The Six-Figure Fish Tank Catches On
By JENNIFER A. KINGSON
Published: August 18, 2010
KARIN WILZIG has a hard time choosing a favorite color from among the 64 that she and her husband can use to illuminate the 14 1/2- foot, 450-gallon aquarium in their TriBeCa town house. The default is fuchsia, which turns the dozen koi a deep pink.
Trevor Tondro for The New York Times
“Not pink,” said Mrs. Wilzig, 40, an artist and a mother of two small children. “Alan, go to the turquoise.”
Her husband, Alan Wilzig, 45, a former banker who collects motorcycles and prides himself on the orange tanning bed in his basement, goes to the James Bond-like control panel in the kitchen, where a touch of a button turns the fish — which are specially bred to be colorless — a vivid blue.
“I think they like that,” he said, walking down the steps to the sunken living room to admire the fish from another angle. (Given that they do nothing but swim from one side of the tank to the other, it’s hard to tell.)
Most people who keep fish have a tank or two; perhaps they start with a five-gallon model and graduate to the 35- or 50-gallon version that doctors put in waiting rooms to keep patients calm. But for a certain segment of the population — many of whom never considered keeping fish before they had a big space to decorate — a showpiece aquarium has become a must-have piece of décor.
Custom aquariums are popular for two reasons, interior designers say. One is that upscale nightclubs, restaurants and boutique hotels have been installing them, which gives homeowners the me-too idea. Another is that, among people of means, a dazzling aquarium is one of the last surefire ways to impress their peers.
Christopher Stevens, a Manhattan interior designer, said he has worked several giant fish tanks into residential projects at the request of clients. “They have a collection of cars, of motorcycles, of art, they have three dogs,” Mr. Stevens said. “It’s like, ‘What else, what’s the next thing to wow my friends?’ It doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you’d see in high-end interior design, but that’s being reconsidered.”
He sees it as a way to add movement and fluidity to what might otherwise be an arid space. “One of my challenges in doing more modern residences these days is just sort of to soften things,” he said. “How do you humanize this space, how do you introduce natural elements? How do you make it feel like you’re not standing in a white, pristine, soul-less box?”
But all that movement and fluidity comes at a price. Universally, owners of fantasy fish tanks describe them — usually in the same breath — as very relaxing and very expensive. Aquariums like the Wilzigs’ tend to cost a minimum of $50,000, plus at least $1,000 a month for maintenance. And that’s before buying a single fish.
In the world of fantasy fish tanks, it is not uncommon to pay $600 for a black tang or $5,000 for a pet shark, or to have service people on call 24/7 in case a fish gets sick or dies, which could contaminate the entire tank.
Joseph Caparatta, owner of Manhattan Aquariums, which sells tanks small and large from a showroom on West 37th Street, said that, increasingly, “Most of the jobs we get come from architects and designers who have to fill a 6,000- or 7,000-square-foot apartment.”
It was Mr. Caparatta who suspended a 700-gallon aquarium from the ceiling of a town house apartment in the West Village owned by Richard Wise and Andre Jones. The filled tank weighs at least 6,000 pounds and has cost the couple some $200,000 in equipment and service.
“At night, we sit in the living room and sort of get lost in it, instead of the television set,” said Mr. Jones, 40, who owns a construction company, Wise Builders LLC, with Mr. Wise. “It’s always the centerpiece of the party.”
The couple keeps bags of brine shrimp and sardinelike fish called silversides in their freezer drawer, next to the Häagen-Dazs and Lean Cuisines. “We feed the fish once a day,” Mr. Jones said. The equipment needed to support the huge aquarium — pumps, pipes, chillers — occupies a walk-in closet as well as part of a roof deck.
Their three-year-old tank has a salt-water coral reef filled with catfish, tangs, pink damsels and a two-foot eel that rarely shows itself. “Don’t ask me the names of the fish,” he said. “Joe gives them to me, and then I make up my own.”
He added: “At first, when we lost fish, we’d be all traumatized. Now we’re not quite as traumatized.”
Their apartment is on the market for $16.9 million, and some potential buyers have expressed interest in keeping the aquarium, while others have said they would want to remove it. Meanwhile, Mr. Wise and Mr. Jones have bought a new place nearby and are considering jellyfish for the dining room.
“We went on vacation to Fort Lauderdale and stayed at the W, and they had a tank with all jellyfish,” Mr. Jones said. “That’s like living art to me.”