“Design is much more fun than lawyering,” says Alissa Kelman Selling, whose hands-on involvement in the renovation and design of her family’s landmarked 1853 wood frame has her seriously contemplating a career change. Selling, who works part time in workers’ compensation law for a Manhattan firm, and her husband, Daniel, a psychologist, had long dreamt of buying a Brooklyn row house and fixing it up to their own specs.
“We were aggressively scouring the market, looking for a house that met our requirements: within a few blocks of Fort Greene Park, with a backyard and a rental unit,” recalled Selling. “Ideally, we wanted a place with intact period details, that we could renovate without major construction.”
Little did they know what they were getting into when, in 2014, a broker showed them a gem of a Greek Revival — well, a potential gem — with a romantic front porch that spanned the facade at parlor level. “We had just lost out on a beautifully renovated, move-in-ready house on Myrtle Avenue and were feeling defeated,” Selling said.
But the sight of the antique house in a rare intact row of four similar ones made them forget their disappointment. “It was dilapidated but grand, a relic of old New York,” she said, and the elevated verandah with its four classical columns reminded Selling of houses she had admired in New Orleans as a first-year architecture student at Tulane. (She soon dropped out of that program to study law.)
Never mind that the house was barely habitable, with just one tenant remaining on the garden level. “We basically gutted the house,” she said, though they held onto as many original details as they could in creating a triplex for their family of four, which includes sons River, 3 years old, and 6-month-old Max.
At 20 feet wide and 35 feet deep, the house is compact. The entry to the family’s triplex is on the garden level, which remains a rental. The door at the front of the parlor floor leads not to a stoop, but to the old-fashioned front porch, a rarity among rarities (wood-frame houses in general are few).
To the delight of neighbors and casual passersby, the Sellings restored the exterior, benefiting from the guidance of their neighbors in the twin house next door, who had gone that route a few years earlier.
They also redid all the plumbing and electrical, replaced the rotting back wall of the house, and addressed flooding in the basement. They put in air conditioning, a heating system and new white oak floors, and restored or re-created original details such as the characteristic Greek Revival “ear” door and window surrounds throughout the house.
They moved walls to open up the parlor floor and reconfigured bathrooms, forgoing a parlor floor powder room for two baths on the second, where there are children’s bedrooms and a guest room. A third bath on the top floor forms part of the master suite, which also has a wood-burning fireplace and a spacious sitting area. (The fireplace had already been updated by previous owners; Selling added the reclaimed wood mantel.)
Selling relished the whole process. “I obsessed about the details, spending hours on online research,” absorbing the work of design talents like Brooklyn’s own Elizabeth Roberts, Athena Calderone from Eye Swoon and West Coast designers Amber Lewis and Kelly Wearstler.
After using an architect for initial plans and permit filing, Selling took the reins. “I handled all the design decisions, from moving walls and designing bathrooms and kitchen cabinetry to choosing flooring and sourcing all the finishes, educating myself as I went,” she said.
An interior design course at Pratt bolstered Selling’s confidence further, and she recently founded River Interiors Co. (“I’m one-third lawyer, one-third designer, and one-third mom,” she says.) Her first jobs were decorating a two-bedroom condo in Downtown Brooklyn and a garden-level rental for a family of four.
Underpinning her design approach is Selling’s belief that a neutral palette, with pale walls and floors, lightens and brightens an old house and makes it “a great backdrop for more modern furniture and the occasional bohemian accent,” she says. “Opposites attract.”
The house is furnished mostly with pieces Selling and her husband brought from their previous home, a condo in the same neighborhood. The main living space is sparely appointed, with a basic white sofa, a pair of vintage black leather armchairs and a shaggy Moroccan rug.
These disparate elements are juxtaposed against an elaborate carved white marble mantel salvaged from a different house. A rectilinear wood table and chairs from Blu Dot and a mid-century modern bar in the adjacent dining area strike an intriguingly different note.
The simple open kitchen makes use of Shaker-style cabinets from IKEA, customized with brass handles and leather pulls. The absence of upper cabinets keeps the feeling open and uncluttered; there’s plenty of storage in a wall of recessed cabinets that includes a full-length pantry and fridge.
Another obsession of Selling’s is making space “beautiful but efficient,” important in a townhouse of modest proportions. Among the space-saving tricks she employed: book niches in bedroom walls and a “humongous” walk-in closet on the top floor that also contains the ladder to the roof.
Selling’s decision not to raise the slanted roof in the original attic, now the beamed master suite, led to serendipitous placement for a bathtub, tucked in where the roof slopes to just a few feet above the floor. “It was a perfect way to utilize that very low space,” she noted.
“Some people complain about the dreaded townhouse renovation, having to make a million decisions and deal with all the challenges an old house presents,” Selling said. Not she. “I loved every minute of it, and found my own style along the way.”
[Photos by Susan De Vries]
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