste no resources or space, and they have reduced their carbon footprint by living within walking distance of everything in town. Their five-year-old vehicle has ticked just 30,000 miles.

“Our home is more efficient, but it goes against the grain in this country. People here want to build bigger and bigger,” says Irina Zivian, her voice lilting with the rhythms of her native German language. “That doesn’t work for us.”

Irina met her husband Michael while she was teaching psychology at the University of Michigan in 1964, and they moved to New York City and lived there for many years. Then the Zivians traded one of the most bustling cities in the world for a tiny mountain mecca, a town less than one square mile in size. Today, instead of living among skyscrapers, they are surrounded by the majestic peaks of the San Juan Mountains. They were able to preserve a little of their city life, however, by transforming their top floor unit into something like a city loft.

Manhattan lofts are typically a commercial or warehouse space that has been transformed into residential space. They are usually open and airy, with high ceilings, with walls or rooms added to make it a liveable space. The Zivians created their Telluride loft in the opposite way: They took a residential unit that was compartmentalized into three bedrooms, and knocked out walls to give it the sweeping feel of a city loft. A single area, incorporating the kitchen, dining and living spaces, takes up most of the apartment. Aside from the main room, there is just a small bedroom, a compact office/workout room, and the “his and hers” bathrooms that can be elemental to a happy marriage.

“People say it has that loft-like feeling. What I wanted was a big living room, and only what we needed to be comfortable,” says Irina. “My other living room is the deck.”

The space they converted is on the top floor of the Ice House hotel, which they own and operate with a partner. Their unit shares infrastructure with the floors below, the way the towering buildings in New York City do – drawing power and heat inward and upward, a more efficient strategy than transmitting utilities to faraway parcels of land.

“It’s not necessarily urban living … it’s just a certain way of living,” says Irina. “It’s more vertical than horizontal.”

The Ice House may not be as tall as its big-city counterparts, but living on the uppermost floor of a hotel in a town that is already 8,750 feet in elevation, they haven’t had to compromise much on height; nor have they had to sacrifice their upscale lifestyle. The walls of their apartment look like a fine art gallery, layered in an eclectic collection of works by Andy Warhol, ee cummings, Al Loving, Bruce Tippett and local writer/painter Rob Schultheis, among others. Even the rugs are pieces of art – Chinese throw rugs made in the 1930s, and a gorgeous silk carpet from India.

The spacious room is utter miscellany, a jumble of curios; there are wooden Victorian chairs where each arm has a carved female figurehead jutting out like the ones that adorn the bow of a ship; there is an antique chest from 1697 that Irina bought as a student in Hamburg; and a comfy Eames lounge chair from the 1960s. They are surrounded by a handpicked selection of their favorite things, the items that made the cut when they opted for this cozy space.

“When you have a small space, you can’t have too many things,” says Irina. “The only luxury I have is two dishwashers.”

They entertain often at home, she says, hosting frequent dinner parties and overnight guests. Their situation is perfect. Because they own the hotel, they can put up family and visitors in the other units. They will share a meal, and the guests retire to their own quarters. The Zivians can lob all the cookware and dishes into the double dishwashers, and the hotel will tidy up the guest rooms and accommodate their visitors’ other needs. 

As the owners of the Ice House hotel, they are also allotted some storage space downstairs. The storage is a more convenient spot to stash things like skis and bikes, and the odd piece of art that they couldn’t accommodate in their penthouse. They don’t need much extra space, insists Irina; “We have it all figured out. You have to be organized, with a space for everything … we have a little bit of storage, but I’m getting rid of things. After it’s in storage for a while, you realize you can do without it and you don’t really need it.”

There are some necessities – things they can’t do without, like Michael’s racket stringer (he’s an avid tennis player) and Irina’s plants. The apartment is lush, with flowers and greenery flourishing in the windowed, open room. Outside, there is a wraparound deck with terraced garden boxes more colorful and verdant than anything in a florist’s window. The deck is her sanctuary, Irina says, walking its perimeter and tending to each sunny flower. Another indulgence is books, their spines decorating every available nook: packed bookshelves line the base of each wall, and the rooms have recessed shelf spaces filled with even more volumes.

The burgeoning collection of books won’t cramp the Zivians’ penthouse lifestyle. They’ll hold on to some of the irreplaceable editions, says Irina, but for their everyday consumption they can download titles on their new space-saving technology. “Now we have Kindles, so we don’t need as many books,” she ssys..

The Zivians may have made some concessions as far as physical space, but they have cultivated a way of life. Whenever they crave the buzz of the city, or want to spend a few weeks in Italy, or Irina misses her family in Germany, they are able to travel easily. Living in the hotel, there is always someone to care for their plants or check on their place, and leaving is simple. They travel about one-third of the year, says Irina, and their modest existence facilitates their lifestyle. Irina says that when she was in Cyprus, she noticed that newlyweds are traditionally given a new house by their parents. Now the beautiful island is becoming “hideous,” she says, with every inch of space covered in concrete. They’ve never owned a house, admits Michael. “I don’t really believe in it,” says Irina. “I think we should all live vertically.”

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