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Pearl of Harlem – restored brownstone by Zivkovic Connelly Architects

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Restored brownstone by Zivkovic Connelly Architects

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Even the most gracious of residences can be subject to shifting fortunes. Faced with once proud, now dilapidated interiors, the architect's best response can be simply to start afresh – removing, restoring and reinstating elements that first gave the building its soul.

The remodel of this 1890s townhouse by architect Brian Connolly has followed this design approach. Over time, the five-level house had been reconfigured as one-bedroom studios, all but destroying its original beauty. Connolly was asked to restore the exterior and reconsider the interior as three apartments, retaining the look and feel of the bygone era.

"On the facade, elements such as the brickwork and railings were patched and painted, and window frames were removed and rebuilt to hold the requisite double glazing, then rehung," says Connolly. "On the inside, the extent of the restoration required the entire building to be stripped back to the masonry shell, with most floor joists removed."

To preserve the original charm, wood details such as wainscoting, door and window casings, stairs and balustrades were recovered and restored for reuse in the new interiors.

"Starting afresh made it easier to configure new kitchens and bathrooms for the three apartments, and there were no issues with uneven floors," Connolly says.

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While the new floors and interior shell were being built, decorative wood details were stripped of decades of layers of paint, often revealing fine carving in the quarter-sawn oak paneling and trim beneath. Some minor imperfections were allowed to remain in order to preserve the patina of history. When reinstated, these details gave the apartments their timeworn character.

Most of the grander rooms have been recreated in their near-original form. Closets and bathrooms were designed with lower ceilings to accommodate essential services, allowing living spaces to retain the high ceilings that were a hallmark of the original house.

Diverging from the past, the kitchens are in closer proximity to the living areas, and pocket sliders have been introduced. These offer an easy separation between the now open-plan, flowing rooms.

The wood floors are also new, with Greek key borders custom designed to achieve the perfect symmetry required.

This unit takes up the two middle levels of the house and features its most opulent aspects – such as the foyer staircase.

The interior design is by tenant Victoria Strange. Working to complement rather than echo the period interiors, Strange chose an eclectic mix of furniture, lighting and objects, with a light emphasis on 1950s and '60s Modernism.

"I felt the interiors had a nostalgic, mysterious quality and I wanted to build on this," says Strange. "To this end, individual pieces evoke their own story – creating dense, rich layers that respond to the finely detailed interiors. The decor is full of surprises that invite you to look twice."

There are many personal memories, too. For example, the bedroom chandelier once belonged to Strange's parents.

In terms of color, browns and greens bring a sense of warmth and coziness to the rooms, appropriate for a house that is home to a young family. Touches of black add a sense of luxury, while orange highlights reflect the Modernist aesthetic.

First published date: 25 October 2011

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Credit List

Architect Brian J Connolly AIA, ICA&CA, Zivkovic Connolly Architects (New York)
Interior design Victoria Strange Designs
Kitchen designer Zivkovic Connolly Architects
Builder Vitenko Woodworking
Kitchen manufacturer Custom by Vitenko Woodworking
Structural engineer Liam O'Hanlon Engineering
Roofing Kemper Roofing Systems
Doors & windows Custom by Windsor AR
Flooring Quarter-sawn white oak with hand-made borders
Paints and varnishes Benjamin Moore
Lighting Foyer, David Weeks Studio, living room chandelier from Lindsey Adelman Studio, wall sconce, French Vintage from Orange, cork lamps, vintage, from RT Facts, dining room, Flos; bedroom, Waterford chandelier
Heating Cast iron radiators
Decor elements Rugs, foyer by Emma Gardner Designs, living room by Christine Van Der Hurd, bedroom by Angela Adams. Paintings, foyer R Kenton Nelson, dining room Matt Magee, sculpture, foyer Matt Magee; globes, foyer, vintage, Edward Wormley
Kitchen cabinetry Cherry, custom
Countertop surfaces Granite in Delicatus Gold from Walker Zanger
Backsplash Sequoia ceramic tile from Complete Tile
Kitchen sink Kindred Estate series
Oven, cooktop, ventilation, microwave, refrigeration GE
Blinds Custom Solar Shades