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Erica Padgett, the founder of Decorum Design Build, has never performed surgery, but renovating Jenny O’Leary and Adam Bossy’s Brooklyn townhouse sure felt like it. “You had to be careful, like don’t jump too hard or else the 200-year-old plaster moldings will crack,” says Padgett. She admits the couple’s Greenpoint reno is the most challenging project she’s worked on to date—fortunately her clients were as easygoing as it gets. As an architect herself, O’Leary knew how labor-intensive it would be to save many of the mid-1800s home’s original details all while cutting into the walls to make way for new plumbing and electrical. So when Padgett showed up on day one, O’Leary did her contractor and longtime friend a solid by handing her a full set of drawings. 

Padgett’s first big challenge was figuring out how to turn the office-slash-bedroom on the second level into an en suite bathroom complete with a freestanding tub. Complicating things was the fact that on the other side of the room’s thin floor is the kitchen’s plaster ceiling medallion. To save the character in the kitchen while building a sanctuary upstairs, Padgett would have to put on her scrubs. “There was a lot of very creative plumbing to make sure that could work,” she recalls. “There was a lot of head scratching, a lot of ‘Are you sure?’ But [Jenny and Adam] really held their ground. They knew what they wanted.” 

Recycle Old Kitchen Cabinets in New Rooms

The kitchen cabinets, before.
The kitchen cabinets, now in the primary bathroom.
The kitchen cabinets, now in the primary bathroom.

While the existing pantry cabinet in the kitchen didn’t fit into Bossy and O’Leary’s plans for the new space, they didn’t want to completely toss out a piece of history. Instead Padgett’s carpentry team carefully disassembled the unit (which came apart in around 40 pieces); carried it one flight up; and, with some minor adjustments to make way for mirrors and a stone countertop, turned it into a double bathroom vanity.

While it was costly to reconstruct, the project came with a sweet surprise: As they removed the unit from its original wall, they discovered leaflets crammed in the cracks, some of them dating as far back as the 1870s.

Know When to Leave the Past in the Past

The living room, before.

While salvaging was a big theme of their renovation, O’Leary welcomes change where it makes sense. “I’m not a traditionalist in the sense that I will keep everything, but I will preserve as much as I can and then do things in new and interesting ways,” she says. In the entryway, she wasn’t afraid to paint the woodwork glossy black and put down fresh graphic tile from Barber & Osgerby. (Psst: It’s the same pattern as the tub wall, just a different colorway.)

They also had to make small sacrifices to stay comfortable, like installing a polished nickel ceiling fan in the living room, which called for screwing directly into a plaster medallion on the ceiling. “It gave Jenny and Adam a heart attack to watch—I think I had to send them into another room as we were securing it,” shares Padgett. 

Triple Check Your Most “Out There” Orders

The kitchen, before.

Building out the kitchen was a true test in patience. Luckily O’Leary has a good understanding of lead times, so she had ordered their Reform cabinets from the Danish brand back in November 2020 before the reno began. The boxes arrived around March of the following year and were finally installed in the summertime. The sleek push-to-open doors and drawers and dark walnut veneer fronts were certainly worth the wait, but it doesn’t help when your range and refrigerator also take an eternity to come. The new Thermador appliances the couple ordered the previous fall didn’t arrive until June 2021, and the vent hood was missing from the order altogether. “There was a moment of panic where we thought we’d have to wait another eight months for one piece, but it turned out to be easy to replace,” says Bossy. 

The day that the island countertop arrived in the wrong color sparked mostly confusion not panic. (They had requested black-colored concrete, but it showed up as traditional gray.) “Initially I said, ‘Oh, I think you’ve brought someone else’s countertop from another project,’ and the [delivery guys] were like, ‘No, this is our last stop,” recalls Padgett. It was clear right away why the mix-up had happened: “I don’t think it’s a very common color, even with custom orders,” she adds.

Don’t Weigh Down the Mood

After stomaching the cost of reframing the primary bathroom (the space was part of a sloppy extension and was beginning to sag), the exciting additions began to arrive, like tadelakt plaster and a reeded glass door for the shower. Another critical addition was the tub, and O’Leary had her sights set on a terrazzo one from France & Son that “was disturbingly heavy,” according to her contractor (Padgett guesses it weighed around 450 pounds). But this love story wasn’t meant to be: Once the tub arrived and they opened the box, they spotted a massive crack. 

For a while, they considered reordering the piece. “In the end, it was just so traumatic trying to get it up into the house,” shares Padgett. “We very sadly had to scrap it.” A more standard (but easier-to-lift, 111-pound tub) from West Elm arrived shortly after the letdown, but the couple didn’t sulk for very long. “For renovators of old homes, expect a roller coaster, try to enjoy the wild ride, and hopefully in the end it will be worth it for you,” says Bossy. “We know it was for us.”