Innovation & Design

Building a Home in Brooklyn


An urban center like New York City, with its varied old neighborhoods, cobblestone streets, and eclectic architectural styles, can set the mind to wondering what different incarnations buildings have been through over the past couple centuries. The remarkable history behind one particular building in Brooklyn's Prospect Heights neighborhood exemplifies just how extreme that progression can be. According to architect Philippe Baumann, whose firm Baumann Architecture recently renovated the Brooklyn home for a couple and their two children, the place has been through a series of transformations since it was built 120 years ago. "The building started as a carriage house," says Baumann, "and then became a storefront grocery for many years. In 1960 a jet turbine from a United Airlines plane crashed through the roof, and in the early 1970s it was part of a neighborhood rejuvenation called 'Cinderella II' sponsored by a gas company. It then became a rental property, the Reverend Al Sharpton's Brooklyn political headquarters, and was home to a Hollywood screenwriter. It has definitely had a colorful history."

When Baumann's clients co-founder of design and import shop Salvor NYC, Noel Wiggins, and his wife bought the place, their intention was to make the building into a comfortable living space for themselves and their two young children. "We wanted the space of a loft, without the industrial feel of one," says Wiggins.

For a building with an unusual 30-foot-wide footprint, 2,000 square feet on the ground floor and another 2,000 below grade, Baumann's biggest challenge was to add another floor with minimal intrusion on the existing first story, while bringing as much light into the lower spaces as possible. Architect and client also agreed that a terrace would help play down the industrial nature of the building. "The roof sloped down to a void from front to back," says Baumann, "and our original strategy was just to drop a 500-square-foot addition to the roof, so the family could live in the main part of the building during construction. But we became much more ambitious and ended up changing the entire structure."

Baumann's renovation began by adding a continuous concrete bond beam to the existing roof, and resting the 1,000-square-foot steel-framed addition on 30-foot steel beams that span the existing walls. Every effort was made to bring natural light into the building, including offsetting the floor of the addition to allow a 36-foot skylight to run along the roof of the living space below. The addition has clerestories that face the adjacent backyards, and a 20-foot-wide opening in the first-floor kitchen brings in light diffused by glass block.

To make the space seem less industrial, Baumann tempered the brick, concrete, and oxidized steel in the column-free space with natural materials and warm colors. "Anytime we put up a new wall we used lime-washed plaster in shades such as pumpkin ochre, dark blue, and even a crimson in the master bedroom," says Baumann. "The irregularities in the wash make the walls seem more like large paintings." Exposed cedar beams on the ceiling upstairs and waxed wide-plank pine floors add to the comfortable feel.

The Wigginses have turned the upstairs into a large multipurpose room that's often taken over by the kids and their friends. The ground floor, with its three bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen, and living room, is all about the family, while the basement space now has both storage and a 600-square-foot womb-like library and office space.

"We kept the space continuous and contextual," says Baumann. Wiggins agrees. "It's just right for us," he says, "It's full of beautiful light and air, the kids scooter around, and we don't miss having lots of walls." Perhaps this building has finally found its true purpose.

Gross square footage: 6,500 sq. ft.

Total construction cost: $1.8 million


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