A sensitive approach was called for when the new owners of a landmarked turn-of-the-century brick and limestone townhouse hired Tal Schori and Rus Mehta of Greenpoint-based GRT Architects to renovate the four-story building to their needs.
“Everyone was wowed by the historic detail, to begin with,” Mehta recalled. “But the more time we spent, the more we realized there were layers. Things got added on” after the building was built in 1898, he said. “People would buy a fancy wooden thing and attach it to an already decorative fireplace, or say, ‘Here’s a cornice, let’s put it there.’ Too much of that, and it starts to feel chintzy.”
So the architects’ program became one of paring back to “the nice, sober-looking historic detail the building started with and getting rid of the added-on later detail,” Mehta said.
The thoroughgoing makeover reconsidered the organization of the building as well as the aesthetics. A modest kitchen in a rear addition was done away with, along with a 1940s-era ground floor doctor’s office, on the way to what is now an owners triplex with a garden level in-law apartment.
Most of the house’s plumbing and wiring were replaced, air conditioning added and “a decent number” of walls moved. Openings between rooms were enlarged in many places to improve light, air and sight lines.
All the building’s unique windows, including semicircular transoms at the parlor level, a large projecting bay on the second floor and asymmetrical openings at the top, were replaced with insulated replicas, custom made to look indistinguishable from the originals.
In the front parlor, wood elements like door and window moldings were preserved. The kitchen and dining rooms, toward the rear of the parlor floor, were entirely redesigned. The work on the parlor level is a “gradient,” the architect said, from more historical elements toward the front of the building to more obviously modern interventions toward the rear.
The building was designed by architect William M. Miller when neo-Classical Beaux-Arts motifs were all the rage. Among the facade’s attributes: a rusticated base of Indiana limestone, three Romanesque arches and limestone keystones and lintels against tan Roman-proportion brick.
An enlarged portal separates the living and dining rooms. Rather than try to match the existing moldings, the architects opted for minimalist trim with brass inlays and a broad brass threshold to mark the new opening. The original parquet floors were refinished.
The clients’ own furnishings have a mid-20th century bent.
The custom-built kitchen cabinetry incorporates plywood and a mix of metals, with a linoleum island top from Farbo Marmoleum. Bold color imparts an unabashedly contemporary feel.
The handsome range is from Bertazzoni; the Watermark sink faucet coordinates with custom brass drawer and cabinet pulls designed by GRT Architects.
Custom cabinets extend into the pantry, which occupies the upper level of an existing rear addition. The space is illuminated by a large new window visible from the front entry.
A custom metal spiral stair with a perforated rail leads to an anteroom (called “the garden room”) that enables the homeowners to access the garden without disturbing the occupants of the downstairs apartment.
Green laminate and plywood cabinetry continue downstairs in the garden room. The floor is the same material found on the kitchen island top.
A room on the garden level that was formerly a doctor’s office is now part of the in-law suite. The architects decided to expose joists here to gain more ceiling height.
The second floor is given over to a master bedroom and home office.
The architects created walk-through closets to link the two spaces without requiring passage through an outer hall. The pale green stain of the closet doors highlights the wood grain and links to the color palette used downstairs.
The second floor master bath incorporates an existing blue tub from a long-ago renovation.
Cement floor tile with a contemporary pattern from Clé, a custom millwork vanity and brass fixtures distinguish the space.
The third floor bath at the top of the stairs has the same floor tile as in the master bath and similar fittings, but with a shower in lieu of the tub.
Both baths were re-designed using existing layouts to preserve their pressed tin ceilings.
A multi-purpose room on the top floor retains an original, if defunct, fireplace with a refurbished tile surround.
[Photos by Nicole Franzen]
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