In an 1890s Bed Stuy row house with exceptional details and furnishings that span three centuries, there is nothing that is not of decorative or historic interest.
It was the extent of the woodwork that finally sealed the deal, blackened though it was from 125 years of paint, shellac and plain old grime. “The woodwork was at least 90 percent intact, and it’s really the reason we bought the house,” says the female member of the couple who, in 2009, purchased the four-story row house, then just a step up from an S.R.O., or single-room occupancy, on one of Stuyvesant Heights’ most garden-proud blocks.
This was after an exhaustive, year-long search. The determined pair, formerly renters in Carroll Gardens — she is a graphic designer turned real estate agent and he owns a wine store in Manhattan — looked at approximately 140 houses across several brownstone neighborhoods (a few more than once, until they created a spreadsheet to keep them from making accidental repeat visits to the same address).
When they finally settled on this sandstone beauty, part of a row of five designed by Swedish architect Magnus Dahlander, who maintained a Brooklyn office from 1888 to 1896, it was despite the fact that they hadn’t been able to get in to see the second floor. “We had seen the other three floors and we decided, ‘Even if the second floor has every detail stripped out of it, we’ll still take the house,’” she says.
Upon closing, the new homeowners discovered that the second floor, though “about as bad as you could get, with piles of vermin residue and cigarette smell we thought we’d never get out,” was as detail-laden as the rest of the house, with carved wood moldings around every window and original door, and oak fireplace mantels surrounding late 19th century tile work.
They handed the keys to a contractor, who spent six months performing a complete gut of the mechanical systems, replacing every old piece of wire and pipe with new, putting in new windows and a new roof, skim coating the plaster walls and ceilings and, of course, painstakingly stripping wood.
“We didn’t renovate the hell out it, the soul of the house still exists,” insists the wife, pointing out an ever-so-slightly chewed-up bit of door trim on the top floor. But if it’s not entirely perfect, it’s pretty close.
Today, the house gleams from basement to roof, a lovingly restored and decorated home for a couple lucky enough to each have home offices — his on the top floor, part of a genteel man-suite with a dressing room, hers on the garden level (she also has an elegant dressing room on the second floor, furnished with Parisian flea market finds).
Of particular pride are the bathrooms, including one on the second floor whose salvaged fixtures and fittings include “the Cadillac of vintage sinks,” she quips, a four-figure splurge justified by its original nickel hardware and glass legs, and a restored pass-through between the front and back rooms on the second floor, which had been entirely missing but is now a dead ringer for the original Victorian thing.
The sleek white Italian kitchen, at the rear of the parlor floor, is an exception to the period rule, its refrigerator cleverly hidden behind an old carved door.
The house’s refined furnishings are the product of two mature individuals, each with a well-established aesthetic. “By the time we met and married, we were in our 40s,” says the wife, a native New Yorker who has spent much of the past nine years as an officer of the block association and a member of the local community board’s landmarks committee. “We both had full adult lives and we both had furniture.”
It was good furniture, too, inherited on both sides from selective parents — his were serious antique collectors who passed on important 18th and 19th century pieces; her father was an architect partial to mid-20th century modern. Having family heirlooms was fortuitous, because by the time the couple bought the building and spent half again as much restoring it, there was little left over for such niceties as central air conditioning, making the decorative fireplaces functional, or buying new furniture.
Their eclectic mix of pieces, both inherited and collected over the years, is deployed in a spare and uncluttered way, with plenty of breathing room around them. “We like the way our pieces live together,” she says. “We both feel anything too strictly thematic is limiting. We like the freedom of being able to introduce art from different periods, and artifacts from our travels and whatever our current obsession might be.” (His was antique canes for a while, hers Pucci dresses.)
Evidence of their focused collecting habits is found mainly behind closed doors. There’s a group of 18th century English glass decanters in the tall cabinet in the front parlor, 17th and 18th century Chinese porcelain tucked away in upstairs closets, antique European dishes in the kitchen cabinets, textiles in a grandmother’s hope chest in the guest room.
“It’s a very personal mash-up,” admits the husband, who hails from Massachusetts and, as the more committed cook, was the driving force behind the modern kitchen design and the wine room in the basement. Indeed, the furnishings are as unique as the woodwork.
“A lot of the door and window molding is standard, bought right out of a pattern book,” he says, “but I don’t remember ever seeing staircase decoration exactly like ours.” One of the houses next door “is virtually identical, but has more elaborate plasterwork and more flourishes to the wood. Perhaps that buyer went for Plan B instead of Plan C.”
The couple’s year of diligent house-hunting was an architectural education in itself, revealing the varied richness of normally hidden townhouse interiors. “We really started to see the similarities and differences in details from one house to the next. Despite the use of pattern books, each house has a unique feel,” he says. “That, I think, is one of the most amazing things about Brooklyn.”
[Photos by Lesley Unruh | Styling by Heather Greene ]
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Fall/Holiday 2018 issue of Brownstoner magazine.
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