|When architect Larry Mufson walked through the door of the Federal-style house in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, he could never have guessed how many lessons it would teach him. All he knew was that he was smitten by its period charm and park-side location. Built in 1848 at one end of a narrow street that also contained several carriage houses, it may have originally housed servants employed by a wealthy homeowner nearby. The 25- foot-wide building had four levels: an English basement-a floor that was half below grade; first and second floors; and a third-floor attic. The previous owners had kept the house in their family since 1903, and at some point had converted it into two separate rental apartments. Larry wasn’t thrilled with the choppy layout, but the home’s proximity to Cobble Hill Park-where his daughter, Hannah, had played since she was an infant- gave it sentimental value. And so, not long after his initial visit, he found himself signing on the dotted line.
Larry assumed he could restore the house to a single-family home and open up its layout with some strategic demolition work and placement of a few walls. But before setting pencil to graph paper, he called in Lou Figliolia, a contractor who had grown up just a few blocks away and had worked on numerous other 19th century structures in the area.
Figliolia’s inspection began with an exploratory demolition around the staircase. “A lot of stairwells on these houses were built with the wrong-size lumber, either to cut costs or because the right materials weren’t available. Over time, they really start to sag,” Figliolia explains. That turned out to be the case here- but it was just the tip of the iceberg. “For the first few weeks of the project, not a day went by that Lou didn’t come to me with some new problems,” recalls Larry. The most serious issue was the deteriorated floor system. With every section of sub floor that he lifted, Figliolia discovered another few rotted joists. Though the main cause was water damage from a leaky roof, various renovations hadn’t helped, as plumbers and electricians cut notches into the framework to run their lines. Elsewhere, the mechanical system (elements of which dated back 50 years and more) were entirely obsolete, and the timeworn firebox in the living-room fireplace needed to be rebuilt. “Essentially,” says Figliolia, not one to mince words, “the structure was gone.” Just like that, Larry’s initial renovation estimate nearly doubled. “It was every homeowner’s nightmare.” He says, “Exactly the reason why people are afraid of old buildings.” Though a few of the joists and some walls could be salvaged, what was originally meant to be a heavy cosmetic renovation suddenly turned into a gut job. At each stage of the demolition, which lasted three weeks, Figliolia was forced to support the floor joists with temporary posts and jacks.
On the upside, Larry was now free to reconfigure the interior exactly the way he wanted it. His objective was to give each of the three lower stories an efficient floor plan and to convert the attic- whose ceiling rose to only five feet at its highest- into two guest bedrooms and a bathroom. Since the existing roof was in such disrepair that it needed to be replaced, Larry realized that he might as well put on a whole new, higher roof that would make the space livable.
The difficulty lay in figuring out how to make the change without altering the façade of the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission, which monitor the local Cobble Hill historic district. His solution: Move the ridgeline back, to approximately 16 feet from the front of the building, and raise the rear wall about four feet. This resulted in a roof that was higher but had a shallower pitch, which minimized its visibility from the street. After public hearings that stretched over six months, the commission approved Larry’s plan, and he moved ahead with the exterior renovation while continuing on the inside.
Five months of construction ensued, starting at the English basement, which in its present incarnation served as a dank storage space. Here, Larry envisioned a bright new kitchen. Turning that wish into a reality, however, would stir up the kind of problems that were becoming routine on this renovation, though Larry admits he brought this batch on himself by insisting that the room be a large, wide-open space.
The first problem was the room’s ceiling height, which, at seven feet, was too low for his liking. So he has Figliolia tear up the existing 30 –year old concrete floor, excavate 1 ½ feet of soil, and pour a new 4 inch cement slab, adding nearly a foot to the ceiling height. The crew also removed the load-bearing wall that cut through the space, requiring the addition of a 12-inch steel I-beam, running from the front of the house to the back, to support the floors above (see “Recess Time,” below). Finally, they added a 15-square foot, glassed- in eating nook, overlooking a brick terrace, to the back of the house. New footing and a foundation had to be poured, and a header installed over a new, wider door to the backyard.
With the basement reconfigured, Figliolia turned his attention to the first and second floors. Fortunately, many of the structural members at these levels had survived the water damage, allowing him to alter the layouts fairly easily. At Larry’s request, a partition wall in the first floor was knocked down to create a spacious living room. The entire second level meanwhile-once a tangle of bedrooms, hallway, closet, and commode- was given over the new master bedroom and bath.
Larry’s goal with the finished work was to make the house appear as if it hadn’t been altered since the 1930s- and to do it on a budget. “We did the simplest things that cost the least amount of money but still looked good,” He says. One effective touch was to attach prefabricated sheets of faux beadboard to the kitchen ceiling joists. “It’s as inexpensive as drywall, and it has an instant aging effect on a room,” he says. Then Figliolia covered the cement floor with pine sleepers and waterproofing material, and topped it with pine boards in a mix of 3-,6-, and 9 inch widths to create a varied look typical of historic Brooklyn townhouses. Besides its aesthetic value, pine is relatively inexpensive, costing about $2.50 a square foot before installation.
For additional savings, Larry went with stock windows instead of custom- made models, and rather than install hardwood treads on the stairs, he used a lesser-grade wood that could be painted and carpeted. Figliolia put up open shelving instead of upper cabinets in the kitchen, which saved a few bucks and also gave the room a vintage feel. These economies permitted Larry an occasional indulgence. His trips to Italy, as well as a passion for cooking, inspired the open-hearth fireplace, intended for rotisserie- style cooking, that he had built in the kitchen. “Larry was inflexible on the fireplace,” recalls Figliolia. “He had to have it.” Figliolia built a steel reinforced hearth over an open cavity designed for wood storage.
On the first floor, the living room fireplace was relocated to align with the new kitchen fireplace. Rather than rebuild the surround (at a cost of $1,500), Larry found an old painted wooden one in a salvage yard for $300. It had the right feel but it needed to be 6 inches taller, so Figliolia placed it on painted pine blocks.
In the second floor master bath, Larry achieved an old-world look with black and white floor tiles. “They remind me of ones I used to see in the old delis when I was growing up,” he says. The wall tiles were imitations of those found in English subways and cost $1 per square foot, while the plumbing fixtures, reproductions of historic styles, were brought for a song at the local home center. The glass shelving over the sinks, which Larry spotted at a salvage shop, came from an old public bathroom. The restraint Mufson showed on the bathroom finish work allowed him one luxury: twin Italian porcelain sinks, inspired by 1930s European design. “They were a gift to me,” says Mufson, a bit sheepishly given their steep price tag.
Larry painted the rooms in colors chosen to recapture their era. Each is a different hue, but they relate to one another because they are of equal intensities. The living room, for instance, is a warm, rich yellow, while the stairwell spaces and corridors are taupe. As the budget would not allow for custom crown moldings, 5-inch standard profile soft pine, about $1.75 a linear foot was installed. He also put in one-piece standard pine base molding, eight inches high, which was slightly more expensive at about $2.29 a linear foot.
Ultimately, the construction site evolved into a home. And a fine home at that, one that reflects the owner’s clear vision. “When the project was finished, it looked like the house hadn’t been touched since 1929, “says Larry, knowing it now suits contemporary needs more aptly,” and that was my goal.”