Proof You Can Renovate Without Sacrificing Old-School Charm
A modern makeover brings a prewar NYC apartment back to life.
Updated Sep 29, 2021 7:39 AM
Original parquet floors, grand casement windows, and landmark status are almost always guaranteed to wow a potential home buyer. Well, at least that was the case for New York City-dwellers, Cat and Jordan. Instantly enchanted by the prewar aura of the Fort Greene, Brooklyn co-op they now call home, charm and character had everything to do with the couple’s decision to close on the 1,000-square-foot spread. That said, personality comes at a price.
Though the two-bedroom home ticked many of the right boxes, from a cosmetic perspective, the apartment was in serious need of TLC. Dingy beige walls, cherry kitchen cabinets, and a non-functioning fireplace were just the beginning of the couple’s renovation woes. Like most first-time renovators, the pair was eager to get started, but knew they couldn’t make do on their own. That’s where Sweeten, a free matchmaking service that connects renovators with the construction pros, came in to the picture.
Once matched with their dream contractor, Cat and Jordan set out on stripping their now-bright and airy abode of its unsightly flaws—even adding a few bonus spaces in the process, like a sleek custom built-in bookcase and killer kitchen to match.
The couple’s main goal was to brighten up the space. Stripping the mustard-colored walls and poorly varnished floors, which were refinished in a matte coating to preserve their original tones, was step number one. Because the walls had been painted over so many times (thus creating a thick, uneven appearance), every surface was skim coated for a smooth, plaster-like finish before getting a fresh white look.
Of all major updates and cosmetic tweaks, it was the kitchen that saw the biggest change. Now an effortless extension of the main living space, the space is a haven for natural sunlight. In an effort to preserve the apartment’s natural prewar warmth, their Sweeten contractor stuck to a simple, sleek, and elegant design aesthetic. Today, dark gray custom cabinets and bright Caesarstone counters give the tiny cookhouse a contemporary edge, while Moroccan-style floor tiles introduce a soulful spirit.
“The more traditional patterns reflected the age of the apartment and the black casement windows, while the mix of different patterns loosened up the feel,” explains Jordan. “We continued the same tiles in the fireplace floor, and it tied the living area and kitchen together very well. We were eager to see the finished tile floor, and we love how it turned out.”
Completely hidden from view, the coolest kitchen feature in this streamlined kitchen has to be the custom drawers, which have since been outfitted with a natural walnut interior.
“I never thought that the inside of a drawer could, or even should, be beautiful, but I appreciate seeing the woodwork every time I reach for a utensil,” says Cat.
While Cat and Jordan had originally made plans for a kitchen island, once demo day got underway the pair quickly realized that the dividing wall could not be knocked down. Now having to make due with a tighter footprint, their only option was to scale back and install a peninsula instead, which “in the end was perfect and very functional.”
On the kitchen side, the peninsula has been maxed out for storage, while the side closer to the dining area boasts a standalone bar top as well as a spot below to stash cookbooks, placemats, and other entertaining essentials.
An appropriate home for the couple’s many colorful reads, the couple’s custom built-in bookcase now makes for a stylish focal point in the living room. Spanning (almost) the entire length of the living room, the floor-to-ceiling piece is only interrupted by the fireplace, where a bold landscape by their friend, artist, and architect Shane Neufeld presides prominently above the mantel.
Of all the minor hiccups Cat and Jordan faced along the way (like dealing with a delay on their kitchen cabinets), their biggest challenge was in fact living through the construction. Opting for take-out every night and washing dishes in the bathroom sink, were just a few everyday annoyances. Her words of wisdom for anyone thinking about diving into a renovation for the first time?
“Inure yourself to the possibility that something unexpected can, and almost certainly will happen during a renovation, especially in an old building,” she says. “Having watched so many renovation TV shows, we felt relieved that nothing major popped up and were less disturbed by minor changes in the plans.”
If there’s one lesson to take away this stunning transformation (besides the fact that old-school charm and modern amenities aren’t mutually exclusive) it’s that your HGTV obsession might come in handy IRL.
Sweeten, a free renovation service, handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, and scope, helping until project completion. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration, and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.