An Abandoned Brooklyn Brownstone Is Brought Back to Beautiful Life

updated Dec 12, 2019

An Abandoned Brooklyn Brownstone Is Brought Back to Beautiful Life

updated Dec 12, 2019
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Bedrooms
Square feet
2000
Sq ft
2000

Name: Benita Hussain, Noah Cohen-Cline, and their son
Location: Fort Greene, Brooklyn
Size: 2000 square feet (just our duplex; the entire brownstone is about 3500 square feet)
Years lived in: 3 years lived in (2016-2019), but was designing/renovating from 2014-2017

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Though Benita and Noah’s home is technically a renovation, it was in such bad shape when they purchased it, they practically had to build it from the ground up. “It was abandoned for over 25 years, and had a huge amount of damage and structural work to repair it,” Benita explains. The house is a two-family brownstone, and the couple decided to live on the ground floor and rent out the upper floor. The upside to this arrangement is their space opens out into a killer backyard, but the downside is that it doesn’t get as much natural light. They worked with Palette Architecture to design their home (you can see before photos and floor plans of the brownstone on Palette’s website).

Credit: Minette Hand

Beyond just working with the brownstone’s quirks, the couple also wanted to be sure they approached this renovation as sustainabily as possible. “I am leading a national policy campaign to expand green spaces in U.S. cities, and Noah works in food and agriculture sustainability,” Benita explains. “The idea of building with so many new materials—just the amount of consumption and waste that are part of any construction project—was oftentimes hard for us. Luckily, our designers have expertise in energy- and water-efficiency and smart sourcing, but we still work to keep our consumption minimal by always asking ourselves what we really ‘need’ versus ‘want.'”  

Credit: Minette Hand

Apartment Therapy Survey:

Our Style: Modern but warm, with strong sense of nature, outdoors, and beach (I surf, my husband is a mountain guy from Seattle).

Inspiration: The ocean, the mountains, and our travels.

Credit: Minette Hand

Favorite Element: Our wallpaper choices, our custom banisters and dining console; our open layout that leads through a plant-filled dining room to a quiet backyard/oasis; our two-toned kitchen, which was something I really, really wanted (specifically blue lower cabinets that weren’t too dark, but still felt sophisticated); our transitional brownstone façade and iron work; and all the windows in our back façade (master bedroom and sliding doors to the backyard). When we built our extension, I knew I wanted as big of windows as we could manage, to let in as much light and air as possible. They were hard to find and install, but so worth it.  I also love that my surfboards are part of the living space, a daily reminder of one of my most important passions. Noah loves the lithographs of the Pacific Northwest mountain peaks in our bedroom, and in our living room, the surgical steel prosthetic that was once inside his clavicle following a kite jumping accident, which I framed for his 30th birthday.

Credit: Minette Hand

Biggest Challenge:  We basically built our house from scratch, which in NYC, feels like a bloodsport. It was abandoned for over 25 years, and had a huge amount of damage and structural work to repair it. It’s also a smaller brownstone, and we wanted to create open-airiness with a small footprint. Also, we wanted the lower duplex, so that we could have that flow through to the backyard, so we do have less light than the upper duplex. It was definitely a hard compromise, so we needed to make sure our common floor on the garden level still felt livable and airy, which is a challenge for any brownstone.  

Additionally, we didn’t actually design the place with our growing family in mind, since I wasn’t pregnant at the time we were in that phase, so there are areas that I wish I had created to be more “kid-oriented.” We have a lot of hard angles, and I probably would have added more play spaces, but I think we adapted, including carving out our living room for toys and play.  

Credit: Minette Hand

Why Friends Say: Most people come in and are surprised about how open and bright this garden level feels as well as the custom design touches (the dining console, the angled bannisters, the long kitchen island/bar), but more than anything, they tell us how comfortable and zen they feel when here. That’s the highest compliment to me. Noah and I are both very committed to our outdoor hobbies and finding quiet time (for ourselves, and with our family), so creating a home where we have relaxing nooks and vibes was super important to us—especially considering how fast-paced life is as full-time working parents in NYC. We installed soundproof glass on the windows at the front of our duplex (not in the rental duplex that we rent out above us), which I think was one of the wisest choices we made. We live right on the corner of a busy Brooklyn street, across from a hospital, and we literally cannot hear the outside world, which makes us feel like we’ve escaped from the hectic-ness of NYC whenever we step inside our place.  

Biggest Embarrassment: That our son’s “bedroom” doesn’t have a window—it’s a room that we carved out so we could have a guest room in the front of the house. When he gets older, he’ll probably take the larger room, but we often just chalk up this choice to the fact that we live in NYC, and we have to be creative with smaller spaces.

I’m a perfectionist, and I also notice the little construction flaws here and there, including some chipped paint, crooked lines, or small cracks. My husband is always telling me that he doesn’t want to live in a museum, that he wants to be comfortable in our space, so the little flaws are part of it. Still, those things annoy me, and I often find myself apologizing to guests while here. They rarely notice those things.

Credit: Minette Hand

Proudest DIY: Much of our house was designed by our architects, who had a very “white-box” modern eye. Any color or wallpaper was from us pushing them to integrate them. The backyard was a later project, because it would have been way over budget for us to include, and for that, I had a very specific vision of having our living spaces look out and blend seamlessly with a green, lush backyard (hence the large sliding doors). However, this house had been abandoned for over 25 years, and the backyard was a complete mess. It had this unattractive concrete slab, and the rest was piled with rocks, construction debris, dirt, and head-high grasses and weeds; a number of utility boxes and power lines that were illegally installed along the neighboring walls; and the back neighbors’ brick walls were crumbling as well. 

I was tenacious. I weed-whacked and hired a landscaper to haul hundreds of pounds of debris out. I spent six solid months calling everyone at Verizon, Time Warner, Con Ed, and the Buildings Department, to get the utility lines and boxes moved. I hunted down the owner of the neighboring building and negotiated having him repair and retain his brick wall—and I threw in extra money to have his contractor build the planter while they were back there. I wanted to create a grassy oasis in our backyard (this home was our inspiration), but we don’t get a ton of sunlight, so we installed synthetic grass—which many people teased us about at first—but it was the best decision ever. The same friends and their kids now roll around our backyard without dirt or bugs getting all over them, and we don’t have to worry about watering or maintaining a lawn. The backyard was the part of the project that I definitely put the most elbow grease and negotiation skills into.

Credit: Minette Hand

Biggest Indulgence: Building an extension for our dining room and master bedroom, plus our custom-designed dining console and staircase railings; our architects really pushed us to max out our FAR considering our small footprint, and to also keep the console and railing elements, even as we worried about our budget, and we’re glad we did. The added 300 square feet makes a huge difference, obviously—and the dining room and master bedrooms are my two favorite rooms in the house. The designed console and railings really elevate the common floor; since we have a non-traditional entryway—the garden level vs. a soaring parlor floor (which is where we have our bedrooms)—having these elegant designed elements bring a heft to this floor that it needs.  

Best Advice: You get what you pay for. When we were renovating and designing, we did try to make compromises based on price, and we realized that the costs and energy invested in repairs and/or fixing mistakes could have been avoided if we just paid for the more expensive appliance, finish, subcontractor, or whatever. We also wish we knew more about the design and building process than we did at the start; renovating in NYC is a very tricky process, and we were a bit green and perhaps unrealistically tight with our budget. Had we known, we likely would have gone with a contractor that had bid higher and we would have created a tighter contract. I now know everything there is to know about construction in NYC, although I don’t think I’d want to do a project of this magnitude again!

Resources

Credit: Minette Hand

ENTRY / LIVING ROOM 

Credit: Minette Hand

DINING ROOM 

Credit: Minette Hand

KITCHEN

Credit: Minette Hand

MASTER BEDROOM

  • Rug — AllModern
  • Art — Etsy
  • Lights — Angelica One Light Spotlights (AllModern)
  • Nightstands — Target’s Threshold Marble & Gold One Drawer Accent Table 
  • Blinds — Innovation Shades
  • Desk — IKEA
  • Chair — Vintage
  • Paint colors — Accent wall: Casco Bay, other walls: Edgecomb Gray – all Benjamin Moore
Credit: Minette Hand

GUEST ROOM

Credit: Minette Hand

NURSERY

Credit: Minette Hand

BATHROOMS

Credit: Minette Hand

BACKYARD

Thanks, Benita and Noah!