The Insider: Do-It-Herself Reno in Cobble Hill

WELCOME to The Insider, Brownstoner’s weekly in-depth look at the creative ways Brooklynites renovate and decorate their homes. Written and produced by Cara Greenberg, you can find it right here every Thursday at 11:30AM.

 

FOR MOST OF THE PAST 18 YEARS, Lula Blackwell-Hafner has lived in her grand parlor floor co-op, with its 12-and-a-half-foot ceilings, in a state of what might be called Bohemian splendor. Peeling plaster walls and cracked crown moldings served as atmospheric backdrop to her eclectic accumulation of vintage furnishings. The kitchen was a Danish modern disaster in the center of the apartment, bearing no relation to the building’s Italianate detail.

Recently, Blackwell-Hafner, a landscape architectural designer by profession, undertook to restore the plasterwork, refinish the tall mahogany doors and moldings, and install a brand new kitchen. Because her budget is limited but her handywoman skills prodigious, she did much of the work herself, with the assistance of Dave Cunningham, a Brooklyn-based plaster craftsman, and Colin Rice, a carpenter.

They repaired the heavy crown moldings decorated with what Blackwell-Hafner calls her ‘Shakespearean troupe’ of faces; replaced sections of ceiling with QuietRock, a drywall product designed for soundproofing; skim-coated all the walls; and painted them with Farrow & Ball ‘Modern Emulsion’ colors, washable and low-VOC, with a slight sheen. Blackwell-Hafner sanded and waxed the mahogany entry doors by hand to the point of bandaged fingers, and upgraded the new cherry kitchen cabinets, bought online, with wavy glass from old windows, which she cut and installed herself.

So far, Blackwell-Hafner has spent about $25K on this phase of the reno. What remains to be done: paving and a railing for the small deck off the rear parlor (presently a rooftop on the downstairs extension) and restoring tall windows there, and replacing plaster ceiling medallions and some of the worn-away faces in the crown molding.

See and read lots more after the jump.

Photos: Cara Greenberg

 

The parlor floor of the five-story 1856 brownstone measures 22′x’50′.

 

Furnishings are mostly antique and vintage, ranging from family pieces to street finds. The walls of the front parlor are painted Farrow & Ball‘s Shaded White; the ceiling color is Dimity. 

 

The solid cherry kitchen cabinets came from CliqStudios, an online wholesaler.  “I didn’t want the kitchen to feel like a kitchen,” Blackwell-Hafner says. The soapstone counter is from M. Teixeira in Hackensack, NJ — a half price remnant from another job. The undercounter fridge, from Marvel [not shown], is on the opposite side of the pocket doors between the front and back parlors. 

 

Blackwell-Hafner painted the insides of the cabinets blue-gray. 

 

 The back parlor is set up as a sitting room/study, with a desk and small TV. 

 

At the back of the building’s original front hall, there’s a full bath, a bank of built-in storage, and a set of stairs leading to a womb-like sleeping loft, all dating from a prior renovation.

 

The existing bathroom was completely gutted and re-done about 18 years ago with a vintage tub and hotel sink, and salvaged subway tiles which Blackwell-Hafner cleaned and installed herself. Part of the original hall’s ceiling and plaster detail was left exposed above the tub. 

 


The elaborate plaster crown molding is typical of an 1850s Brooklyn brownstone in the Italianate style.

Below, a few ‘befores’ for comparison’s sake:

 

 

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29 Comment

  • Nice job. Congrats on the job you did on the crown moldings and the woodwork.

  • Nice job. Congrats on the job you did on the crown moldings and the woodwork.

  • great job on the restoration part. Hope the floors are next.
    Love that bathroom…

  • What an amazing only-in-New York space. Who would guess that this apartment is inside that house when passing by? Those moldings! I agree with the way she has given over most of her space to living, and love the warmth of her decorating.

  • Beautiful. To me, this is brownstone living.
    The spare white look is best achieved in lofts or contemporary construction.
    I’m sure that the uncultivated and crude will chime in with their usual put-downs of traditional decor and grown-up furniture.

  • This is what a brownstone is meant to look like. Great restoration. Viva la DIY!

  • Wow! We know Lula! She helped us with a very speedy, very economical, and quite amazing backyard “restoration” project some years back. What an extremely talented lady she is! And it definitely shows in this DIY restoration work on her apartment. Loving the interior design as well, I’m totally with Minard when he says; “this is brownstone living.” Go Lula!

  • no floorplan? pretty please? that’s half the fun of these things…

  • I love this. It has individual style instead of magazine style. Would like to hear more about repairing the moldings and refinishing the door–did she have to strip paint or was it already a wood finish?

  • Who ARE those faces in the plasterwork? When you walk around the city and look up at the buildings there’s veritable gallery of its previous inhabitants staring down at you from their stone perches, guardians of a lost time. How perfect to have them inside a parlor floor like this, which so perfectly captures the flavor of a past time.

  • Who ARE those faces in the plasterwork? When you walk around the city and look up at the buildings there’s veritable gallery of its previous inhabitants staring down at you from their stone perches, guardians of a lost time. How perfect to have them inside a parlor floor like this, which so perfectly captures the flavor of a past time.

  • The crown molding in unusually ornate. Incredible Elizabethan faces worked into the plasterwork. Nice job restoring it too. Obviously the owner/designer has a terrific eye. That is a gift.

  • I totally want to see more of that full bath/storage and sleeping loft arrangement. looks awesome!

  • snezan,

    What’s wrong with the floors?

    AND, Mr. B, et al, why has the “Reply” function stopped working?

  • Wow, I feel honored by all these positive comments by the discerning Insider readers. Thank you all. Snezan, the floors will be done as soon as I can figure out how to refinish without removing the thin layer of oak left. Anyone have a suggestion? Angelar, the woodwork and doors were already stripped, though badly, (not mahaghony -have never id’d the wood) , and were likely originally painted. I grappled with that but decided not to paint. So by hand, I sanded and sanded, steel-wooled, then tried to match the stain using Minwax Cherry. Then used a liquid wax from Restoration Hardware that they no longer sell. Slopegirl, I am particularly proud of the loft, closet, bathroom/pantry area that I did 15 years ago. It functions really well in a space that is essentially a corridor 6 1/2′ wide by 30′ long.

  • Wow, I feel honored by all these positive comments by the discerning Insider readers. Thank you all. Snezan, the floors will be done as soon as I can figure out how to refinish without removing the thin layer of oak left. Anyone have a suggestion? Angelar, the woodwork and doors were already stripped, though badly, (not mahaghony -have never id’d the wood) , and were likely originally painted. I grappled with that but decided not to paint. So by hand, I sanded and sanded, steel-wooled, then tried to match the stain using Minwax Cherry. Then used a liquid wax from Restoration Hardware that they no longer sell. Slopegirl, I am particularly proud of the loft, closet, bathroom/pantry area that I did 15 years ago. It functions really well in a space that is essentially a corridor 6 1/2′ wide by 30′ long.

    • If the floors have been sanded a couple of times and are very thin I think there’s a way of having them screened and refinished w/o sanding. BUT, before you try that, I’ve used a product called “Rejuvenate” which works very well. It’s available at Home Depot and online. The website and packaging are VERY tacky ["as seen on TV"] and I was somewhat dubious, despite a neighbor’s recommendation, but the stuff is good AND cheap, plus, you have nothing to loose.

    • If the floors have been sanded a couple of times and are very thin I think there’s a way of having them screened and refinished w/o sanding. BUT, before you try that, I’ve used a product called “Rejuvenate” which works very well. It’s available at Home Depot and online. The website and packaging are VERY tacky ["as seen on TV"] and I was somewhat dubious, despite a neighbor’s recommendation, but the stuff is good AND cheap, plus, you have nothing to loose.

  • parlourfloors, my guy, Jose, whom others here have used, did an excellent job with my thin oak parquet floors

    917-355-7977

    You screen them and it removes all of the finish. And then stain and poly.

  • Love, love, love!

    As Minard said, this is brownstone living! And as my friend rh said, viva la DIY.

    As I’m about to go about creating new spaces myself, I am humbled and inspired. What a wonderful job, and what great taste in everything.

    (bows in the direction of this house.)

    Thanks, Cara, in finding this one! More, please…

  • Love, love, love!

    As Minard said, this is brownstone living! And as my friend rh said, viva la DIY.

    As I’m about to go about creating new spaces myself, I am humbled and inspired. What a wonderful job, and what great taste in everything.

    (bows in the direction of this house.)

    Thanks, Cara, in finding this one! More, please…

  • I love everything about this space, and the story is one I can really relish and sink my teeth into (wavy glass! F&B! QuietRock!). I didn’t know there is such a thing as sheetrock with sound insulation qualities. What a useful bit of info.

  • So beautiful and unique, I can’t believe I’ve never seen it in person (I’m a friend of Lula’s daughter). What a great talent you (and Colin) are!

  • Wow this is a very nice and warm home with a great story. We love the moldings especially and that fireplace is awesome.

  • Even though I saw these wonderful space a couple of months ago, and thought it looked great half finished, I am amazed at the final look. Congrats Lula!