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An airy Harlem brownstone keeps things playful yet practical

And a family embraces change

The hunt for a new home is often a quest for permanence and solidity. But for Cate Baker, her husband Will, and their three children, who live in a century-old Harlem townhouse, home is all about embracing movement—hustle, bustle, and the joyful chaos of their domestic life.

Baker admits that the family is a bit unconventional when it comes to its concept of home. “We’re probably odd in that we really like moving,” she says. “We embrace change.” But, as their work doesn’t suit a truly nomadic lifestyle (Cate and Will are both psychoanalysts), the couple has instead fueled its wanderlust with long stretches living in Maine, where Cate is from, and a stint in Philadelphia before returning to New York, where Will grew up.

Intricate detailing on the front facade of the Bakers’ Harlem townhouse, which dates to the early 20th century.
The new addition to the Bakers’ Harlem brownstone (by Opera Studio) features a second-level terrace and a staircase that leads down to an outdoor space created by landscape designer Evan Lai.

In both Maine and Philly, the family had taken on historic home renovations. After renting a few places in New York, they started looking for something of their own. This time, they wanted something playful and quirky, and Baker explains the couple was eager for something less steeped in tradition. “My mother had died that year, and a part of mourning her death was about being generative,” she says. “We channeled a lot of creativity into the house as a life-affirming project.”

When they happened upon a century-old Harlem townhouse in 2015, it had been all but stripped of its original architectural details, drawn and quartered into four one-story apartments. “Will, without fanfare, dismissed it,” Baker says.

But then, she adds, he kept returning to it, intrigued by the idea that they could shift their aesthetic towards something modern, freed from the obligation to preserve something historic. She was delighted by the house’s open spaces, windows, and light. And any aesthetic decisions would be all their own, as they would need to start from scratch.

Two pendant lights from Modern Underground, a vintage store in Waterville, Maine, hang in the kitchen. Paintings by Irish-born American artist Christopher O’Connor hang in a grid (at right).
Cate Baker’s office on the parlor floor. A midcentury desk sits at the window, and the celadon dropped ceiling was stitched and attached by Lore Decorators.
The exposed steel frame and white oak treads, balustrade, and screen. Sconces from Rich Brilliant Willing hug the wall in the stairwell.

They commissioned Opera Studio, led by Thomas Barry, to execute the renovation and create a two-story addition off the back of the house that meets the garden level and first floor. Throughout the process, Baker and her husband met with Barry and architect Nathan Minett weekly, sometimes daily, to do house visits. Of the challenges the team faced during the renovation, Barry says that the layout of a typical brownstone’s parlor floor can be a difficult one in which to fit everything that a modern homeowner wants. “It isn’t really big enough for the full living room, kitchen, and dining space that most people want on one floor,” Barry explains.

To achieve the industrial-chic look they were going for, the homeowners and the architects decided to keep the space open and its structural elements exposed, like the heating ducts and (now colorfully painted) sprinkler lines, as well as the addition’s steel framing.

One of the children’s rooms on the top floor of the townhouse, which Cate Baker says is the nicest room in the house. “He’s literally in the treetops.” The blue FL/Y pendant light is by Ferruccio Laviani for Kartell.
A view of the top floor, with a view of the colorful, exposed sprinkler system. An Onion Pendant by Verner Panton for Verpan hangs in the stairwell.

The team also stripped the existing dark-wood flooring to reveal white oak throughout the house. And, instead of trying to cram each main space into that tricky, compact parlor-floor layout, the design team decided to stack each one on top of the other: the living room and guest room on the garden level, Cate’s office and the kitchen-dining space on the parlor level, and bedrooms on the upper two levels. The central stairwell’s original dimensions and placement were kept intact, but the design team flipped it so that it is oriented toward the back garden, which, Barry says, opened up the spaces on the first floor.

The new staircase, with its exposed-steel frame and white-oak treads, echoes that openness, and new windows looking out onto the backyard let in lots of natural light. Mimicking the effect of the interior staircase, the exterior one creates a similar connection to all the main spaces, says Barry. It leads down from a terrace—a favorite of Cate’s—to a yard created by landscape designer Evan Lai.

When it came to decorating, light fixtures, and paint colors, the homeowners took the lead. According to Baker, the white walls, painted Benjamin Moore Simply White, provide a clean slate against which to bring in color with encaustic tiles, light fixtures, fabrics, and bold art.

Flavor Paper wallpaper covers a wall on the parlor floor. The coffee table is vintage, and the furnishings are ABC Carpet & Home.
A view down the central staircase, which features white oak treads and is screened by vertical slats of white oak.
The whole family enjoying the Evan Lai-designed backyard. “Thomas [the project’s lead architect] had the brilliant idea of cutting the cedar fence to fit around the large tree out back,” Baker says.

Of the larger furniture in the home, Baker says she sourced much of it from ABC Carpet & Home or Design Within Reach outlets in the city. Other odds and ends come from vintage or antique stores. “We only bought items we loved, regardless of where they might fit,” she says.

Art fills the home, all of it “original and meaningful in some way—either passed down to us from our parents’ excursions abroad or by Maine artists like Henry Isaacs, Corrinne Carbone, Christopher O’Connor, Keri Kimura, and Jennifer Judd-McGee,” says Baker.

Much of it has a good backstory, too. A large painting in the kitchen, for example, was scooped up with a uHaul from the Vermont studio of artist Henry Isaacs during a snowstorm and taken to their previous rental at 2 a.m., which made getting it into their apartment a bit of a disaster. And because it was so large, it sat without a wall to hang on for nearly a year.

The master bedroom (which includes an en-suite bathroom, at left) features a bed from Roche Bobois. The sconces and chandelier are from Flos.
While the couple did want natural light in the master bath’s shower stall, they were surprised when the glass arrived and it wasn’t frosted. They briefly thought to try and replace it, but ultimately left it as-is. The decorative tiles are from Waterworks. The white tiles are from Ann Sacks. The fixtures are from Kohler.

“Miraculously, it came to life when it had a real home to breathe in, a wall to call its own!” Baker exclaims. She further explains that the piece inspired the bold color scheme throughout the house—and even led them to the funky wallpaper from Flavor Paper that adorns entryways and the sitting room opposite the master bedroom.

Reflecting on the house’s openness, and the liveliness of its art, wallpaper, and furniture, Baker says that she wanted to get away from the idea of a “house as dead weight.” They don’t do clutter or hoard, and they let go of things when the time is right. Home, she explains, should be filled with deep meaning, but it need not be precious.

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