On one small street in Tribeca, where this three-story house stands, it still looks something like the 19th century.
But the changes this home has seen since it was constructed in 1828 are mind-boggling. When it was built the Revolutionary War had happened a mere 45 years before, and the Hudson River was just across the street (today, infill puts the water a couple of blocks away). A genteel family lived there initially, until the area became an wholesale produce market and the house was transformed into a spot where eggs and poultry were sold. In the 1960s the market moved, and vast swaths of homes in the neighborhood were demolished to make way for new development.
City agencies such as the Landmark Preservation Commission stepped in and rescued this Federal-style home and eight others like it. “The homes were given individual landmark status,” says architect Susan Yun of Yun Architecture. “Their scale and profile did not exist anywhere else in Manhattan.”
The homes were given a cursory, modern remodel and put up for sale. An artist and his wife purchased this home and lived there for nearly 40 years. When it came up on the market again it had not changed since the 1970s, and time had taken its toll.
That’s when a new couple (a pair of artists) stepped in, and the home was reborn yet again.
“We loved the history of the house,” says one of the owners. “But the unusual thing about it was that, while it was largely unchanged on the outside, on the inside there was nothing original left. In a way, we had to invent the history for the interior.”
They hired Yun and Penelope August (who worked as the interior designer on the project) to make it happen. Together, they decided that the new interior wouldn’t be a recreation of what might have been or a modern take on traditional interiors (think the pervasive “farmhouse style” that’s swept America).
Instead, they imagined a layered look that a home evolving over many years might possess. “We wanted to do something totally new that would match the house without seeming artificial,” the owner says. “We used as many old, recycled materials as possible and also modern elements. It looks like layers of history, as if the house progressed over time.”
The architect meticulously restored parts of the brick exterior (the outside is landmarked, the interior is not), adding new, energy-efficient wooden windows that match the old and recreating a porch with ironwork railings that are inspired by the neighboring buildings, but crafted with modern, code-compliant materials. Even if they found their former neighborhood confounding, the original family would likely recognize their old home.
Inside, the architect began the stratified strategy with background materials that appear historic, such as plaster crown molding, wide-plank salvaged wood floors, and handrails and balusters that are new, but have classic lines. The owner—a consummate eBay shopper—found all of the door knobs and some of the light fixtures in the house. Working with August, she also purchased antique and vintage sinks, bathtubs, wallpaper, and doors.
The new elements include sleek limestone fireplace mantels and surrounds (all four wood-burning fireplaces in the home were reactivated), a generous kitchen with colorful terrazzo countertops, and a Jean Prouvé-inspired built-in designed by August.
An architectural move makes way for the new kitchen. “The stairs were stacked at the back of the house,” says Yun. “On the first floor, we moved the stair to the center of the house. This allowed for a good-size kitchen that has a connection to the outside.”
The kitchen cabinets have a traditional form—think Shaker-style, paneled door fronts; olive knuckle hinges; and classic knobs and pulls. But the colors and materials make it fresh; those cabinets are painted a purple-gray color and the cabinet handles are made of glass.
Along those same old-new lines, the range is from Lacanche, a French company that traces its roots back to a 1796 ironworks foundry. But this appliance is crafted in a happy yellow hue.
The countertop is a thoroughly modern terrazzo that contains a rainbow of polished glass chips that come from recycled bottles. “We got to select the colors,” says the owner. “It was really fun.”
It’s interesting to contrast the modern kitchen with classic notes to the more period study upstairs. “I wanted one room in the house to look more traditional,” the owner says.
The vintage wallpaper in the study sets the tone for the space. “Originally, we had talked about using a lot more wallpaper in the house,” August says. “But finding enough vintage paper for many rooms is difficult, and so is moving art. In the end, we decided to make this the wallpapered room, and—even though it was fragile—we managed to find enough rolls of this wall covering to make it work.”
In this space, the mantel and surround is wood, not limestone. “We sorted through many, many options in an antique shop before finding the perfect one,” says August. “Unfortunately, someone robbed the restoration studio where we had taken it to have the paint stripped and took it. It was never recovered, but we had taken a lot of photos of it and had it recreated from those.”
Modern art and furniture keep the room from having a house museum quality. “The clients have very eclectic tastes,” says August. “Eclectic interiors fit them and allow them to display their wide-ranging collections and pieces.”
Nowhere is that eclectic spirit on display more than the powder room. Like the majority of its species, this one is small. And, in many respects, it’s simple—there’s an electric blue hex tile on the floor and a vintage white pedestal sink. But the sconces, which are globes with giant eyes on either side of the sink, elevate the space to an artistic level. “I bought these on eBay,” the owner says. “They were part of a lamp that was once in an optometrist’s shop. We weren’t sure what to do with them at first, but thought they looked cool here.”
As any architect or designer will attest, working with vintage materials not original to a house takes a special kind of patience—repairs often need to be made and standard measurements usually don’t apply, so size adjustments are necessary. But in this house, patience paid off, as the concept adds a lot to the final result. “It’s extra work, certainly, but we were all game for anything,” says August. “It’s really worth it for this project. The house has a custom look that really fits.”
The owners brought that game-for-anything attitude to the task of remodeling a landmarked building that comes with extra restrictions designed to preserve pieces of the past. “For us, it was a pleasure,” says the owner. “We care about the history of New York City—and it feels good to be a caretaker of a small part of it.”