The Insider: Architectural Ingenuity Abounds in Red Hook Row House Reno


This month marks Brownstoner’s Steel Anniversary. We’re taking some time to look back at our past, even as we design a new future.

A sunken living room with a fireplace. A bathtub with a view. A secret garden. Balconies and roof decks. Even a 40-foot-tall fluorescent light installation running from basement to roof.

In designing his home in Red Hook, a circa-1900 brick row house on a cobbled street one block from the water, and carrying out a near-total renovation of what was little more than a shell, Thomas Warnke put in pretty much everything he ever wanted.

“My driving force was to create or build things I always admired,” said Warnke, who came to the U.S. in 1999 with an architecture degree from Germany, got an M.Arch. from Parsons, and worked at Leroy Street Studio before opening his own practice in 2007. “I didn’t think about resale at all, but just about what I personally like and what the location and existing condition asked for.”

This is the second house Warnke has overhauled in Red Hook; he sold the first and bought this one three years ago. Saving only the party walls and floor joists, he organized the space around a central stair.

“It was important to make the building feel as open and spacious as possible, because the footprint is pretty small [16.5 feet wide by 34 feet deep],” Warnke said. “With a stair in the middle, the front and back of every floor have the full width of the building, and you minimize space dedicated to circulation.”

Warnke’s materials palette, especially the extensive use of steel in the custom staircase and new steel-framed windows by Williamsburg-based Advanced Steel Fabrication, is a response to the industrial character of the neighborhood, he said. “It will be nice to see the materials age over time.”

The contractor was Kowal Construction Corp. of Ridgewood, Queens; structural engineering by A Degree of Freedom.

Red Hook Brooklyn -- Row House Gut Renovation

The section view shows key elements of Warnke’s ingenious design, including the central stair, sunken living room, rear balconies off each floor, planting spaces on the roof and “secret garden” of 15 birch trees at the end of the long garden, beyond a wood deck used for outdoor cooking and dining. The turquoise strip at ground level near the house is a reflecting pool.

Red Hook Brooklyn -- Row House Gut Renovation

Red Hook Brooklyn -- Row House Gut Renovation

The three windows on the second floor, where Warnke’s office is located, are tilt-and-turn; the room is also illuminated by a skylight. The building’s remaining windows are fixed plates of 1-inch-thick insulated glass in custom steel frames.

Red Hook Brooklyn -- Row House Gut Renovation

Warnke was going for a “tropical vacation feel” in the sunken living room, where 1-inch-by-2-inch pine battens cover the ceiling and fireplace wall — hence the banana-leaf wallpaper.

Red Hook Brooklyn -- Row House Gut Renovation

Warnke devised the long string of fluorescent lights illuminating the central staircase as a tribute to lighting artist Dan Flavin. The staircase itself is made of structural steel so strong no stringers are necessary; the rail itself supports the treads. The openness of the staircase design and the perforated steel, more commonly used for industrial walkways, aids the flow of natural light through the building.

Red Hook Brooklyn -- Row House Gut Renovation

Warnke liked the kitchen he’d designed for his previous home so much that he reproduced it here. The cabinets are IKEA, with horizontal stainless pulls added, the countertop Corian. Appliances came from BIG Reuse in Gowanus, a nonprofit retail outlet for salvaged and surplus building materials.

Red Hook Brooklyn -- Row House Gut Renovation

The balcony off the second floor, adjacent to the kitchen, is used for dining in season.

Red Hook Brooklyn -- Row House Gut Renovation

Red Hook Brooklyn -- Row House Gut Renovation

There are powder rooms on each floor and a shower in the guest bedroom on garden level. The tub (with water view!) is found in the master bedroom on the top floor, sunken into the floor; the ceiling was dropped in a portion of the kitchen below to accommodate it.

Warnke created a rolling platform to cover the tub when not in use. Hardware and plumbing fixtures came from Stellar Hardware and Bath in Greenpoint, the shower enclosure from Wyatt Manufacturing.

Red Hook Brooklyn -- Row House Gut Renovation

There are roof decks at both front and back of the building. The front has a skyline view, the rear overlooks the harbor.

Red Hook Brooklyn -- Row House Gut RenovationRed Hook Brooklyn -- Row House Gut Renovation

One of the first things Warnke did when he bought the house was plant bamboo as screening. He wasn’t able to increase the building’s footprint, he said, but the NYC Department of Buildings allowed him to add what he calls balconies on the parlor level and the floor above. “They are designed as transitional spaces between inside and out.”

[Photos: Karl-Heinz Krauskopf and Thomas Warnke]

The Insider is Brownstoner’s in-depth look at a notable interior design/renovation project, by design journalist Cara Greenberg. The stories are original to Brownstoner; the photos may have been published before. Got a project to propose for The Insider? Please contact Cara at caramia447 at gmail dot com.

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