For the first time in its three-decade history, This Old House TV is taking on a renovation in New York City, home to one of the greatest collections of residential architecture in the country. The project is the conversion of a 104-year-old rowhouse in the Brooklyn’s historic Prospect Heights neighborhood—from a nine-room boarding house to a three-family home for owners Karen Shen, Kevin Costello, and their three young sons.
The three-story brownstone was designed in the Renaissance Revival style by architect Axel Hedman, whose fanciful rowhouses are among the borough’s most cherished. (The house is included in a proposed Prospect Heights Historic District, which is currently under consideration for designation by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission.) Many Hedman interiors have lost their best details in gut renovations over the years, but Karen and Kevin’s house has managed to retain most of its original character. Oak and bird’s-eye maple wainscoting line the stairway, Italianate archways embellish doorways, classical columns punctuate the rooms, and massive crown molding and floor-to-ceiling cabinetry bring depth and drama to every corner. “Those details are the reason we fell so hard for this house in the first place,” says Karen, who is determined to keep the house’s original character intact while updating it for modern family life.
The plan is to patch and paint the house’s exterior brownstone and perform a preservation-minded restoration of its cavernous interior. Karen, Kevin, and family will reside on the house’s first and second stories, as well as part of the garden level, which will include the main entrance, a spare bedroom, and a mudroom to the backyard. The rest of the garden unit will become a rental apartment, as will the third floor, though the couple hopes to reclaim what will be that floor’s two-bedroom unit in about five years, when each of the kids will likely demand his own bedroom.
The plan also calls for removing the numerous boarding-house washrooms retrofitted into closet space years ago and transforming a first-floor back parlor into a modern-day kitchen. In the end, the house will have three kitchens and four bathrooms.
The TOH team, working with architect Susanne Lyn and general contractor Michael Streaman, will take every precaution to restore the home’s original millwork and find period-appropriate replicas and replacements for what’s been lost over the years. The crew plans to install new oak floors—the house’s original parquet floors were torn out years ago—and energy-efficient one-over-one wood windows, which are more in keeping with the house’s originals than the drafty 20-year-old aluminum ones on the house now.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Lyn will be adding a salvaged wrought-iron spiral staircase, purchased by Kevin and Karen on Brownstoner.com, that will connect the first floor to the second within the family’s apartment. Lyn says the easy solution would be installing it in the rear rooms of the house, but the couple won’t allow it because it would mean tearing out a Victorian-era dressing room that’s packed with maple cabinetry. “They’re not going to sacrifice that,” says Lyn. “No way, no how.”
Listen to the TOH crew discuss the NYC Project on the nationally syndicated home improvement radio show The Money Pit:
Or read the transcripts: