The Italianate Job
“This is going to sound totally sacrilegious,” says Keisha Martin, “but when I started looking at homes in Harlem, I didn’t love the architecture.” Martin, a 33-year-old Wall Street marketing executive, felt oppressed by, as she puts it, “the Victorian style—the ornate details and dark wood…especially being young.” A global traveler accustomed to good hotels with pampering amenities, and a devotee of modern materials and clean lines, Martin “wanted a place that worked for the way I live, not the house my grandmother grew up in.”
Yet it was to grandmother’s house—which had once been a few blocks away—that she was emotionally drawn. “I kind of liked the idea of being in Harlem,” says Martin, who grew up in upstate New York. “Lots of family members had lived here over the years, so it didn’t seem foreign to me.” And when her wish list, which included “natural light, outdoor space, a walk-in closet, and working fireplaces,” proved—big shock —hard to come by in an affordable Manhattan condo, Martin took a second look at the old neighborhood, notably a line of derelict, early-20th-century Italianate brownstones on West 118th Street. “Five years ago, the whole row was a wreck,” Martin says. “But I’d seen, over time, each of these homes being renovated, and I’d been looking long enough that I was prepared to start from scratch.” When one of the 3,200-square-foot, four-floor structures—which was, effectively, nothing but two façades sandwiching rubble—became available, she took the plunge.
Through her contractor, Martin found architects Laura Briggs and Jonathan Knowles six blocks away, where they were redesigning another townhouse that was in even worse shape than her own. It proved a fortuitous match: Both client and design team were interested in rethinking the relationship between the contemporary and historic. Martin wanted to reinvigorate the staid bourgeois townhouse of yesteryear by tweaking the program: Keeping the kitchen in the basement (where the servants once lived) and expanding it to include dining and hang-out zones; converting the classic parlor-floor dining area into a TV room; and using traditional materials such as penny tiles, typically found in old ves-tibules, in unexpected ways.
The architects’ inquiry was more methodological. “We’re interested in using intellectual frameworks that are offered throughout history,” Briggs explains. “It’s nice to dive back and forth between present and past.” As an example, she cites the visually light, angular stair—made from steel rather than the usual mahogany or oak—and the challenge of turning the banister so that the balusters didn’t appear off-kilter: To do so, the pair reached back to 18th-century France, for a system known as descriptive geometry, which facilitates the imagining and drawing of objects as they will appear in three dimensions. Thus, while Martin was interested in mixing old and new applications and styles, the architects were excited by the prospect of combining historic techniques with present-day innovations.
The resulting redesign suggests a young, forward-thinking individual in whom one can perceive not only the bone structure, but also the values of previous generations. The original, somewhat formal layout has been preserved nearly intact, with larger front and rear rooms linked by interstitial space, a plan enhanced by Martin’s passion for symmetry. “I’m very particular about that,” she says. “All of the bedrooms are the same size, and the 18-foot kitchen island downstairs is the same length as the [third -and fourth-floor] hallways.” Yet in terms of its design strategies, the house is utterly 21st century, most evidently in the architects’ exploitation of daylight via a delicate rooftop oculus. “The concept comes from a traditional brownstone skylight, but we wanted to make more of it,” Briggs explains. So she and Knowles created a series of large-scale light models, using them to develop an orientation that would receive the sun throughout the day. No less important is the shape —which Martin likens to a flower—with its angled fins that capture and reflect light, animating what might otherwise be a passive strategy.
Briggs and Knowles also placed translucent glass channels into the upstairs hallway floors, expanding the downward flow of sunshine beyond the stairwell, and set a long clerestory into the otherwise windowless master bath; at Martin’s suggestion, they replaced the rear brick façades of the parlor and garden floors with glass doors that permit unobstructed southern light and proper shading in the summer. And, in a sense, the sun never sets: The architects inserted fluorescent tubes into the oculus and hallway glass, replicating the daylight effect after hours, and used additional fixtures, tucked into channels, floors, and coves, to sculpt and enliven the interior volumes.
The sun’s transit also influenced the colors and mate-rials selected by Martin and her team. In the architects’ imaginations, the stair and adjacent spaces formed “a trunk of light,” says Briggs, one that, as in a forest, “gets darker as it moves downstairs—the kitchen, which is grounded in the garden, is really the darkest,” while the spaces off the “trunk,” notably the bedrooms, became the outer branches. Thus the interior is whitest at the top, beneath the oculus, and clad almost completely in bamboo way down in the kitchen; similarly, the top-floor guest bedrooms feature the strongest colors—salmon and gray—while Martin’s bedroom a floor below is sponge-painted a muted, almost leathery lavender. The exclusive use of bamboo throughout enhances the serene, natural environment, one in which the granite kitchen countertops, limestone fireplaces, and sandstone bath counters—each matte finished—function as textural accents.
But the house is anything but Crunchy Granola. A tour of the master bed and bathroom reveal the influence of many a luxury hotel: Along with the usual double sink, Martin specified separate shower and toilet cabinets, a tub fitted out with chromatherapy lights, and a breakfast bar with mini-fridge and sink (with the kitchen two floors below, it’s a long slog to the coffee pot). And she has one-upped the walk-in closet by giving her wardrobe a space that’s precisely the same size as the house’s bedrooms.
“What has surprised me the most is the openness of the place—it’s very welcoming and warm,” Martin observes. “I didn’t think we were going to achieve that, given that everything is modern.” This remains the design’s most impressive achievement: a resonant inter-play between the interior’s modern elegance and the old-world cordiality of the original—one that’s fostered a highly personal blend of past, present, and future. “When my family moved out of the neighborhood, they kind of got scattered about,” Martin says. “But now on holidays, we all gather here, and everyone reminisces about their childhood in Harlem. I don’t feel like I have a traditional house,” she adds. “But my house will enable me to carry on my family tradition.”