House Beautiful Feb '06, "Out of the Shadows"
pages 48-55 by Stephen Henderson
The single-family house is a rarity in Manhattan, and when one enters the real estate market, it doesn't stay there for long. Townhouses are at such a premium that even those that are nearly rotten to the core attract eager buyers.
Case in point was an 1893 brownstone on a quiet tree-lined block of Manhattan's Upper West Side. By 2002, floors throughout needed to be replaced and shored up with new structural beams; the massive outdoor stoop required rebuilding; as did an interior staircase winding five floors upwards. So woebegone was its condition, the brownstone had sunk to New York's lowest level of residence, an S.R.O. (single room occupancy) hotel.
While many would run from the sight, it actually attracted Brenda and Robert Grosbard, who saw the house as a potential new nest for their two children, Lee, 17, Remy, 15, and Prudence, their Boston terrier. Doubtless, their vision of its possibilities was due to their status as veterans of several Manhattan apartment renovations, as well as a newly built weekend house on Shelter Island.
"We wanted something that was a mess so we could tear it apart," explains Robert, an executive in the jewelry business. "I'm a project person and like to see things through from beginning to end." His first move was to hire Thomas Vail of Vail Associates Architects and Joe Nahem of Fox-Nahem Design, both of whom have considerable experience in resuscitating run-down dwellings.
Even in mint condition, the classic dilemma of in-row brownstones is that they only have windows at the front and back. Hence, they're essentially tunnels (in this case, a tunnel eighty feet long and twenty feet wide), and often murky at the center.
Vail dispelled these shadows by broadening hallways on upper floors and adding a large rooftop skylight above the central staircase. A sleek cast-iron balustrade replaced a bulkier wooden one, and the front foyer was annexed into the living room. Finally, an underutilized garden-level floor blossomed into a warm kitchen and dining room.
Controversy arose, though, when Nahem insisted that the dark wood moldings and wainscoting should be painted white. "The Grosbards thought the woodwork was their house's best feature," he said, "but it actually was heavy and morose."
"Everything white? White? How could I keep it clean?" Brenda recalls thinking. "But Joe was right. White woodwork removed that Victorian feeling."
Complementing the pale wood are blues, grays, and beiges–a palette that's used consistently throughout the house. Whenever possible, Nahem selected curtain and upholstery fabrics with some sheen to them, like velvet or Tibetan silk. "These materials have an iridescent quality that catches the light," he noted. "At night, the house has a kind of glow."
"It's glamorous, but subtle," is how Brenda, glowing with pride, describes the reborn brownstone.