Architect’s Journal: Park Slope Brownstone

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Today James Cleary of James Cleary Architecture walks us through a recent renovation. If you’d like to write about one of your projects, please send us an email at

The new owners of a three story central Park Slope brownstone hired us to transform the building into an open, light-filled home for their family of four on a budget that was reasonable but not to be exceeded. The building had been used for years as an illegal two-family, with interiors that had not been touched since a decades-old down-and-dirty renovation that stripped much of the original detail from two of the building’s floors and left the interiors feeling cramped. It was clear from day one that all new plumbing, electrical, and mechanical systems, including central air conditioning, would be required. After the initial design studies were completed, the owners and I agreed that the existing layout did not work with the owner’s program, so the interior partitions – including the interior bearing wall that ran the length of the building on each floor – were all demolished.

In the new layout, the parlor floor contains all the home’s social spaces, and has been completely opened up so that the kitchen, living, and dining areas share one grand space. The parlor floor was the only area with intact original details, and the renovation’s design creates a sense of play between those details and newer, contemporary elements. In the center of the floor, the dining room walls and ceiling are wrapped in a wallpapered ‘liner,’ which gives the area a unique feel, and at the same time carefully conceals the HVAC system, drain lines coming down from the third floor bathroom, and the building’s risers. To maximize storage space, the full height and width of one wall of the kitchen conceals a series of pantry cabinets whose face has been painted with blackboard paint, allowing the children to draw on the wall while dinner’s being prepared, or spouses to jot a note about what time they’ll be back from the gym.

The garden floor…

…contains a home office and the master bedroom suite with the master bedroom overlooking the rear garden through a new large window. On the top floor are the children’s bedrooms – each with its own walk-in closet and private reading nook – which flank a full bathroom and open play area. The rear yard has also been redone, including a new stair from the kitchen to the yard, new fencing, and both paved and planted areas.

From start to finish, construction took 6 months, and was completed for approximately $200 a foot. The owners are now settled into their new home, and are thrilled with the results of the renovations.

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  • Beautiful! Lots of great design choices here.

    What a great feature — let’s see more of this on Brownstoner.

  • GORGEOUS!!! Very nice mix of new and old. I could even learn to live with that wallpaper.

  • Wow. That liner is crazy – makes it looks like a dollhouse. You’re hired.

  • Absolutely a beautiful, functional, elegant design! Should be required viewing for all those who claim dark varnished trim is the way to go.

    The wallpaper may take, as snappy says, learning to live with, but I could do it, methinks. At least it’s a strong and vibrant statement, rather than the usual wishy-washy homage to the past.

  • Agreed – I REALLLY love what they did!
    am not a fan of that wallpaper choice in the kitchen
    but everything else is amazing!

  • PS: is that foolhardy or what to use a glass banister in a children’s play area, even if it looks great?!

  • Perhaps it’s a 3/4″ or thicker plexi? Not so easy to break.

  • Brilliant!

    The liner on the parlor floor is a very nice touch, but I was actually really taken with the entry area. I very much like the white low cabinetry extending out. The series of skylights up top are nice too – nice to see natural light coming in.

  • Inspiring! What a difference a thoughtful, contemporary renovation can make. I especially like the bathroom and kitchen, with the little wine nooks. The “wrap” area is a interesting solution — not sure I love it, but I applaud the creativity.

  • Q for architects: why is the typical longitudinal wall is load bearing and needs to be replaced as above with serious beams, since it often does not extend into the back parlor? (and in my house no wall on the upper 2 floors bedrooms). In other words, if the joists safely span in the bedrooms, why do they need a wall in the middle section?

  • cmu –

    re: load bearing walls v. joists that span the building

    You might find this forum discussion from 2005 insightful.

  • Also-why does the steel beam need the post that is intersecting with the countertop? I thought the whole point of a steel beam is so that you don`t need one. Can somebody explain?

  • Wow! I’m not feeling the styrofoam tunnel over the kitchen but I like the openness. Those top floor hardwoods are killer diller.

    ***Bid half off peak comps***

  • CMU- This is because the headers and joist connections at stair openings in old buildings were usually not strong enough to be supported without a bearing wall. In the back the joists run continuous from brick-to-brick.

  • sally, could either be a design statement (I like it), or, would reduce the size (and cost and difficulty of install) of the actual beam.

    thanks, bh for link. still not sure why my back parlor never had and apparently does not need a bearing wall. otoh, my house is 17′.

  • Nice clean re-design, though I think the liner is over-kill.

  • widget guess 1.9 mio.

  • I like this, but also like traditional, old school dark finishes in period buildings. Seems to me there is more than enough “stripped” housing stock in Brooklyn, that those who want to go down this road (and I do like it) should be able to find properties where the destruction of period detail is not an issue…. Yes, I realize there are other quality of life issues when purchasing a home, but it’s nice to think that those who want a contemporary home can get a bargain on a “fixer upper” devoid of details, and those who want the untouched woodwork, glass, etc…, can still lovingly preserve them (albeit at a premium). Sigh. Utopia.

  • the wrap makes me feel a little claustrophobic, but otherwise it’s really nice. interesting to see the storage on the parlor floor, including the red coat closet – i considered trying something similar when we did our renovation, but couldn’t figure out how to do it and maintain a unified look. our house is too narrow for the low cabs that run the length, but they’re neat here, and allow the coat closet not to ruin the openness of the space.

  • Love the concept – open up the floor plan. Anyone who lives in or has lived in a row house or floor through of a townhouse knows it is a challenge to bring natural light into the center of the structure.

    However, I am not getting the love for the execution of this design. The functional aspect of the liner is it “conceals the HVAC system, drain lines coming down from the third floor bathroom, and the building’s risers”. OK, fine, not a terrible idea…but then why leave the ugly steel i-beam exposed? Also, I DON’T like that the liner is concealing original details that would greatly enhance the overall look (check out photo #4 and #7 to see what I mean).

    I can’t stand the wallpaper choice, but that personal design choice is an easy fix.

    Overall, great idea…but I disagree strongly with those who think the execution if brilliant.

  • Actually Architerrorist, by the 1910’s the most fashionable people were painting the woodwork in these houses white and by the 20’s nearly everybody did it. By that time people were so ready to toss the heavy dark Victorian look, they were totally over it. I’ve seen period photos and illustrations of this and read about it.

  • I love wallpaper in general but don’t like the wimpy pale “calico” tiny floral of this one. I’d have chosen a bold print or if they wanted a pale solid look, a wallpaper that wasn’t a print but more about a texture.

  • I love everything but that hideous wallpaper wrapper thingy. Seems ill conceived and poorly executed. The rest is quite nice though.

  • The front parlor is perfectly executed.

    The back parlor’s problem is probably the wallpaper,
    it makes it look unfinished or not anchored enough,somehow. Would look better with a bold primary color like red, to emphasize the box inside of a box solution.
    Excellent look overall.
    Just my own opinion, like everyone elses here.

  • If the owners love it, that’s all that matters, but it’s not to my personal taste. I believe it will look quite dated in about ten years. While I understand the decision to move the kitchen up to the parlor floor, the original brownstone layouts, walls, pocket doors, and such function admirably well to control heat, light, and privacy — and they are flexible.

    Whether in an apartment or house, an entry way is a desirable buffer between the house and the outside world. I also find the metal beam and envelope discordant here. They remind me a bit of post-modern redesigns circa late 1980s.

    On the plus side, the kitchen cabinets are elegant, and I like the trendy wallpaper.

  • Enjoy that liner gesture; a fun way to make the kitchen it’s own room while maintaining the openness of the floor (though it isn’t my taste, I’m always happy to see architects getting interesting things built). That low floating cabinet/counter as you come in (between the entry door and the parlor) is also a very nicely design touch.

    I think the comments on the wallpaper being wimpy or calico are odd; the pattern actually looks like it’s pretty big and contemporary-looking.

  • Mopar,
    I agree that the design will not stand a test of time. Although it may seem fun to play with traditional and modern elements, I think 10 or so years from now anyone interested in this will say “total gut job”. I’m glad the owners like it now, they should enjoy it. Although the more artistic set may feel smug that the design generated these negative comments; often art that is cutting edge offends because it is too far from what is comfortable. Maybe they’ll be right in the end.
    I admire the work, the ingenuity, and execution, although I have to say the wallpaper wrap is oppressive. Couldn’t something else have been used, i.e. light panels to create a sense of space? In its current form it just looks too intrusive.

  • Many things to love here. Like the entry way. Like the kitchen. Like the landing of the kids’ floor. But I’m struggling with the wrap. It’s the way it throws off the sightlines on the parlor floor that troubles me. The view from the kitchen seems OK but from the parlor, I’m really not sure. But I’d love to see it in the flesh to try to appreciate it in person.

    And let’s hear it for the price! $200 per sq ft seems like a bargain for this major a renovation which such innovative design solutions.

    Question: The entry way is so attractive but I would worry about the heat barrier of an enclosed parlor. With the high ceilings, we have a hard time keeping that floor warm in the depths of winter. Isn’t it even harder when the hall and staircase are open too?

    Btw, sally, when we removed the wall in our rear parlor to create an open kitchen/dining-room, the steel beam was seated in the rear wall of the house at one end and supported by a lally post going all the way down into the cellar floor at the other end.

  • I meant to say, “I would worry about LOSING the heat barrier of an enclosed parlor.”

  • Very fancy. I’m not sure I go for that pattern on the wall/ceiling structure on the parlor floor though.

    Looks easy to keep relatively clean!

    I hope the owners will enjoy living in the house.

  • Losing the front hall vestibule is problematic in NYC climate. Don’t know how I would be able to keep that entrance way looking “clean” with two little kids and their coats and mittens. Not sure I would want to walk around that island to be able to sit down on couch. Wall paper would not be my first choice… on a kitchen ceiling. Might be one of those spaces you have to physically experience to understand better. Surfaces… surfaces… I need more surfaces.
    Like the bedroom/bath. No pictures of the renovated garden?
    Thanks for sharing your work on Brownstoner.

  • If anyone is still reading…. thanks for sharing, nice job overall. Looks comfortable. The ‘wrap’ thing gives me a certain sense of claustrophobia, as if I were inside a tent. But I suppose I would get used to it.

    I’m curious… you say the $200 psft is ‘construction’. Does that number include permits, arch fees, fixtures and so on? IOW is the total cost of the whole job $200?

  • Maybe it’s not wallpaper…maybe it’s stencils?

    I agree. I prefer having a real vestibule and stairhall partly because the cold air really whips in in winter when people come in and go out. I’ve noticed that in these narrower houses there’s a penchant for taking out the wall between the hallway and the narrow front room. On top of it, the entry door on the featured house has a lot of glass. I would be creeped out by people being able to see in when they come up the stoop! An outside entry door and inner set of doors is nice because it keeps wind from whipping through, heat in during the heating season and cool(er) air inside during the hot months. And a layer of translucent window covering over two successive doors makes the interior more private.

    I have to say I often find mod redoes rather appealing but must to point out that houses and new work done on old houses tends to settle. I always wonder how these interiors so dependent on a rectilinear ideal will look if floors and ceilings start to sag, shift, etc. It doesn’t take much. One flat-footed husband or a growing teenager clomping down the stairs like a herd of elephants will eventually crack open drywall seams and plaster! Been there; done that, ticked it off the list.

  • actually, the decorating might hold up. this is a modern reno with modern pieces, but could handle a mix of some arts and crafts, old english oak pieces, or shabby chic type furniture. it’ll be impressive for a long time, and the complete overhaul of the mechanicals with the central air should last. looks great.

  • Nice.

    A lot of design for the budget.

    Well done.

  • Too much design for any budget. How many ideas can one fit into a space? Juxtaposition is one thing, but this is downright schizophrenic. Does not work.

  • I absolutely love this and am having serious renovation envy. I especially love the liner and how it seems to hover over but not obliterate original details. My one quibble is that you have to go around the island/peninsula to reach the back door. I see it as a bit of a traffic block. But otherwise, really fantastic.

  • Nice work Jim. I remember that one, think it came out great.
    Fun to read all the up and down comments too. – RW