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Serial Remodelers Settle Down: A Brooklyn Townhouse Reinvention from Elizabeth Roberts

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Serial Remodelers Settle Down: A Brooklyn Townhouse Reinvention from Elizabeth Roberts

September 17, 2018

One good remodeling experience led Jean Lee and her husband, Tzu-Wei Lee, to another—and another. In their quest for the perfect family home, the two—she’s a recent law school grad, he’s a trader, and they have three girls under five—are deep-dive renovators and serial gamblers in the New York City real estate market. After falling in love at work, they took on their first gut overhaul, a brownstone on Garfield Place, a choice block in North Park Slope. They worked with CWB Architects and thoroughly enjoyed the process. Meanwhile, as Jean puts it, “the Brooklyn market was ripping, so after a year of living in our place, when our punch list was only just complete, we put up a ridiculous number—and ended up getting over ask.”

That led them to buy a new place, an 1850s brick townhouse in Cobble Hill, that had been divided into four apartments, one per floor. It required a complete rethink, so they enlisted Elizabeth Roberts and team—who Jean discovered on Remodelista—for the job: “It was an alignment of aesthetics: You just want to be in Elizabeth’s work.” During that nearly year-and-a-half process, the growing family and their two big dogs decamped to a rental on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which Tzu-Wei liked so much that the family bought an apartment near Central Park and enlisted Roberts and crew to do a quick fix up. They moved in and planned to treat Cobble Hill as an investment. “But as it came together, we fell in love and decided we had to move yet again.” They report feeling perfectly at home at last.

Photography by Dustin Askland, courtesy of Elizabeth Roberts Architecture & Design.

Above L: The four-story Italianate townhouse has its original brownstone steps and a restored facade. The windows—as well as all internal systems, including heating and plumbing, are all new. Above R: Penny tiles in the vestibule spell out a family tradition: “When we say hello and goodbye, we get in a huddle and yell ‘Squeeze!,'” says Jean. “We wanted our kids to feel as if they were getting a hug as they were passing through the door.”
Serial Remodelers Settle Down A Brooklyn Townhouse Reinvention from Elizabeth Roberts portrait 10
Above: The architects’ biggest move was to introduce a three-story addition to the back of the structure. “It extends the full 22-foot width of the house and is 18 feet deep,” says Roberts’s project architect Josh Lekwa. A double-height wall of steel-frame windows connects the kitchen to the garden and rises to meet a dining room window on the floor above. Needless to say, the interior is sunnier than most Brooklyn townhouses.

Parlor Floor

&#8\2\20;our clients&#8\2\17; brief was to think fresh,&#8\2\2 20
Above: “Our clients’ brief was to think fresh,” says Lekwa. “The house is relatively wide, so we had room to do something more dramatic and interesting than the standard stair.” Though Jean and Tzu-Wei had been discussing a large indoor atrium at the center of the house, they were won over by the idea of a sculptural plaster stairwell.

The design unfurls in a loose spiral from top floor to bottom, and acts as a light shaft thanks to a skylight. “One arduous thing about living in a vertical space is going up and down stairs,” says Jean, “so what a great thing to walk on what feels like art.”

the front parlor&#8\2\17;s ornate marble mantel is the only original detail 21
Above: The front parlor’s ornate marble mantel is the only original detail that remains in the house. It’s surrounded by an ensemble of upholstered pieces, including a custom ottoman and swivel chairs that came out of Tzu-Wei’s childhood home in the Midwest (his parents are originally from Taiwan and Cambodia).

The sofa is newly upholstered in mohair from Maharam that Roberts says is resilient enough even for dogs. Her firm has a newly established interior design department that the couple worked with on all the furnishings. “I have a lot of strong opinions,” Jean tells us. “I’ve seen so many trends come and go and wanted to avoid all that.”

the dining room&#8\2\17;s steel framed window overlooks the double height k 22
Above: The dining room’s steel-framed window overlooks the double-height kitchen on the floor below—and a dumbwaiter (to the left of the open shelves) is put to use for dinners. The rest of the time, the space is used as the kids’ art room—hence Jean’s selection of Nightwood NY’s already dripped and splattered Painter’s Table.
Above L: Inspired by Emery et Cie’s Moroccan tiles, the designers sourced the powder room’s Zellij from Mosaic House in New York. Above R: The sink is an antique marble basin from Chateau Domingue in Houston paired with a brass Yokato faucet by Brodware.

Garden Level

the dramatic double height kitchen occupies the \1,\200 square foot back extens 25
Above: The dramatic double-height kitchen occupies the 1,200-square-foot back extension on the ground floor. Jean says she asked the architects to think “Plain English style meets modern Shaker.” A W151S3 Extra Large Pendant, designed by architects Claesson Koivisto Rune, hovers over the kitchen island.

The beadboard-paneled cabinets are the work of Matt Hogan of Reliquary Studio, whose workshop is in Woodstock, New York. “The installation required a lot of on-site finessing to get the alignment and finish right,” says Jean. “The process took months—it was as much an art as a science—and it was the one room that wasn’t done when we moved in.”

The island—also fabricated by Hogan—is made of reclaimed oak and has a custom reclaimed butcher-block counter by Tri-Lox. The stools are Menu’s Afteroom design. The white hanging light is the Wastberg 151 Extra Large Pendant.

the counter and backsplash are vermont soapstone, and between them is a trough  26
Above: The counter and backsplash are Vermont soapstone, and between them is a trough that will be planted with ivy—Roberts’ answer to the couple’s desire for a living wall. The range is a Blue Star and its custom hood is powder-coated steel in a deep dark green.

The surrounding walls are tadelakt plaster in a warm white and are the work of Stephen Balser of Art in Construction.

shaker meets seventies: the kitchen steps down to a carpeted sunken family loun 27
Above: Shaker meets Seventies: The kitchen steps down to a carpeted sunken family lounge with a long built-in pale pink sofa. Jean tells us Roll & Hill founder Jason Miller’s own brown conversation pit was the inspiration for this half of the room. “Elizabeth had also done a sunken space before. It’s a great way to delineate the living space from the kitchen. And perfect for a family: It’s a cozy space to jump into with socks on.”
paneled cabinets with emtek metal pulls surround an elevated wood burning firep 28
Above: Paneled cabinets with Emtek metal pulls surround an elevated wood-burning fireplace, a signature Elizabeth Roberts touch. The hearth can be fitted with a pizza oven and Korean-style barbecue, among other inserts, and wood is stored in the niche below. The high-backed Settle is an Ilse Crawford classic.
the custom sofa has horsehair and spring construction, and an outer frame uphol 29
Above: The custom sofa has horsehair and spring construction, and an outer frame upholstered in vinyl to withstand sticky fingers and wet mops. The cushion fabric is a Rogers & Goffigan linen called Horizon in a color called Sunset. The wall hanging is by ceramic artist Heather Levine.
tableware awaits delivery to the dining room in the dumbwaiter. the cabinets to 30
Above: Tableware awaits delivery to the dining room in the dumbwaiter. The cabinets to the right of it are fitted for toy storage: “There’s even a hanging rack for dress up,” says Jean. “These closets are what enables the room to stay neat.”
a floral guest room is tucked in the back of the garden level. the wallpaper is 31
Above: A floral guest room is tucked in the back of the garden level. The wallpaper is Nina Campbell’s Bovary pattern from Osborne & Little. The Sheep photograph is by Polish-American cinematographer Lucas Jogalla, who is represented by Ruby Beets. The burled wood side tables are vintage Roland Carter designs for Lane Furniture.

Kids’ Floor

on the second floor, jack and jill kids&#8\2\17; rooms are fronted by a lib 32
Above: On the second floor, Jack and Jill kids’ rooms are fronted by a library/play space. The Canvas Storage Boxes on the shelves are from Kaikai & Ash.
above; the kids&#8\2\17; baths have a panel of cle tile&#8\2\17;s indig 33
Above; The kids’ baths have a panel of Cle Tile’s indigo Watermark pattern running behind the sinks.
the laundry room—tiled, like the baths, in daltile mosaic tile—ha 34
Above: The laundry room—tiled, like the baths, in Daltile Mosaic tile—has a 1920s cast-iron farm sink found at Olde Good Things. Like the Senegalese hamper? Take a look at 10 Easy Pieces: Laundry Hampers.
the plaster stair has an integrated wooden handrail and base. the wide pla 35
Above: The plaster stair has an integrated wooden handrail and base. The wide-plank oak floors throughout are white oak from the Hudson Company with a matte, clear finish. “The boards are extra long—some are up to 14 feet—which looks great in the big rooms,” says Lekwa.

Top Floor

the beadboard paneled master bedroom is simple and airy. here, the paneling is  36
Above: The beadboard-paneled master bedroom is simple and airy. Here, the paneling is by the couple’s beloved project contractor, Meng Chew, of Tjun Industries, who, Jean says, “worked on Elizabeth’s own house. He added a personal touch in his initial pitch and really delivered on it.” The abstract quilt is by Cold Picnic, which also offers a similar Boob Pillow. The ceramic sconces are by Heather Levine.
the bedroom has an en suite freestanding tub, the modern, ball footed rockwell: 37
Above: The bedroom has an en suite freestanding tub, the modern, ball-footed Rockwell: See Retro Bath Fixtures from the Water Monopoly. “I can be soaking and chatting with my husband while he watches TV,” says Jean. “And it holds all our kids.” The striped rug is a vintage Swedish design.
it&#8\2\17;s four floors down to the kitchen, so jean requested a mini frid 38
Above: It’s four floors down to the kitchen, so Jean requested a mini fridge and coffee station—and that led to Roberts to suggest they add a sink and microwave, as well. Jean reports the setup has been a godsend: “I keep snacks for the kids on the shelf above the sink; I even sometimes make eggs up here.”
Above L: In the master bath, Michael Anastasiades pendant lights hang over an antique French pedestal sink with double basins and Dornbracht Tara faucets. The room is paneled in floor-to-ceiling white Rhino marble with Nero Marquina marble wainscoting. Above R: Botanica wallpaper from Engblad & Co in the WC.
the view from the top. 41
Above: The view from the top.

Take a tour of Elizabeth Roberts’ own Brooklyn house in our book Remodelista: A Manual for the Considered Home.  And here are three more of her projects:

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Frequently asked questions

What is the article about?

The article is about Architect Elizabeth Roberts' renovation of a Brooklyn townhouse, which includes a three-story addition.

Who is Elizabeth Roberts?

Elizabeth Roberts is an architect based in Brooklyn, New York.

What was the goal of the renovation?

The goal of the renovation was to create more space for the family of five and to update the outdated townhouse.

What did the renovation include?

The renovation included a three-story addition, a new kitchen, a new master suite, and an updated floor plan throughout the townhouse.

What was the design approach?

The design approach was to blend the old and the new by preserving the historic elements of the townhouse, such as the brick walls and wood beams, and incorporating modern elements, such as glass walls and steel beams.

What challenges did the architect face during the renovation?

The architect faced the challenge of blending the old and the new seamlessly, as well as ensuring that the new addition did not overpower the original structure.

What was the result of the renovation?

The result of the renovation is a modern and spacious home that still retains its historic charm.

Where can I see more photos of the renovated townhouse?

You can see more photos of the renovated townhouse on the Remodelista website.

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