Last week we profiled architect Christopher Dameron and his eponymous firm. This week, Chris shares the history and process of his recently completed townhouse renovation project in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
The Park Slope Townhouse, before…
The property was purchased in a state where it was obvious that a full renovation was needed, the plumbing and electrical systems were in need of total replacement and the clients wanted to add a new HVAC system throughout. Ceilings and walls had been furred out and wallpapered over the years and the hardwood floors were unsalvageable. A challenging and fun aspect of this project was that the clients bought an historic property on one of the nicest blocks in Park Slope, yet they had a totally modern aesthetic. The house had been altered to such an extent over the years that we initially thought it would be easy to gut the spaces down to the framing and work with a clean slate. We had every reason to believe that the existing construction was similar to many of the brownstones nearby that consist of wood framing that spanned between masonry walls. What we didn’t account for was the fact that the building, built in 1920, was made of structural terracotta block and concrete, faced with plaster, a construction method that is rare in single-family residential buildings.
We decided, after doing extensive probes, to embrace the constraints of the rigid structure of the house. We removed all renovation to its original 1920 condition. Then we continued to remove decorative elements. We only retained the most interesting existing features. Underneath demolished suspended ceilings, we found plaster ceiling coves that dissolved the boundary between wall and ceiling. After stripping out all of the original base and picture-rail molding we let the curves stand alone, the spaces became fluid and the qualities of light and shadow could really be emphasized. There is a giant elm tree, much older than the building, in the front yard. The shadows and dappled light from that tree create an incredible atmosphere in all the rooms. The tree is really an integral part of the experience of the house.
Another influence that came about, as a collaboration with the client, were the films of Stanley Kubrick, particularly Clockwork Orange and 2001. The set design and cinematography in those movies create a dream-like condition in the spaces. Specific, object-like furnishings have a real disconnect from the spaces they are housed in, which highlights the particularity of the space as well as the furniture and its inhabitants. The question became- what historical features do we keep and how far should we go with respect to what the building had originally been? In the end, we aimed for a relationship between the old and new that was a bit unsettling, much like the Kubrick sets. The effect is that you understand the building to be a fluid, modern plaster interior with historical elements floating in fields of white, the windows, stairs and fireplaces sit alongside custom shag rugs and sixties era-lamps as artifacts of another time.
In order to further dissolve the relationship between old and new, we recreated new sections of hand plastered curved coves working with curves in the plan to channel movement. Base moldings were used in some locations and not others. Ideas of decoration and ornament appear and disappear without clear themes, they seem to be disassociated, like the architecture is forgetting it’s own rules. The ceiling coves transform around the house, and your eye tends to move around the room with the ceiling details. The design was also considered with the client’s furniture in mind. Their furniture, curated over many years, is really interesting, colorful and eclectic, which further emphasizes the surreal, dream-like qualities of the whole.
Short Term Memory
In the end, it wasn’t a project about historical preservation or modernization, it was more about short-term memory, creating an effect and letting it dissolve within the space. What really made all this possible was the discovery of the plaster, and how under layers of sheathing and paper, much of it was in good condition. It’s the timeless quality of the material. We had a good contractor and a really talented team of workers, who I have worked with before, so I knew they could pull off the plaster detailing around complex curves. We ended up shifting the money in the budget from drywall to plaster and really concentrating on making that beautiful.
More post-renovation images:
Dameron Architecture pllc
45 Main St.
Brooklyn, NY 11201