Architecture + Design

Tour 7 Charming New York Brownstones

The historic dwellings are a trademark feature of the city’s architectural DNA
Brownstone parlor with intricate ceiling molding and antique frescoe
“It’s a pretty traditional room, it just has a brighter take,” says designer Nicholas Obeid of the brownstone’s reception room. “I mixed in some modern pieces to balance the weight of the more classic ones.”Photo: Gieves Anderson

The towering skyscrapers and monuments that carve out New York City’s skyline have all contributed to its status as a metropolis. Though its many high-rise condominiums and glassy office buildings are without a doubt staples of the Big Apple’s culture, the brownstones lining the streets over stretches of Brooklyn, Harlem, and in historic districts across all boroughs contribute to the the city’s character from a humbler few stories off the ground. Certain New York brownstones have their own claims to fame, such as Carrie Bradshaw’s townhouse as seen in Sex and the City (which sees a solid amount of tourist traffic). But even brownstones with no pop culture ties are in increasingly high demand, with floor-through units in idyllic neighborhoods like Park Slope asking upwards of $5,000 a month. Intricate millwork, ornate fireplaces, and vintage decor abound in this selection of enchanting AD-approved brownstones that explain New Yorkers’ enduring romance with the 19th-century abodes.

An Antique-Lined 1890 Home Reinvigorated by Vibrant Patterns

The brownstone’s front parlor features a multitude of vintage finds. The antique floor lamps are topped with shades from Maison Vincent Darré.

Photo: Max Burkhalter

It takes a certain amount of courage to embark on the refurbishment and renovation of a New York City brownstone without so much as a glance in the direction of an architect, designer, or contractor. In fact, most people would shudder at the mere thought of it. But then again, not everyone has the innate sense of creativity as fashion stylist Roxane Danset and her husband, musician Pat Mahoney of the band LCD Soundsystem. Confident that they could transform the circa-1890 residence into a chic and comfortable respite for their family of five, the couple dove in headfirst. “The house spoke to me immediately,” recalls Danset of the first time she toured the 2,500-square-foot four-bedroom property. “It was bathed in sunlight, and all the original details made it feel like home. I grew up in France, so I’m used to being surrounded by history.”

Luckily, because the property had remained intact as a single-family residence throughout its history, it was in fairly good condition—although it was calling out for some touch-ups in the way of plastering, painting, and wood restoration (for the original floors, molding, fireplaces, and etched-glass pocket doors), as well as more involved updates to the kitchen and baths. But even in those rooms, the couple showed great sensitivity and restraint, choosing to salvage as much as possible. “We tried to respect the original details and embrace what the place had to offer,” says Danset, whose favorite area of the home is the master bath, with pine flooring, clawfoot tub, and early-20th-century sink still holding court. Of course, a few liberties were taken here and there—such as painting the room’s window trim pink—in an effort to imbue some personality into the home. “We fixed what we needed to, restored some things, and played around with what was there,” Danset says. —Alyssa Bird

A Colorful Brooklyn Heights Abode with Traditional Touches

“It’s a pretty traditional room; it just has a brighter take,” says designer Nicholas Obeid of the brownstone’s reception room. “I mixed in some modern pieces to balance the weight of the more classic ones.”

Photo: Gieves Anderson

Tony Duquette and Albert Hadley were legendary decorators known for their old-world sensibilities and unapologetic originality. In different ways—Duquette was the ultimate maximalist; Hadley had a quieter sophistication—they redefined the course of American interiors. And they were both on Nicholas Obeid’s mind when he began working on his latest project, a spacious apartment in a mid-1800s Brooklyn Heights brownstone. “I wanted to pay homage to these traditional decorators and other old-school greats in a fresh and colorful way,” says Obeid, a young New York City designer who launched his namesake studio two years ago. “My client and I had a shared understanding that this wasn’t going to be a safe, boring apartment—definitely not another white box.”

His client, Kelsey Brown, was more than enthusiastic about the idea of boldness. Brown is the cofounder of Pepper, a company that sells home textiles and wallpapers featuring whimsical prints. She wanted to include some of these prints in her home, which she shares with her husband, Alec Simpson, while also embracing her longtime affection for classic decor. “I grew up in a historical home with lots of antiques and also a lot of color,” she says. “Nicholas understood me and he also pushed me out of my comfort zone.”

Obeid did not hold back. He paired candy-colored walls with rolled-arm sofas, chinoiserie with abstract art, and rattan with velvet. In the vast parlor-level reception room, he replicated the colors of the existing ceiling fresco, a celestial scene painted sometime in the early 1900s, covering the decorative plasterwork and wainscoting in dazzling shades of blue. —Paola Singer

An Art-Filled Upper Manhattan Sanctuary

The garden-level guest room functions as a bachelor pad of sorts for close friends of the couple. Among the family heirlooms on display is an antique French barometer. The lamp is one of a pair from Cafiero Select.

Photo: Read McKendree

Mirrored closet doors wrap the wife’s dressing room, where a portrait of her grandmother hangs above a new marble mantlepiece. Hung up is the same dress that appears in the painting. The chandelier is from Cafiero Select.

In the channel-tufted annals of today’s design discourse, few words get tossed about with greater abandon than timeless. That flokati wall treatment? Timeless. Wi-Fi-enabled vegetable juicer? Timeless. Illuminated poured-resin cactus tree? Timeless.

So it feels all the more thrilling to enter a space that feels authentically that: rooted in the past, poised for the future, and thoroughly of the moment. Such is the sensation of stepping inside one recently renovated brownstone in Upper Manhattan, whose 1898 Renaissance Revival façade gives way to a palimpsest of architecture and decoration. Original woodwork, much of it cleverly redeployed, sets the stage for a trove of vintage and antique furnishings—from important Americana to marvels of midcentury modernism to feats of Murano glassblowing. It’s a mix that defies easy categorization. Let’s simply call it fun. These are rooms that smile wall to wall.

That is a credit to the homeowners: a free-spirited couple with a naughty sense of humor and, at the start of the project, a heap of family heirlooms in storage. And it is a testament to their creative dream team, Murdock Solon Architects and designer David Cafiero, who lovingly injected whimsy and joy across all four floors and 5,000 square feet. —Samuel Cochran

Actor John Leguizamo’s Gut-Renovated Greenwich Village Home

After restoring the crown molding and rebuilding the wall and staircase to its former glory, John Leguizamo went to Evan Blum’s Demolition Depot to get glass pocket doors. “In brownstones, they’re usually solid. But I like the transparency—letting the light through, like a diorama,” he says. A womb chair, courtesy Lucien Rees Roberts, can also be seen.

Art: Misha Tyutyunik

“I’ve got a special business technique,” actor John Leguizamo jokes, “I like to buy high and sell low.” From the kitchen of his New York City brownstone, built in the mid-1800s and purchased in 2008 with the intention of raising his family there, The Menu star is all smiles. “[We] did an incredible gut reno that I oversaw every day. We did it in one year.”

When Leguizamo and his wife, Justine, first saw the townhouse, it was divided into three separate apartments. Inexplicably, in one, the previous tenants had broken the original molding and placed a giant black porcelain tub in the middle of the space. To get it closer to their vision, Justine dreamed up a floor plan and John managed the construction to implement it. “She has certain ideas, and I try to execute them,” he explains of their approach. “But all the plumbing had to be redone; the floors had to be redone. Nothing was small; it was all massive amounts of work.”

Once construction was finished in 2009, they moved in without a specific design concept in mind beyond John’s goal of “maintaining the beauty and structure of the building,” as he describes it, and a desire to fill their home with antiques collected to be shared across generations.

“We like things that are quality, that we can pass on to our kids,” John says. “There’s something beautiful about hanging on to things that have a history…. We like the eclectic feel.” —Maria Sherman

An Elevated, Kid-Friendly Brooklyn Townhouse

The original brownstone façade was refurbished to match the historic design. The front door wears a coat of Farrow and Ball’s Railings No. 31, cutting a sharp contrast to the muted exterior.

Photo: Nicole Franzen

The original ceiling medallion in the living room was removed and restored in collaboration with John Coburn, an artist and sculptor with expertise in historic preservation, who previously worked on the restoration of the New York Public Library. A coffee table in walnut by Michael Robbins and another by Ettore Sottsass take pride of place atop a Nani Marquina area rug. By the window, a brass wall sconce by Lumfardo serves as a dazzling sun catcher by day.

Photo: Nicole Franzen

A Brooklyn brownstone is distinct from other such homes, as architects Christopher Lee and Minyoung Song of New York–based Model Practice will avouch. When Lee, Song, and designers Amanda Jesse and Whitney Parris-Lamb of interior design studio Jesse Parris-Lamb were tasked with reviving a circa 1890 townhouse in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, their maiden discovery was an incomplete Victorian-age ceramic speaking tube that served as confirmation of this theory. The tube itself wasn’t significant, but it did hold a mirror to the home’s past, and unbeknownst to them at the time, served as a foreshadowing of its future.

A series of back-to-back events—including the birth of their first child, the onset of the pandemic, and, subsequently, a lack of space in their 1.5-bedroom apartment—led the homeowners, a couple in their 40s, to move into the property earlier than anticipated. “It was actually great because it taught us a lot of things we needed to know, and we got to experience the character and spirit of the house as it was, and that informed the design process,” says one half of the couple, a graphic designer. Given that the previous homeowner hadn’t updated the space in decades, there was a lot of work to be done, including replacing the roof and fixing a plethora of leaks of unknown origin. At some point, an offending addition was introduced in the back, which now desperately needed an update.

The couple saw the misfortunes as an opportunity to start afresh and organize the townhouse in a way that would suit their modern lifestyle. For example, they were keen that the home feature a senior-friendly guest suite for their parents, who would previously stay in hotels when visiting. And so Lee and Song arranged the spaces across the section of the building, designating one floor for each generation. The parents’ floor, created at the garden level, was particularly significant because it afforded ease of access and age-in-place interventions. The second floor was conceived as a sanctuary for the couple, while the third was outfitted with bedrooms, a playroom, and a reading nook for their kids (they welcomed another child while the project was in progress). Meanwhile, the kitchen, living, and dining areas were carved out on the parlor floor. —Vaishnavi Nayel Talawadekar

A Townhome That Elegantly Modernizes Turn-of-the-20th-Century Grandeur

The library is separated from the rest of the living space by a decorative wooden archway that’s original to the house, as is the fireplace with its restored Victorian mantel (the mirror now hides a television). A vintage Isa Bergamo chair upholstered in off-white shearling was paired with a resin-coated two-piece coffee table from Holly Hunt. Behind the archway we see a portrait by Brooklyn-based artist Mickalene Thomas and two Milo Baughman armchairs from the ’70s.

Photo: Noe DeWitt

Interior designer Gillian Dubin and her husband, civil rights and criminal defense attorney Josh Dubin, feel a deep connection to Brooklyn. The couple has not only lived in the borough for the past 20 years, but Josh comes from a long line of Brooklynites. “My great-grandfather was a tailor in east New York, and my grandfather was a photographer in Flatbush,” he says. “I’ve always been fascinated by the history of Brooklyn.” When he and his wife began searching for a new home in Park Slope, they were drawn to a brownstone from 1903, the kind of construction that gives the neighborhood its quintessential residential charm. “The house was not in good shape—it had been converted into three units—but it maintained most of its original details, and I really appreciated that,” Gillian says, who established her namesake design studio three years ago.

She worked with architect Jeffery Povero (featured in AD’s story about Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka’s house in Harlem) to restore the residence’s turn-of-the-20th-century grandeur while adding modern conveniences like radiant-heat floors, energy-efficient windows, and new fireplaces. Even though it had been rejiggered into three apartments, the 4,600-square-foot, five-story property retained a host of elements from the early 1900s: coffered oak ceilings in one room, a latticed archway in another, intricately patterned crown moldings, and a beautifully turned balustrade in the central staircase. For Gillian and her design partner for the project, Flavia Braga, the challenge was to create a contemporary atmosphere within the historic bones of the home, conjuring up a space that nodded to both old and new Brooklyn.

Since there was an excess of dark wood covering floors, walls, and ceilings, Gillian painted some of it white to lighten the mood. As for the furniture, she went for boldness, mixing Italian aesthetics from the ’60s and ’70s with contemporary geometric shapes. The living room features a set of voluminous metal-framed sofas designed by Gianfranco Frattini, a sharply structured coffee table in blackened ash wood, and a vintage Murano leaf chandelier in the style of Seguso Adesso. “Gillian impressed on me that she could preserve the old details of the house and still make it cool,” says her husband. “Whenever she puts her personal touch on something, it comes out great.” Josh, who is an ambassador for the Innocence Project, spends part of his time fighting for clients of color who have been wrongfully accused or convicted. He also recently joined Jay-Z, Team Roc, and several civil rights groups in publishing a full-page Martin Luther King Jr. speech in newspapers across the country to honor George Floyd. The family’s commitment to social justice is reflected in the artworks seen throughout the home, many of them by Black American and African artists, including a portrait by Mickalene Thomas, a neon sign with The Notorious B.I.G.’s famous lyric “Spread Love. It’s the Brooklyn Way,” and a series of head sculptures by Jacob-Tetteh Ashong. —Paola Singer

A Native New Yorker’s Bright Clinton Hill Abode

The original staircase was one of the few elements the homeowners kept intact. An Isamu Noguchi lamp lights the entry foyer.

Photo: Nicole Franzen

The near floor-to-ceiling windows spotlight one of the sensually undulating Baumann and Fil screens that were originally designed in the ’40s to hide cash registers in department stores. It stands behind a Poul Jensen Z chair upholstered in Schumacher velvet and an Angelo Mangiarotti black marble table. On the side is a Harry Balmer patinated steel lamp atop a lacquered burl wood table by Edward Wormley.

Photo: Nicole Franzen

When interior decorator Courtney O’Sullivan of Left Bank Design was growing up in New York, brownstones were either being hastily converted into apartments or demolished to make way for white-glazed-brick high-rises. Back then, if you desired your own home, you moved to the suburbs. Today, however, scores of brownstones in all five boroughs are shrouded in scaffolding as they get converted into some of the most desirable residences in town. May they all turn out as beautifully and livable as the one transformed by O’Sullivan on DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn.

Being a native New Yorker, O’Sullivan sees brownstones “as an iconic part of the city.” She says, “I was fascinated with the idea of tackling one.” Renovating the 1890 Italianate structure, however, was daunting. “I was immediately attracted to its high ceilings and the striking molding,” O’Sullivan says, “but there were a lot of beautiful details that were stripped out in the ’60s and ’70s.” Every floor had to be reconfigured. Having previously lived in a loft, O’Sullivan “loved light and openness and didn’t want to give that up.”

With the help of Sebastian Kulpa of Black Square Builders, walls were removed, floor-to-ceiling windows were installed—most notably across the back of the parlor floor—and closets and bathrooms were consolidated to allow more light into the bedrooms, which now span the width of the house. The result, which took a year and a half to achieve, is a truly rare fusion: A home that is cleanly elegant and spare yet somehow radiates both warm informality and welcoming ease. —Hal Rubenstein