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In a Tiny Gramercy Duplex, Carpentry Skills Pay Off

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Welcome to House Calls, a recurring feature in which Curbed tours New Yorkers' lovely, offbeat, or otherwise awesome homes. Think your space should be featured next? Drop us a line.

[Photos by Max Touhey]

When Maura Newman first saw the one-bedroom Gramercy duplex where she now lives with her fiance Julien LoPresti and dog Reptar, she almost walked away. The kitchen had no counter space, the bedroom had a tile floor, and only a metal railing separated the living room from the stairs. "It was pretty abysmal at first," admits LoPresti, "But I said to her, 'You have to trust me on this one.'" Carpentry skills run in LoPresti's family, and he immediately saw the apartment's potential.

Within three months of moving in, the apartment looked completely different. Now the roughly 475-square-foot space features a large kitchen island with bar stools, a fully carpeted bedroom floor, and a sturdy half wall between the living space and the stairs—not to mention Alexa lighting, a new bathroom vanity, refinished kitchen cabinets, and a faux fireplace.

See more tiny apartments:
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Epic Apartment Search Ends With 200 Square Feet in Chelsea
Inside a Transforming 225-Square-Foot East Village Studio
A New York Newcomer Embraces Downsizing to a Sunny Studio

Most renters aren't so willing to put in the time and effort to renovate their apartments, but with a rent well below the neighborhood average, LoPresti and Newman knew they'd be staying put for awhile. Plus, as Newman says, LoPresti "likes to tinker," so taking on this type of project was a pleasure, not a pain. LoPresti's grandfather was a master carpenter who taught his son his ways, who then passed the knowledge on to his own son.

Nearly all of the work was done by LoPresti, and all of the major additions easily pop out in case the landlord or future tenant don't want them. But the building super and management company, Superior Management, have been more than willing to help them out with renovations, so it's unlikely that the improvements will be removed.

In the living room, LoPresti built a tile-topped half wall over the original metal railing. Not only does it stop things from falling down the stairs, but it's wide enough to hold a few items and sturdy enough for someone to lean on. The gallery wall features art from the couple's travels, along with sentimental tokens and family photos.

LoPresti and Newman moved from a much roomier apartment in Hoboken, and their "suburban" living room set was way too large for this small space. Only the sofa and ottoman made the move. The fireplace is a complete fabrication; since that wall looks like a space where a chimney was bricked over, LoPresti got creative.

The fireplace—more like a glorified candle holder—is made of fake copper panels mounted on a wax board. It's attached to the wall with only two screws so it can be easily removed.

A focal point of the living room is a functioning 1922 Philco radio that LoPresti refurbished.

The biggest changes came in the kitchen, where LoPresti built a large counter that's about 3-feet deep and wide enough for two bar stools. He cut the pieces at his parent's house in New Jersey, and the tiles came from his dad. It's Newman's favorite part of the apartment. "I love all the counter space," she says. "When we moved in, you couldn't do anything, couldn't even make a salad."

LoPresti also refinished the kitchen cabinets, attached new hardware, installed under cabinet lighting, and put up a backsplash. Like the fireplace, the backsplash isn't what it seems; it's made of 3M tiles stuck to a board.

He also extended the cabinetry along the side of the refrigerator for a more cohesive look. Baskets on top of the cabinets provide extra storage, but surprisingly, the apartment has a lot of built in storage, include a crawl space and pantry in the kitchen.

There's more storage under the counter on the way down the stairs. LoPresti also built the radiator cover.

The lower level is the bedroom, where the previous tile floor has been covered with a wall-to-wall light brown shag carpet that came from a store in the neighborhood. "I went in and I said, 'I don't have any money. What is the cheapest carpet that you have?'" says LoPresti. "And it was this."

Being that the bedroom is at garden level, it doesn't get much sunlight, but they like that it feels like a "little hideaway" within the city.

This lower level also has a half bathroom, which is extremely rare for one-bedroom rentals.

The bedroom has two closets, the bigger of which is under the stairs. LoPresti ripped out a previous shelf to create more space, and Newman hangs her clothes on shelf brackets for added storage.

In the full bathroom, LoPresi worked with building management to instal a new vanity and mirror. Previously, there was only a small mirror to the side, not above the sink.

They also installed track lighting and an electric shower head that tells you the temperature of the water.

While LoPresti does the heavy lifting on the renovations, Newman takes care of the decor. All of the wall hangings have sentimental value.

This Smith & Wesson snub nose revolver belonged to LoPresti's grandfather (not the carpenter) who worked as a traveling salesman. Since they carried so much cash, all salesmen carried guns, but LoPresti says his grandfather could never bring himself to carry real bullets, only rubber ones.

There's another decorative weapon about the kitchen cabinets. It's a machete that LoPresti's friend brought back for him from Nairobi. "It's up there so no one can access it, no matter how drunk they are."

After living in a fourth floor walk-up, they are happy to be on the first floor, but to help keep the living space private, they installed a custom window box.

But of course, the space is not perfect. There is no door between the living space and the bedroom, so privacy is lacking, and it's not a big enough place in which to start a family or host large parties (though they have fit 10 people upstairs). When the time to move does come, it's sure to be bittersweet. "I dread having to leave all the work we've done," says LoPresti.
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