The classic Brooklyn brownstone has undergone an astonishing renaissance in recent years, essentially supplanting the deluxe apartment in the sky in the popular imagination’s ideal of urban living. But Daniel Thompson isn’t some recent convert; he’s a Victorianist born and bred.
“I grew up in a 19th century home,” he says. “And so I always just considered that what homes feel like.”
Sixteen years ago, he found a place of his own that felt like home: a handsome 1881 brownstone on the sort of tree-lined Bedford Stuyvesant street that is a location scout’s dream. And for Thompson, it’s more than just a place to live; it’s a labor of love, an education, and an artistic project still in progress after nearly two decades.
“Modern developers expect a building to last 20 years,” says Thompson. “When these houses were built, they were expected to last 100 years. That was the criteria.” This illuminates how far our standards have fallen, and how grateful New Yorkers should be to developers like Susanna Russell, who is responsible for shaping the Bed Stuy streetscape and, consequently, the contemporary high water mark for urban living.
Russell and architect I.D. Reynold’s work was built to endure; even though Thompson’s house had fallen into disrepair and its lovely rooms partitioned into apartments, it was still possible to resurrect the place. And resurrection, rather than a more modern renovation, was just what its new owner set out to do.
“I wanted it to be restored the way it was,” he says. “It’s like the grand old lady who needed a facelift.”
Thompson is understating the case, having accomplished far more than mere facelift. He was fortunate in his patient: The house was built to remarkably high standards (the original floors not only endured, they’re still level) and much of its original detail (the marble washbasins in the upper bedrooms, the rose bronze hardware on the parlor closet doors) had survived years of benign neglect. He relied on expert hired hands and also put in many hours of his own effort (visiting salvage dealers and shopping online) to restore the home to its glory.
Thompson’s aesthetic objective — accuracy — sets him apart from many contemporary brownstone dwellers, and it necessitated not just a process of restoration but one of education. Now, he’s got an old social register in the parlor, and is proud to show guests the listing for one of his home’s former residents, and able to name not only them but also the hired help who lived on the fourth floor.
Thompson has consulted old newspaper records and can pinpoint when a wedding or a political or financial meeting took place in what is now his living room. He’s so conversant in the home’s history and construction, it’s surprising to learn he’s an art director and not an architect or historian.
But Thompson doesn’t see these ghosts of the past as inhibiting a 21st century life. Rather, he finds inspiration in all this history. “This space was where things happened,” he says of his living room. “So that makes it a fertile space for things in my life to happen.”
The first thing you notice, stepping across the home’s threshold, is the woodwork. The glorious panels on the wall, the graceful sweep of the banister.
These are those period details that make such homes so seductive a century after they were built. They just don’t make them like this anymore, because the labor is so specialized and so expensive.
The same is true for the refurbishment: The wood of the banister was stripped down, then shellacked and rubbed by hand eight layers over. Most renovators, mindful of the many checks they have to sign, will wonder what the point is.
Thompson, though, delights in details. He points out the interior hinge of the door that separates the living room from the foyer (one which he hastens to point out was salvaged from a nearby, nearly identical home).
This bit of metal is elaborately and beautifully engraved, despite being a wholly functional touch. The adornment is hidden when the doors are closed and likely unnoticed when they are open.
Here’s how Thompson explains it. “Florenz Ziegfeld insisted that his Ziegfeld girls have silk underwear to wear under their costumes. And the producer said, But nobody will see it. He said, No, but the girls will know, and they will see that.”
It’s hard to calculate the value of beauty; Thompson is articulate on the notion of art for its own sake, and mentions that great civic or public spaces of the past, like Grand Central Terminal, have an ennobling effect on the spirit. He’s motivated by a desire to achieve the same at home. “Walking into beautiful rooms, you just expand,” he says.
Of course, Thompson is not an historical reenactor. He’s chosen furnishings and flourishes that feel of a piece with the rooms, but these are the things he loves, the things he’s long been drawn to collect.
And he hasn’t slavishly decorated to re-create a single, arbitrarily chosen year in the home’s long history. That’s not how people actually live: “You buy new stuff. Taste changes. There will be layers of history in a house,” Thompson points out.
He respects the home’s original context, and the decor feels an extension of that respect. But he uses what was designed as a single-family residence for both himself and tenants, and Thompson has all the conveniences of modern life among all his carefully collected Victoriana. He’s achieved the spirit of the past, but not trapped himself there.
If the parlor floor rooms have a museum quality sheen, the lower level is more intimate, and more obviously contemporary. The bedroom, originally the dining room, is alive with a modern wallpaper similar to a William Morris design, and the former butler’s pantry has been repurposed as a dressing room and storage space.
The bath has all the comforts of our day, including radiant heating beneath the Victorian tile floor. The kitchen contains all the conveniences, though Thompson, who designed the space himself, has cleverly hidden each of them.
A visitor is more likely to notice the fact that the household’s everyday flatware is Gorham sterling silver from 1910 than that instead of a standing fridge, the room is fitted out with refrigerated drawers.
Yes, the Victorian vibe is decidedly old-fashioned, but Thompson’s philosophy is not. “I don’t want to live forever. I want to live well,” he says. “So that’s the point — to make every day a great day.”
[Photos by Michel Arnaud | Styling by Jane K. Creech]
Editor’s note: A version of this story appeared in the Fall/Winter 2017/18 issue of Brownstoner magazine. To inquire about advertising opportunities for the Spring 2018 issue, click here.
- Lilia Chef Missy Robbins Shares a Winter Salad Recipe
- A Boerum Hill House Proves a Good Luck Charm for “Talk Stoop” Host Cat Greenleaf and Family
- Pattern Play: Creative Family of Four Makes Warm and Colorful Home in Central Brooklyn