A Historic Rowhouse Wreck Ready for Renters

Looking for a “bring your architect” wreck, Jerry and Janet fell for a brownstone with a stately presence and a virtually unsalvageable interior. This is the story of a once-glorious before with a stunning after, more than a year in the making. Read on down to see how this couple honored the building’s original architecture and also made room for modern conveniences and an almost-all-IKEA kitchen!

Guest post by Jerry, Crown Heights homeowner

Historic brownstone, close to trains, and a (relatively) affordable neighborhood. These were our criteria when we selected Crown Heights as our new home. A few years ago, we had moved out of the city to Long Island, but immediately missed our friends and the shorter commute. Janet, who runs New York School of Design, a fashion design school, wanted to have input on the layout and fittings of our new home. So we decided to limit our search to townhouses that needed a gut renovation. We only looked at listings which included the term “bring your architect” – you know the type. After many open houses and a fierce bidding war, we were given the keys to a four family brownstone that “had good bones” but needed a little TLC. During our initial walk-through as new homeowners, it suddenly hit us – the prospect of such a big renovation was really daunting! We used Sweeten to find our architects, Sweeten Experts Steven, Jonathan, and Anya, and to narrow down our choices for a general contractor. Sweeten suggested three different contractors who each made proposals and we chose Sweeten Expert Voytek. Together, we got started…

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The goal of our townhouse renovation was to create the perfect mix of old and new. We loved the architecture from the pre-war time period and wanted to preserve as much of the original detail as possible. During this process, we worked with our architect to think of ways to match the original detail with newer materials. We wanted to rethink the apartment layouts and convert the two-bedroom units to large one-bedrooms. In addition to updating the kitchens and baths, we hoped that an open layout would feel brighter and more spacious. Due to budget and timing, we decided to renovate the four apartments in two phases. At the time of this blog post, two apartments are finished. We are currently living in one of them and preparing to rent it out after the other units are complete.

During the demo phase, a lot of time was spent assessing what could be restored and what needed to go. The contractor tried to salvage the original ceiling medallions, but they crumbled once the nearby popcorn ceilings were removed. In the kitchen, it was a pleasant surprise when we found excellent condition hardwood floor underneath the linoleum. We were elated when we discovered that the stairways were in great condition and could be refinished (apparently, new stairs are very expensive). It was a rough day when we found out that the main supporting beam for the building (wooden and over 100 years old) needed to be replaced with a steel beam – a big unforeseen expense. But we were thankful that the general contractor was meticulous and didn’t take any shortcuts in safety.

After demo, we then installed new electrical, plumbing, and gas heating. Next came framing of the walls to create the new floor plan. The layout is what really makes the apartment special. We joined the living room and an adjacent closet so that the entire area is larger. This created a small alcove, which is a quiet sitting area bathed in natural light. The living room then flows into the kitchen and dining area. Eight-foot french doors separate the kitchen from the bedroom. The french doors, even when closed, allow more light to flow into the apartment. The bedroom is large enough for a king-size bed. We kept the existing wall between the kitchen and bedroom, but changed the old kitchen into a dressing room. The dressing room is Janet’s favorite room. It has a huge closet, room for seating, and a full-sized LG washer and dryer.  The bathroom has two entrances – one from the kitchen/dining area and a pocket door from the dressing room. The window mouldings and crowns are all original. We decided to paint them black to contrast with the lighter wall colors. All the doors are original and were reconditioned and adjusted to fit properly. We chose egg-shaped door knobs from Omnia. Picture rail mouldings and new ceiling medallions were added. In the hallways, we restored the original wainscoting and created new panels to fill in missing or damaged areas.

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The kitchen was very important to us. We like to cook, so we really wanted extra counter space and built-in butcher block. Gray-toned IKEA cabinetry and shelving was arranged to maximize storage space, and we incorporated mixed-material IKEA countertops, as well as a sink, fridge, and dishwasher — all from IKEA. We chose a counter-depth Bosch refrigerator, which fit perfectly into the space. A backsplash with Mutina Tex tile brings it all together.

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The bathroom was also designed to mix old and new. We chose a Duravit sink and toilet that would go well with the traditional fixtures. The sink faucet and shower head were from Kohler. For added towel storage, we installed a Lugarno Train Rack. We chose to use elongated tiles, a twist on the traditional subway tiles. For the bathroom floor, the matte texture of the Seta Nera hexagon tiles feels amazing on bare feet! For lighting, we used Alabax Large from Schoolhouse Electric & Supply Company.

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The building exterior also underwent a facelift. We first removed the 1970s era screen door and awning. The exterior cornice was repainted black, allowing its architectural detail to shine. We chose Velvet Plum for the main exterior color. We splurged and replaced the front door with historically-accurate mahogany double doors. While this was not cheap, it’s one of our favorite things about the building.

All this sounds like a lot of work and it truly was. During the build-out phase, we had weekly walk-throughs with our architect and contractor. I realized that this was very important and insured that the project progressed smoothly. Even though there were detailed architectural plans and specifications, there were often unforeseen circumstances that would require a quick decision. These meetings and open communication with the contractor helped avoid delays and insured that the build-out was to our liking. Because we watched as things were being done, we often gave last-minute input and even changed our minds about things a few times.

For those of you out there who are planning to do a similar project, I highly recommend that you be involved. I know it’s tempting to think, “Hey, I’m paying these people A LOT to do this for me and I just want to see the final result.” That’s understandable. But, although it’s time-consuming and a bit of a pain, I guarantee that you’ll get a better end result if you are involved in the process like we were. In addition, your choice of general contractor is extremely important. Since this was our first renovation, we had a put a lot of trust in our team. We feel really fortunate that our contractor was honest and didn’t try to nickel and dime us on every little thing.

Looking back, we really didn’t know what we were getting into with such a big project (we blame cable TV renovation shows for misleading us). But, fortunately, with guidance from our architect and general contractor, the process ended up to be very positive. We absolutely love our new home!

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Exterior selects >> facade paint: Velvet Plum by Benjamin Moore

Kitchen and living area selects >> cabinets: IKEA /  counters: IKEA / oven range: IKEA / sink: IKEA / fridge: Bosch / tile backsplash: Mutina Tex / paint: Balboa Mist and Classic Gray by Benjamin Moore /  trim and molding paint: Universal Black by Benjamin Moore

Bathroom selects >> floors: Seta Nera Hexagon / sink: Duravit / faucet: Kohler / shower fixtures: Kohler / toilet: Duravit / wall racks: Lugarno Train Rack from Restoration Hardware  / lighting: Schoolhouse Electric / paint: Intense White by Benjamin Moore

Misc. selects >> doorknobs: Omnia / washer/dryer: LG

Check out Jerry and Janet’s Crown Heights townhouse renovation on NBC’s Open House!

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, scope, and style. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.