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Mystery on Fifth Avenue


Cracking The Code

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.”

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.

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