The New York state of mind is many things to many people. For some it's grit and the capital of street cool; for many looking to relocate to the rapidly transforming borough of Brooklyn it's all about securing a coveted classic townhouse. The lucky buyers of this dream home put their heart and soul into the extensive renovation project we're about to explore, sourcing and selecting many of the materials used to make the design a reality, making their townhouse an elegant and highly personal home.
To make it all happen, they commissioned Brooklyn-based architectural firm of Ben Herzog Architect, with Heather Mangrum as project manager, and the construction and renovation expertise of Creative Renovations. There was a lot to do to take the plans from blueprint into the real world, but as you can see the effort was well worth it – the results are simply stunning.
… but let's start there. This townhouse is pure old-school Brooklyn – two stories tall from the street, with a sunken rear yard that we'll get to later. Traditionally built to a flat roofed design, townhouses like this are begging for their rooftops to be put to good use. To facilitate access to the terrace, Ben Herzog Architect (BHA) added a stairway bulkhead with an attractive but suitably industrial look, and embedded outdoor lights into the decking. It's not a penthouse, but in relatively leafy Brooklyn you can at least feel like you're perching in the treetops, away from the bustle of the street below.
The roof of the townhouse before its radical transformation into an easily-accessed, open-air rest and recreation arena – no ladders here.
Loving attention to detail is the less obvious key to this renovation project's success. Wishing to preserve the charm of the original, the owners consulted with their team to ensure that features like decorative cornicing and skirting boards were carefully restored or repaired, as seen here in the beautiful forms bracketing the staircases.
The owners taste for the traditional runs to much of the furnishing they've chosen, especially in more intimate spaces like the master bedroom. The bedstead is fashioned from dark, heavy wood, yet betrays its contemporary origins with its relatively light and open structure, something that the imposing interior design of the 19th century finds sorely lacking. Notice the rich blues of the bed linen and the rug – bringing the bold splash of turquoise you might have noticed playing underneath the twilight sky up on the roof down into the heart of the home.
One of two bathrooms in the townhouse, this space pares back the embellishment that gives the interior design at large its traditional elegance in a manner that preserves old-world charm but underscores the bathroom as a serene space for washing away the grim of the big smoke. And it's here that we get a first glimpse of the beautiful tiling that can be found elsewhere in the house – simple, low-cost concrete tiles chosen by the owners to speak a striking, timeless visual language.
Many elements of the townhouse in its pre-renovation state have been retained, including the beautiful timbers lining the floor of the upstairs corridor. Space is always at a premium in townhouse architecture, and the design has made good use of what's available, unobtrusively installing a series of closets and cupboards along one wall.
The lower flight of stairs shows off the original handrail and balusters – those that had to be replaced were hand-lathed to match. Another genius use of space is evident in an ingenious under-stairs storage solution – a series of scaled doors and a slide-out shoe rack – keeping both winter boots and heels where they belong, ready to be slipped on before heading out the front door.
Entering by the front door glimpsed on the left of this photo, you're immediately in the ground-level living room, located as the traditional design dictates with a view out over the street. Pushing back the primary living space was a major factor in the renovation, removing dividing walls between parlor, dining room, and the kitchen to the rear of the house to create a single, demarcated but continuous space.
Standing at the dividing line – more a loose border in the new open interior of the renovated townhouse – you can see how the plunging perspectives connecting the forward living room and the dining room standing between the living room and the kitchen behind amplify the small footprint of the home. A second doorway to the side of the dining room allows for easy communication between the foyer and the dining room, and more than a touch of class is added by a sparkling crystal chandelier hanging over the relatively modern dining table and six dining chairs in bold maroon – a nice contrast with the muted, pastel green of the walls.
Turn 180 degrees and the kitchen to the rear of the house comes into view. It's a crucial part of the household, and the owners have signaled as much with yet another miniature masterpiece of tiling for the floor and careful kitchen planning. Plenty of prep space, a stove, sink and storage wrap around the room, with a movable bench island in the middle topped with robust hardwood. To the left, an open space has been punched through to overlook the rear stairwell, the ceiling balustraded by two elegant cupboards.
One of the more curious features common to the classic Brooklyn townhouse is its 'humpbacked' elevation – you step up slightly from the street to access the ground floor interior, and descend a full story to a basement level which leads out to a small urban courtyard. Taking inspired advantage of this architectural convention was a demanding desire when it came to this jaw-dropping renovation project, as it required moving the cellar stairs from the front of the house to the rear. Full credit to the ambition of the architects and capabilities of the construction crew, though – the move has improved flow and opportunities for natural light immensely.
Downstairs (really downstairs), what used to be a pokey basement space for laundry and the boiler in the olden days – now removed and replaced by efficient and discreet heat pumps and two gas fireplaces for heating and cooling – has been transformed into a second, secret living room-study-den combination. French doors provide access to the rear courtyard, transformed just as fantastically into a true urban oasis. A corner lounge suite, less formal than that upstairs, invites the residents to sink down for real some feet-on-the-coffee table R&R, and there's a desk and office chair for when inspiration or the demand for secluded work and study strikes.
More evidence of the ambitious but considered principles at work in this renovation is to be found outdoors at the rear of the townhouse. A full two-story structural wall was removed and replaced with this gorgeous facade fashioned from enamel and ranks latticed windows, an exterior perfectly recalling the age of steam and industry in which the original townhouse was born. To this writer, it's this view – hidden from the street and so entirely the personal privilege of the residents – that says 'old, bold Big Apple Brooklyn beauty' the loudest and proudest.
The rear exterior before the renovation, showing just how incredibly the space has been re-purposed for modern living. If anything, fire code compliance has been improved!
It's been a whirlwind tour of a Brooklyn renovation that's the fantasy for many homeowners, prospective buyers, or DIY-types with as much elbow grease in reserve as financial resources. The Brooklyn renaissance is typified by refurbished homes such as these, but it's not just in New York's most famous of the Five Boroughs (after Manhattan) that classic American architecture is being sensitively reevaluated and overhauled – check out this Washington, D.C. townhouse that's packed with modern design ideas.