Design Brooklyn: An Approachably Modern House in South Slope

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In 2011, the owners of this South Slope property hired Leone Design Studio to convert the building, comprising three separate apartments, into a single-family home. Built in the early 1900s as an apartment complex, the structure never had a past life as a townhouse, and so displayed those characteristics one would expect: a large interior common stairway and no light penetrating from the back, only from a small skylight on the roof.

“It was dark in there,” said one owner, “and since our kids were one and three, they weren’t entitled to their own apartments yet. This was the principal reason for why the renovation was so extensive.

“These three-family houses were not the grand homes of upper-middle-class 1900s Brooklyn,” he continued. “They were built as functional housing for thrifty people who worked for a living, and who thus were not spending their discretionary income on frills. As a consequence, the house was notable not so much for its period wood paneling or molding, but for how solid it was.”

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Roy Leone, who headed the project, left the sidewalls untouched structurally, as the original bricklayers had done an exceptional job and very little shoring up was necessary. Leone also kept much of the subflooring intact because the floors themselves were for the most part level. This allowed the couple to use their budget in other ways, rather than on structural issues.

“We chose a modern aesthetic basically for the same reasons we chose Leone Design Studio,” said the owner. “We like a very clean and light design, and we liked that the prior work they did was clean but not cold. It was their idea to incorporate the brick walls into the house, and we eventually settled on the whitewash [a thin layer of sprayed white paint] as a clean but not cold solution because the original color was sort of uneven. That was an important original detail to us.”

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For the interior, Leone and project manager Nick Brown were able to explore a number of design solutions unrestricted by the existing layout. The first question was whether to move the stairwell to the alternate side of the building in order to utilize the light from the skylight. After playing with this idea, they decided to keep the staircase in its original position but reverse the flow of it, thus providing demarcation from the entryway.

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But toying with the notion of a staircase on the other side of the room did spark the idea of putting a cutout in the roof in that location, a cutout that became a long, thin skylight running the depth of the building and hugging the vertical wall. The rooms on the upper two floors stop short of the exterior edge, creating a shaft of natural light that bathes the entire left side of the interior.

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The master bathroom shows how this shaft of light functions in the middle of the house. A thin strip of fluorescent lighting just beneath the lip of the cutout provides extra illumination for the room when necessary, while natural light from the skylight one story up offers a backdrop glow all day long.

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The staircase itself was completely replaced with a stunning work in black steel and walnut treads. Gaspar Nogara of Piscopo Ironworks fabricated the armature out of 3/8-of-an-inch-thick plate steel, based on a model built by Brown. Working with Nogara, the designers masterminded a railing of thin vertical black-steel poles, which are repeated along the stairs in the basement room as well.

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Leone converted what had been the cellar into a comfortable playroom and den by digging down a foot and pouring concrete floors (incorporating radiant heating here as they did on every floor of the house), so that the room does not feel claustrophobic. Repeating the breadth of windows one finds on the parlor floor here as well, along with a glass door opening onto the garden, the space breathes in continual natural light.

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The garden itself was kept open by Leone’s decision to create a bridge from the parlor floor rather than the more ubiquitous deck, which would have shaded the basement room. The result not only brings more light into the bottom level of the house, it also exposes the entire garden to the sky.

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The open plan kitchen and dining area looks out onto the garden with unobstructed views, thanks to the wall of glass Leone inserted into the back of the house. For the palette in these rooms, the designers chose a mix of clean and warm. “The kitchen color palate is mainly a function of our desire to have grey and white predominate for the clean part, with walnut to keep it from being cold,” said one owner. The island countertop is quartz with faint streaks of brown that pick up the walnut tone.

The open parlor floor was important for other reasons as well.

“We did know we wanted an open plan: We knew our kids wanted to run around. It works best when all the cousins are over and we have teams of kids chasing each other around the kitchen table.” The openness continues in the upstairs den, which has a customized wall desk and shelves from Atlas Industries. The room is open to the staircase and its “whitewashed” brick wall, with all three windows of the building’s front façade exposed.

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Design Brooklyn is an occasional column featuring Brooklyn interiors, both residential and commercial. The column is written by Anne Hellman, with photographs by Michel Arnaud. They blog at Design Brooklyn and have a book of the same name coming out October 22. 

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