So You Want to Restore a Prewar Home?
Featuring Robby Browne, Chris Kann and Jennifer Ireland’s sale at 34 Gramercy Park East, Gramercy
Take a look inside any restored prewar apartment, and it’s not hard to see the appeal. Spacious layouts with soaring ceilings, intricate parquet floors, and delicate wall and ceiling moldings are the stuff of prewar charm.
In a market that feels oversaturated with new developments, old school design lovers and architectural enthusiasts in New York often opt to live in prewar buildings created to accommodate the population boom in the city during the decades preceding World War II.
Properly restored, the Old World details that define a prewar interior can offer more than aesthetic charm; they can add some serious value to your real estate, too.
Unfortunately, bringing a prewar property back to its original glory is no easy feat. In addition to any necessary infrastructural upgrades, like plumbing and electrical updates and the installation of central air-conditioning, chances are it’s going to take a small army of master craftsmen to bring it back to life.
That means highly skilled wood strippers, plasterwork molders, carpenters, tile fabricators and floor restorers who are so well versed in their respective crafts that they can unearth, salvage and replicate just about any prewar architectural element. Decades of wear and tear, plus the occasional plumbing disaster or misguided renovation attempt, can wreak havoc on wood floors and plaster moldings.
But don’t get discouraged; with the right help, you can restore any prewar property, piece by piece, if necessary. Here are some of the types of highly skilled workers to consider calling if you want to restore a prewar space, and some examples of the kinds of work they do.
It is not uncommon when restoring a prewar property to discover that beneath all the layers of paint slathered on over the years is some beautiful woodwork. But it will take a good wood stripper to find it.
So the story went for Kate Hosford, who, along with her father, Charlie Hosford, an architect, and her contractor, Tim Wulfing, enlisted Dean Camenares of East End Woodstrippers to restore the extensive woodwork in her Park Slope, Brooklyn, brownstone.
“If you’re going to live in a brownstone, it’s kind of the responsibility of the tenant to preserve it as much as possible,” said Ms. Hosford, a children’s book author. “You don’t have to turn it into a Victorian mansion, but you shouldn’t rip everything out either.”
Built in 1899, Ms. Hosford’s four-story landmark townhouse is brimming with original woodwork, including burl-veneered panels, double hand-carved pocket doors and black walnut moldings, which are often found in parlors, foyers, stairways and other areas traditionally used for entertaining.
In many cases, woodwork like this has been painted over dozens of times, often with lead paint that requires special handling and removal. Once the paint has been stripped, you could discover an intact wall with lavish moldings or one destroyed by rotting wood.
“You never know what you’re going to find under there,” Mr. Camenares said. “It can either be beautiful or problematic.”
If it is in good condition, all that might be necessary to restore it is a little sanding and a new finish. But sometimes you’ll find mismatched woods from different periods, which might require more extensive stripping techniques (like hand-stripping the wood with a wire-bristled toothbrush) and refinishing, a process that Mr. Camenares said could cost upward of $25,000 to $40,000 for an entire house.
“An alternative to a full restoration, doable by the homeowner if they’re looking to cut costs, would be to refurbish any existing varnished woodwork by cleaning, touching up and re-coating,” Mr. Camenares said. “While this wouldn’t change the overall color of the woodwork, it would help it look in much better shape and potentially save you thousands of dollars.”
Before the widespread use of drywall during the 1940s and 50s, most interior walls were built using layers of plaster, a mixture of gypsum, lime, sand or cement that resulted in ultra-sturdy, soundproof walls and ceiling that were often embellished with ornamental moldings and sculptural elements — think tracery ceilings, crown cornices, frieze moldings, columns and capitals. Plaster wasn’t just a more durable surface, it was a more decorative one.
Unfortunately, years of water damage (from things like leaky steam pipes and overflowing bathtubs), paint jobs and inadequate repairs can cause sagging ceilings and rotting walls that often require new plasterwork.
Such was the case for Alexa Hampton, who, after years of renting in a 1928 building on the Upper East Side, opted to buy three apartments to combine into a larger home when her building went co-op in the late 1990s.
Decades of poor treatment by renters had resulted in unsalvageable plaster walls and falling ceilings, so Ms. Hampton, an interior designer, sought the help of Johnny S. Donadic, a contractor, and Adrian Taylor, a principal at Hyde Park Mouldings.
“I had chosen a prewar apartment for the lovely details inherent to prewar buildings,” Ms. Hampton said. “So it was my turn to salute the unique bones of the apartment by restoring and elevating them.”
This meant modeling, molding, casting, fabricating and eventually installing custom neo-Classical plaster embellishments throughout her home, including egg-and-dart moldings, coffers and ceiling medallions, to bring the apartment back to what it was originally. Mr. Taylor, a fellow and chairman at the Institute of Classical Architecture and Art, estimated that similar work today would cost between $45 and $75 a linear foot.
If you don’t have the budget for new plaster walls or ceilings, Mr. Taylor suggested a couple of less expensive alternatives. “If your plasterwork is structurally intact, patching may be possible to repair holes,” he said. “Or you can paint your existing moldings in a monochromatic matte finish to render them as unobtrusive as possible.”
One of the most recognizable elements of a prewar interior is the millwork, which includes crown moldings, baseboards, wainscoting and window and door casings. In a typical prewar apartment, it can be found in some form in almost every room.
Often damaged from decades of water leaks, sun exposure and layers of paint, antique millwork usually requires highly skilled carpenters to restore or replicate it.
That was true for Friedrike Merck, who enlisted Andre Tchelistcheff, an architect, and Silvina Goefron and Curtis Royston, contractors, to oversee the restoration of her condo at 34 Gramercy East — one of the oldest landmark luxury co-op buildings in New York — only to discover that the wood trim throughout her apartment was not original to 1883.
“I was committed to completing a true historic renovation on the apartment,” Ms. Merck said. “So trims that only dated back to 1901 just wouldn’t do.”
Miraculously, a neighbor was also in the midst of a renovation and had stripped out the old millwork and hired someone to replace it. Ms. Merck’s team stumbled on the neighbor’s stockpile of original trim, which was about to be discarded as it was not in good enough condition to stain or cover in a clear coat, but would need to be painted. So Ms. Merck hired Andres Montiel, the owner of Evolution Projects, to restore, paint, assemble and install the old trim, piece by piece, throughout her apartment.
A few feet short of enough trim to embellish a few remaining windows and door casings, Mr. Montiel reproduced the original millwork by hand-carving it, using tools and techniques from the late 19th century.
“They did an incredible job, not just putting the old trim back together but replicating the new,” Ms. Merck said. “You can’t tell the difference between the two.”
Mr. Montiel, who was studying to be an engineer when he left to start his woodworking company in 2004, also makes wainscoting, custom cabinetry, radiator covers and wood escutcheons for doors and light fixtures, old and new.
If you can’t afford the cost of fully restoring or recreating lavish millwork throughout your prewar apartment, Mr. Montiel suggested a few other options. “Doors can sometimes be salvaged or fixed, sans moldings,” he said. “And if the existing millwork is in good condition, it might only require some refinishing.”
In some cases, recreating a vintage baseboard could start at about $10 a linear foot, Mr. Royston said, while certain refinishing jobs — depending on the intricacy of the millwork, the labor required and the desired finish — could cost up to 25 percent less.
Tile is typically found on the walls and floors of prewar kitchens and bathrooms, and around fireplaces, so tile restoration, fabrication and installation are often an unavoidable part of refurbishing a prewar home.
“Water damage and leaking pipes are the main cause of prewar bathrooms looking like ‘patchwork quilts,’” said Michael Redmond, of Dublin Tile Co., which restored the tile in Ms. Merck’s apartment. “The second biggest culprit are the holes left behind from mounting non-original accessories onto tile walls; they’re almost always just filled with grout.”
In Ms. Merck’s apartment, Mr. Redmond restored the fireplace in the master bedroom fireplace and the renovated walls and floors in the bathroom.
To patch up the fireplace, Mr. Redmond reconstructed the hearth using pieces of the apartment’s original tile that the building’s super had saved. When there wasn’t enough tile to cover the entire hearth, new custom tiles were fabricated and finished to match the old glazed ones.
The previous owners of the apartment had updated the bathroom and kitchen with modern tiles, so Mr. Redmond and his team removed them and installed handmade Moroccan mosaic tile inspired by the Aesthetic Movement, which was popular when the apartment was built.
Mr. Redmond said that while projects like this could start at $30 to $35 a square foot for just the cost of the tile and installation, there are a number of affordable alternatives. “In some cases, existing bathroom tile can simply be reglazed if it’s in O.K. condition,” he said. “And with all the advances in adhesives, it’s also possible to install new tile over old tile — as long as the existing tiles are secure — which completely eliminates the demolition process.”
The most intricate parquet wood floors in prewar homes tend to be in areas that receive heavy foot traffic, like entryways and dining rooms, where finer woods were more likely to be seen. But the wear and tear of that traffic can chip, dent, scratch and warp hardwood, requiring these floors to be sanded, refinished and sometimes replaced.
“Over the course of a hundred years, most floors have been sanded and finished multiple times,” said Stephen Estrin, president of I.J. Peiser’s Sons Inc. “If there isn’t enough ‘meat’ left in the original wood to sand, the only options are to live with it as is or replace the floors altogether.”
Charlotte Worthy, a New York architect, knows the struggle of restoring original wood floors all too well. Overseeing the restoration of an early 1900s townhouse on the Upper West Side, Ms. Worthy discovered that the detailed marquetry borders in the public rooms could withstand no additional sanding. So she and her team designed new borders and decorative patterns that would look authentic, and Mr. Estrin and his crew of carpenters used the designs to construct and install new floors.
With a careful combination of white-oak wood grains, the updated flooring changes shade depending on how the light hits it. “The light that rakes in from the windows — and, to a lesser degree, from the light fixtures in the room — reacts differently depending on the angle of light and the direction of the grain,” Ms. Worthy said. “The wood looks darker where the light is being absorbed on the end-grain pieces, and lighter and reflective on areas along the grain.”
Of course, not all prewar renovations will require such sophisticated repairs, and there are less expensive options available, Mr. Estrin said. “One can simply replace the existing prewar flooring with a new prefabricated and pre-finished wood floor,” he said. “Quite often, these types of floors are easy to install and will end up being less costly than refurbishing an existing prewar floor — you’d just be losing a lot of charm and history by doing so.”
Ms. Worthy added: “If you are fortunate enough to acquire a project that involves restoration, you must prepare yourself for the ups and downs that any construction project will deliver. But in the end, you’ll be saving a part of the living history of architecture.”
Copyright © 2018 The New York Times Company. Reprinted with Permission. The New York Times.