The Gut Reno of a 119-Year-Old Brooklyn Home Is Impressive

updated Dec 19, 2019

The Gut Reno of a 119-Year-Old Brooklyn Home Is Impressive

updated Dec 19, 2019
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Square feet
Sq ft
House tour cover

Can't-Miss House Tours Straight to Your Inbox

Keep up with our latest house tours each weekday with our House Tour of the Day newsletter

Name: Vivian Okwuagwu, Erik Solomonson, and cats Sugar, Neil and Lemon
Location: East Flatbush — Brooklyn, New York
Size: 1,900 square feet
Years lived in: 1.5 years (but owned for 3 years)

Vivian Okwuagwu uses the word “survived” to describe the gut renovation of her and her husband Erik’s 119-year-old Brooklyn barrelfront limestone and brick rowhouse. Considering they bought this 1898 house in the summer of 2015 and were only able to move in just before Christmas in 2016… “survived” does sound appropriate for such a long and intense 16-month reno!

It wasn’t just aesthetics that drove the need for this home’s remodel; many structural improvements were required. The couple had to have new electrical, plumbing and heating systems installed. Thankfully, Vivian has architectural experience from a past career, so she was able to navigate the reno world well. But the really enjoyable part for Vivian (and part of her “recovering” from such a long reno) has been decorating after the structural work was completed.

“…I’ve loved reacquainting myself with all the furniture, art, books, decor (and clothes!) we’ve had in storage for over a year. Some of it we decided to let go, and created room for new design ideas and pieces as we ‘finish’ the rooms,” she wrote on her blog.

Vivian and Erik share their newly renovated home with their cats Sugar (who actually came with the house), Neil, and Lemon. Erik works in computer security as well as brews beer for a hobby. And Vivian is launching a new firm called Vardogr Design Services, after the Norwegian word for the sensation that someone beloved is approaching or returning home. Together, this couple has created a home that’s just perfect for them.

Apartment Therapy Survey:

Our Style: Warm, welcoming, a bit traditional. I aim to create a rich but streamlined layering of objects, color, and patterns. I’m a firm believer in mixing sources; combining vintage, thrift, big-box items, and different eras gives your home a distinct personality.

I transitioned from architecture to program management over a decade ago; designing and overseeing the gut renovation of our 1898 barrelfront limestone and brick rowhouse (which required structural improvements and completely new electrical, plumbing and heating systems) was a deep dive back into the field!

When helping friends decorate, I always advise on one or two indulgent pieces that set the tone for the space. In my own case these were the huge Victorian burl wood mirror, and a Graham & Brown palm wallpaper I used in both kitchen and laundry.

Sadly, rowhouses in this Flatbush subdivision had little original embellishment, so the mirror helped bridge that gap. The wallpaper choice was pure whimsy. I wanted something that reminded of warmer climes and made me happy.

Inspiration: Victorian home libraries, modern African and Diaspora art.

Favorite Element: The art and souvenirs collected from our travels. I decorated Erik’s last bachelor apartment, so it was a bit easier to merge our styles when we got married. Every piece has a story and is meaningful to us.

Biggest Challenge: Excavating a patio and opening up the basement wall to the rear garden with glass doors. It really paid off by making the space so much brighter.

What Friends Say: “Please build me a bookshelf!” and “When are we going shopping together?”

Biggest Embarrassment: Framing of a Mitchell Black Home ‘Stacks’ wallpaper remnant in foyer. Wrinkles showing through; that definitely requires a professional framer!

Proudest DIY: Laying sod grass, and doing all the garden planting ourselves.

Biggest Indulgence: Living room mirror, a Victorian walnut burl wood in the Renaissance Revival style. Seller dates it to late 1870s, roughly contemporary with our house. I fell in love with it at first sight on eBay, after a six-month search for the perfect anchor piece. The crown, gilt detailing, and brass dragon hooks are gorgeous!

Erik would argue that the biggest indulgence is the whirlpool tub for two!

Best Advice: Trust your sense of what pleases you; that provides the best framework within which to assess items and build a cohesive collection.

I’d also advise to vet everyone you hire carefully, don’t hesitate to ask questions or call references.

Dream Sources: Vintage stores and markets in every city.


All walls — Benjamin Moore, Horizon OC-53
Living room accent walls — Benjamin Moore, Dark Harbor CSP-720
Foyer accent — Benjamin Moore, Lead Gray 2131-30
Wood trim — Benjamin Moore, Wenge AF-180
Bedroom — Benjamin Moore custom mix, Chicago Blues 75%
Ceilings — Benjamin Moore, Chantilly Lace OC 65
Floors — Acacia engineered wood boards Lumber Liquidators

Corvus pendant — One Kings Lane
Butterfly bench — Vintage, Housing Works
Coat rack, brass Hollywood regency — Vintage, Chairish
Security system — ABB audiovisual panels, installation by IE Systems, Inc.

Bookshelves — IKEA hack: BILLY and BRIMNES units with Home Depot MDF molding
Cabinet lights — Visual Comfort & Co., One Kings Lane
Mobile chandelier, large — West Elm
Haitian voodoo flags and bull figurine — Various artists
Polished brass tapestry hangers — Amazon
Couch — Ralph Lauren, Horchow
Hooked carpet — Vintage
Cushions — Willa Skye Home at Etsy
Coffee table — Maison Jansen reproduction, Modlike
Brass accent table —Safavieh, Gilt
Nesting side tables, mid-century modern brass/glass — Apartment Therapy Marketplace
Faux bamboo stand — Ethan Allen
Bust — Plaster, Housing Works

Mirror — Vintage, eBay
Staggered glass chandelier, 8-Light — West Elm
Moss green ceramic table lamps — Vintage
Velvet and paisley chairs — Pier 1
Paisley back chairs — Craigslist find; Horchow, Neiman Marcus
Bar cart — Amazon
Stangl black and gold urn — Vintage

Ceiling medallion — Ballard Design (no longer available)
Moroccan pendant light — Vintage; Westchester, New York
Pendant globes — Wayfair
Steel bird and fish wall hangings cut from steel oil drums – Milfort Bruno, Port Au Prince, Haiti (Mahogany Craft Shop, just outside Hotel Oloffson)
Afghanistan rug — Gift
Rosewood cabinet — Thos. Baker
Small carved stone busts — Housing Works
Settee — Craigslist find, similar at Urban Outfitters
Cushions — Kate McKenna; Kaleidoscope pillow cover, West Elm
Etta cachepot and stand — Ballard Design; no longer available

Wallpaper —Honolulu Palm Green, Graham & Brown
Appliances —Frigidaire, Sears
Cabinets — Swan Tile & Cabinets; Flushing, Queens NY
Ceramic floor tile — Delancey Tile; Flushing, Queens NY
Washer and gas dryer — Samsung, Sears

Chandelier — Visual Comfort & Co. Thalia staggered light, One Kings Lane
Adjustable arm wall scones — Shades of Light
Hanging planter, brass — Vintage, Chairish
Nightstand — Roar+Rabbit two-drawer diamond rhombus, West Elm
Curtains, duvet cover, and shams — West Elm

48-inch single vanity set with mirror — Wayfair
Hardware — Kohler Purist
Glass leaf sconce — West Elm no longer available
Bouquet brass pendants — Ballard Designs
Ceramic floor and wall tiles — Delancey Tile; Flushing, Queens, New York
Closet — Rubbermaid Configurations kits, IKEA LACK shoe shelves
Windmill Palm Hook — Anthropologie; no longer available

Sectional — IKEA Friheten
Card table (oak stain, maroon semi-gloss) and chairs — Housewarmings; Old Greenwich, Connecticut
Velvet curtains and carpet — West Elm
Shelves — IKEA LACK

Thanks, Vivian and Erik!

Share Your Style:

See More:
⇒ Recent House Tours
House Tours on Pinterest