This Brooklyn Couple Frankensteined Their Brownstone—And Left the Seams Visible
They act as windows into the past.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 6:20 AM
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Most people look to increase their home’s square footage by any means possible in a renovation; Andrea Hill did the opposite. In 2017 the founder of Tortuga Living and her husband, artist Carlos Irijalba, bought a four-story 1890s brownstone in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood with a rental garden unit. “We knew from living in a four-floor walk-up that stairs are not our friend, so we reconfigured the home as two duplexes,” she says.
This meant losing the top two floors to renters and reconfiguring the basement rental to make space for three bedrooms, two full bathrooms, and a walk-in closet. Back then, the couple split their time between Amsterdam and Brooklyn, so to save on costs, they moved back to Europe during the upper floors’ renovation before returning to New York in mid-2018 to finally design their portion of the home. One year after moving in, Hill gave birth to their daughter, Lima. Little did they know that the following month, the family would be sheltering in place in their new “forever home.”
Reorienting the Views
What sold the couple on the house in the first place was what Hill calls “the right hardware”: the space’s proportions, historical details, and mature flowering magnolia tree in the backyard. These were the things they couldn’t necessarily buy. “As an artist and designer couple, we had a vision for how to alter the software,” she explains. “Since we don’t live on the prettiest or quietest block, we reoriented life toward the garden and magnolia tree.”
Celebrating, Not Hiding, the Changes
The couple imagined a remodel that would expose each intervention. At the back of the house, where they opened up a bay window to install bifolding steel and glass doors that open onto a deck, they kept a sliver of the original brick. In front of a new powder room they kept a patch of the old floor (the only section that was salvageable), which intersects with the new 5-inch-wide black stained–oak planks. “I knew that white oak was the more obvious choice, but I have dark hair and it would have driven me crazy to see stray hairs on a pale floor,” admits Hill.
Choosing Forever Finishes
For the first time in their history as renovators (this was the third project the couple undertook together), Hill and Irijalba decided to pick materials not for resale value, but simply because they loved them. “I always wanted a black kitchen,” says Hill. To soften up the dark cabinet fronts, she paired them with walnut nooks, creating a Tetris effect: “I love the look of open shelving, but a functional kitchen has plenty of unsightly items that need a hiding spot.” Now she has the best of both worlds.
Irijalba, who uses stone in his artwork, paid extra attention to the backsplash choice, selecting the exact slab from an enormous warehouse and visiting the stonecutter to mark out the exact dimensions. “We measured every glass and container we own, as well as my arm span when considering the height of each cupboard,” adds Hill. Leveraging her cooking school experience, she maximized every square inch to make sure everything had its place. The rounded edge of the peninsula adds softness to a high-traffic corner.
Building a Furniture Collection at Their Own Pace
Hill has always known exactly what she wanted. She founded Tortuga in 2018 specifically because she couldn’t find the affordable, original decor she was looking for. “At the time, I didn’t own a single piece of furniture I valued enough to move with,” she explains. Since then she’s slowly acquired pieces she is sure to keep for the long haul. Some are from her own collection: The dining bench, for instance, stacks to form a console (she has a few in the house, including in the main bedroom, where it’s upholstered in a Viso Project jacquard fabric).
Other pieces came to them through friends and business partners. Hill picked up the hexagonal pink laminate and glass coffee table at a store that carried her bookends, and the pendants that hang over the dining table are by her friend Rob Brilman.
In the living room Irijalba’s art hangs next to the fireplace, overlooking a 1970s Nicoletti Salotti sectional. “We spent many years without a real sofa, waiting for the right piece to come along,” says Hill. When she finally saw this clean-lined, not-too-big piece on Chairish, she was on an island in Maine with only two bars of phone service and no WiFi, but she managed to make an offer and coordinate logistics to have it shipped to New York. “I guess the right sofa will motivate me to do just about anything,” she says, laughing.
Crafting a Cloudlike Bathroom
Downstairs, Hill made the most of a dimly lit bathroom with an allover pillow tile treatment. “I was desperately trying not to build a white space, but the low light made it difficult to choose a darker color,” she says. She still got a punchy accent via a navy floor with contrasting trim. To add privacy in the shower while still letting a bit of light through, Hill stacked glass bricks from floor to ceiling. “I’ve always loved them, especially in the Ishihara House designed by Tadao Ando,” she notes. Only one thing is missing, she adds: a low-light, humidity-loving plant baby.
Waking Up in a Cabin—In the City
To gain a few extra inches of ceiling height in the bedroom, the couple exposed the beams. “We debated whether to paint them and the brick wall white, but ultimately decided to live with the original materials because they brought warmth to the space and gave us a cabin-like experience of waking up to a view of nature through the curtainless windows,” says Hill. But the opposite perspective is the true winner. “My favorite room in the house isn’t actually inside. I love being in the garden looking at the house, especially the Frankenstein wall of decisions we made.”
Go-to local vintage shop: I have so much respect for Patrick Parrish’s gallery in Tribeca and closely follow his Instagram account for vintage finds, historical treasures, and expertise.
Favorite source for plants and gardening supplies: Greenery Unlimited in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, sells large plants, which are harder to find.
The most affordable thing in my home: My collection of five-euro botijos stored in the kitchen above the fridge. I love how contemporary they look even though they are commonplace Spanish clay vessels for storing and drinking water.
This textile in my home is so me: We adore the Viso Project upholstery designed for Shawn Maximo’s stacking bench. Jacquard is such a thread-rich material, and I love looking at the fabric inside out to understand the complexity of its construction and the richness in tones.
Who to Know
I loved collaborating with: Lucas Jacobson of LJI Projects.
Hardest-working plumber in the business: Frank, owner of Kings Plaza Plumbing in Brooklyn.
Pristine painter: Ivor Ottley, my neighbor and painter extraordinaire.
Genius gardener: Robert McCanless, my superintendent and master gardener.
Tile master: Mike from Tomak.
Carpenter I trust with everything: Heights Woodworking built a solid mahogany front door based on an original design and did a phenomenal job.
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