An untouched five-story brownstone that had been owned by the same family for a century provided a blank canvas for CWB Architects, one of Brooklyn’s busiest specialists in high-end townhouse renovation. The 1870s structure was in dire shape when the new homeowners undertook a two-year project to convert the house, which had been chopped up into apartments, to a single-family dwelling for themselves and their two young sons.

“Nearly half the floor structure was cracked,” said Brendan Coburn of CWB. “The only things we kept were the front wall and two side walls.” The back wall and all the interior framing are new.

It was an opportunity to rethink the house from, as it were, the ground up. The 20-foot-wide building “is gigantic for a family of four,” Coburn said, “and that made figuring out how to arrange the program a bit tricky.”


The Insider, Brownstoner’s weekly in-depth look at renovation and interior design, is written and produced by design journalist/blogger Cara Greenberg. Find it here every Thursday at 11:30AM.

WHAT DO YOU DO with an empty 60’x100′ lot? If you’re a construction manager for a real-estate company, you put two buildings on it: a 3,800-square-foot house for your family to live in, and right next door, a building with three rental apartments to help pay for it.

The homeowner called DUMBO-based CWB Architects to come up with a design concept. “The big idea was to create an inner courtyard,” says Brendan Coburn, a principal in the firm. This was accomplished with a more or less F-shaped design. The owners’ house is on the left, with its front entry set back and a translucent garage door. Unseen from the street: a double-height living room with a wall of glass and an open staircase, and a roof deck with an expansive view toward New York Harbor. The apartment building on the right has windows to match, so the buildings appear a cohesive unit.

Coburn is a huge fan of row house architecture (CWB recently designed three contiguous soon-to-be-built row houses in Cobble Hill). “They’re pretty close to an ideal form of human habitation,” he says. “Their energy efficiency is extraordinary, the scale is manageable and pleasant, they’re easy and relatively quick to build, and they last a long time.” He recalls a grad school professor talking about four necessary types of space: public, private, natural, and visual. “Brownstone Brooklyn is that. You have community space on the parlor and garden floors, and everybody has their own space upstairs as well. Then there’s the garden, or natural space, and the wonderful visual connection to it. It can be very good for one’s soul.”

Photos: Rachel Stollar

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The Insider, Brownstoner’s weekly look at how Brooklynites are renovating and decorating their homes, appears here every Thursday at 11:30AM. It is written and produced by Cara Greenberg, a design journalist who blogs at casaCARA: Old Houses for Fun and Profit.

The classic Greek Revival townhouse was in need of a major overhaul when Brendan Coburn of CWB Architects came on the scene. “The brick was good,” he recalls. “Whoever the mason was in the 1840s knew what he was doing.” But the rest of the house was “sagging all over the place,” with wood and plaster detail in sorry shape, and an addition at the back that was literally falling down.

The homeowners, a couple with young children, wanted to fully restore the building, keeping its original one-family configuration. This was accomplished with the help of Pilaster, Inc., a Bronx-based general contracting and millwork company. Among the major aspects of the job: excavating three feet from the low-ceilinged cellar to accommodate fitness equipment and storage, and rebuilding the entire floor structure with LVL (laminated wood lumber), an engineered joist made of recycled wood. Then came new baths and kitchen, a rebuilt extension, new windows and French doors, and “tons of millwork and cabinetry.” Original wood detail was copied and replaced, plaster moldings re-cast. “There is not a single compromise in that house,” Coburn says.

The risk-taking decor by Brooklyn-based interior designer Jennifer Eisenstadt might be called ‘bold traditional.’ Taken individually, she says, “Most pieces are fairly traditional. It’s the combination that makes it interesting.” Like Coburn, who often works in a modern mode, Eisenstadt is versatile; she doesn’t have a specific style. “I try to give clients the best of what they’re looking for,” she says, “and help articulate their tastes and visions in cohesive ways.”

Top: A laundry room and butler’s pantry for outdoor entertaining are located in an extension at the back of the house.

Photos copyright Francis Dzikowski/

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