Brooklyn Home Keeps its Historic Bones While Getting a Much Needed Interior Update
If it’s not the raw brick siding, it’s the house numbers—a sleek neon "175" in sans serif font—that give it away. The miniature, functional art piece is the work of Jill Magid, a conceptual artist. She and her husband, advertising executive Jonny Bauer, finished a head-to-toe remodel of their row house in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn in mid-2013, and those neon house numbers act as a modern beacon on an otherwise unremarkable street.
The couple bought the home—located at the end of a row of three matching turn-of-the-century workers’ homes—in June of 2011, then hired local firm Noroof Architects for the renovation. The five-month permitting process was the first stumbling block; during inspections with their architects, engineers, contractors, and city officials, they learned that the light remodel they had anticipated was turning into a major gut job. "But we were so determined to keep the shell," says Bauer.
To start, the circa-1899 house had no real foundation: It was situated on sand. The structure was so unsound that the contractor wanted to take down the street-facing facade, but Magid and Bauer put their collective foot down. Houses on the street all had brick fronts until the 1970s, when local contracting companies started selling vinyl siding—now the dominant facade material in Greenpoint.
The original brick front tied the structure to its historical fabric, a main selling point for the couple. In order to shore up the exterior, the architects had to painstakingly add a poured-concrete load-bearing wall into the brick shell. Noroof partner Scott Oliver says, "We took the studs off inside of the brick. Every four feet, we had to pour concrete, let it set, and pour a little more."
The city also recommended covering the original ceiling beams on the first floor, which Magid and Bauer wanted to expose. The beams were "the only thing I fell on my sword for," says Bauer. After some investigating, Noroof found a fireproofing paint for steel that is also made for wood, but only in one color—white. "I had to write to the city to get special permission to use it," Noroof partner Margarita McGrath says. Both architect and client agree the trouble was worth it: "We were all really worried about it looking like a condo."
Several updated touches define the first-floor living space. To make sure it didn’t look too new, the homeowners chose reclaimed wood: Elm for the window seat was handpicked by their older son, Linus, from a tree farm outside of Hudson, New York; the ash flooring was reclaimed from a demolished church in Ohio. Noroof designed a canted window, set into the thick, property-line-adjacent party wall, which they call the "Breuer window" for its resemblance to the iconic fenestration of the Whitney Museum.
They used a matching blackened steel for the custom staircase, which, though open between the risers and along the sides, hews to the city’s mandated maximum gap of four-and-a-half inches. The decoration is kept spare: Patterned Moroccan concrete tiles delineate the entry area, and seamless built-in storage by the front door jamb keeps detritus in check. ("We’re very messy people, and we need as much stuff to be stowed away as possible," Bauer says.)
Because of the extensive structural work required in the renovation, material decisions were not taken lightly. Magid and Bauer invested most of their funds in the reclaimed flooring and a few pieces of custom woodwork in the kitchen that surround off-the-rack Ikea cabinetry. They also splurged on an outdoor barbecue by Tec that the family regularly uses to cook, even in the winter. "Being Australian, this is most important to me," Bauer explains. "We cook 70 percent of our meals here." Economical choices include James Hardie cement-panel lap siding for the back facade, simple Decorators White paint by Benjamin Moore, and concrete masonry unit walls and a concrete floor slab for the first-floor rear extension.
Despite well-laid plans once the construction got underway, the layout changed when the family learned that Linus would be getting a younger sibling. The family had Noroof reconfigure the upstairs so that the master bedroom, initially slated for the front of the house, moved to the rear extension, next to a shared bathroom. Baby Banks, now a year old, occupies a petite chamber carved out on top of the stairwell—complete with a window onto the upstairs landing and a built-in changing table—next to his older brother’s room. Linus resides in the "quietest room in the house," which is outfitted with a bunk bed by Oeuf, nautical wallpaper, custom floor-to-ceiling built-in storage, and a rocket-ship mobile scored on a trip to Mexico City.
In the year since its completion, the neighbors have taken to the reconstructed home. "Some of the old houses have been demolished, so people have thanked us for saving ours," says Bauer. "They bring us cheesecake once a week. Our son walks their dog. It’s pretty safe, and it’s a real neighborhood." Judging from the number of passersby ringing the doorbell to catch a glimpse of the makeover, the new-old house is a welcome addition indeed.