[All photographs by Max Touhey, unless otherwise noted.]
Peter and Elsje Brandt moved to the Upper West Side in 2012 after leaving their classic six loft in the Flatiron District, where the couple had lived since 1982. "All the photographers were there, and the models. The building used to be all artists who needed space to work," Elsje recalls of the Flatiron building where she and Peter raised their family, and grew a photography practice. But then the bankers and hedge funders started moving into the building, Elsje says, and it lost the sense of communityartistic or otherwisethat she once knew it to have. The Brandts found a similar sense of belonging in the West 108th Street building they now call home. "It's like Greenwich Village in the 1980s," Elsje says, "This building still has a lot of academics, creatives, opera singers. There's a real community here."
The Brandts not only moved north in search of a familiar community, but also in search of their next project. The duo are serial property fixersby Elsje's count, she and Peter have restored seven properties both within the city and outside of it over the last few decadesand their West 108th Street one-bedroom is of no exception. They purchased it in 2012 after a major pricechop and a leap of good faith. The apartment's former owner, a composer, had held the property for the last 30 years. When the Brandt's first saw the apartment, the mattress was in the living room and the kitchen was hardly that, but their knack for identifying fine detailsPeter is a photographer of architecture by trade, after allconvinced them it was worth saving.
The Beaux Arts building was constructed in 1909 as a home for the upper-middle class at a time when the neighborhood was going through great transition. The subway stop at 116th Street and Broadway opened in 1904 on New Year's Day, with Columbia University quick to follow, moving its campus from Midtown to Morningside Heights all while the glorious Cathedral of St. John the Divine rose a few blocks away. The rental building's apartments of grand proportions were chopped into smaller, more numerous apartments in the 1970s that would generate additional rent. The Brandt's one-bedroom wasn't spared, and to this day is missing the apartment's original kitchen and dining room to the neighboring unit. The room that now holds the apartment's kitchen was originally a bedroom.
[The Brandts had their work cut out for them when they moved into the apartment. Photograph courtesy of Peter Brandt.]
The Brandts know how to get their hands dirty with a renovation project. Together, and with the help of specialists for the big things, the Brandts brought the corner apartment back to (at least some of) its original glory. The apartment's soaring, solid mahogany doors glow once more, striped of decades of paint. The mirrors inside them are original and imperfect in a charming way that belies their age.
In their years fixing properties, the Brandts have learned a trick or two. They remade some of the apartment's missing moldings and transoms with materials discarded on the street that match its existing details nearly seamlessly. In the living room, they faked a prewar-era mahogany border by staining a plank darker than the rest. The Brandt's stripped the apartment's mantel, still the original, down to its base. "We like the Restoration Hardware look," Elsje says. The tiles that surround the fireplace are mostly original, save for the few they had to replace with subway tiles they treated themselves to match. The Brandt's are so familiar with rehabbing properties that they're working on a book about their experiences. It's tentatively titled Seek, Renovate, and Succeed.