The Reconstituted Row House

Brendan Coburn, an architect, turned the interior of an 1847 row house into a sleek, modern space. The switchback staircase in the middle of the house has landings made of slabs of glass and is topped by a skylight.

IN late 1999, when Bertina Ceccarelli moved from California to New York to work for an Internet startup called GiftCertificates.com, and bought a one-bedroom apartment in Murray Hill, among the first things she needed was help with the outdated kitchen. A friend suggested Brendan Coburn, a former boyfriend whom she described as a “brilliant architect.” Ms. Ceccarelli was impressed by such a glowing recommendation of an old flame, and even more impressed by what Mr. Coburn envisioned.

“He sketched everything out perfectly, to a T,” said Ms. Ceccarelli, now an executive vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, which is headquartered at the Bronx Zoo. “Originally, I just wanted to redo the kitchen. But Brendan suggested things like staining the floors black to emphasize the horizontality and make the space seem larger. I was bowled over.”

At the time Mr. Coburn was working from his parents’ apartment in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and at night, he and his client, then in their mid-30s, often studied drawings and examined samples of cabinetry and countertops over drinks.

Once his work was done, Mr. Coburn called Ms. Ceccarelli with a proposal. “Could we have dinner and talk about something other than your apartment?” he asked. The dinner turned out to be a bona fide date — no samples of kitchen tile or wood veneers this time. The next day Ms. Ceccarelli broke up with the man she had been seeing, and by March 2001 she and Mr. Coburn were engaged.

But their wedding, which took place five months later, occurred during a tumultuous period. Mr. Coburn’s father had died in May. His brother had divorced. Then came Sept. 11.

“It had been an intense year, with lots of untethering in the world,” Mr. Coburn said. “All these things made us feel that we needed to build a home.” Weeks after the attacks, they began house hunting.

The couple had two criteria. As Mr. Coburn summed them up: “The place had to be a dump, so we could redo it. And there had to be a garden on the south side of the house.” He loved row houses, the defining architecture of his Cobble Hill childhood, but having grown up in one that faced east and west, he knew they could be dark.

The house they settled on, a two-story structure on Sackett Street in Carroll Gardens, had been built in 1847 and according to Mr. Coburn, “had been getting worse for 150 years.” Ms. Ceccarelli agreed. “During the open house,” she said, “people were literally rolling their eyes.”

They bought the building for $575,000 in March 2002, and over the next nine months spent $550,000 to transform it, a cost that would have been far higher had Mr. Coburn not served as both architect and general troubleshooter, working closely with Marty McKenna, his general contractor. They moved into the house in March 2003, three months after the birth of their son, John.

Few people strolling along Sackett Street would guess that behind the worn red brick facade with the weeping cherry out front there sits a sleek modern structure in which everything — walls, floors, the top-floor extension — is brand-new. The parlor floor seems as open as a loft, and even on the darkest days, the rooms are unexpectedly bright.

“The big design idea,” Mr. Coburn said, “was to make the house into a light box, one that captures different light all day long and all year round.” To achieve this, he used two major elements.

One involved building a switchback staircase in the middle of the house, punctuated with landings made of slabs of glass and topped by a skylight that lets sunlight flood the room. The other involved constructing huge windows facing the rear garden. “One of the most compelling architectural qualities of row house neighborhoods is the relationship between the house and the garden,” Mr. Coburn said. “And Brooklyn is particularly blessed when it comes to finding and exploiting this relationship.”

For some couples, allowing one member to design an entire building would be a sure-fire recipe for disaster. Marriages have teetered over the choice of doorknobs. Yet Ms. Ceccarelli struggles to remember something about which the two of them disagreed.

“The only thing we didn’t see absolutely eye to eye on was the Viking stove,” she said. “I wanted something sexier, like maybe a Gaggenau. But really, it was such a silly conversation.”

And while Mr. Coburn privately yearns for a proper dining room, as opposed to the table by the front window that seats six, there too the couple were on the same page.

“We had to be honest with ourselves,” Ms. Ceccarelli said. “We hardly ever use the dining-room table. Most of the time when we have guests, everyone sits in the living room and we serve them wine and cheese.”

The parlor floor opens onto a deck that leads down to the garden, designed as a series of outdoor rooms. John has a treehouse, with a secret door so his friend from next door can visit. The tenants in the basement apartment also have outdoor space.

The second floor is home to Mr. Coburn’s tiny office, along with what he describes as the “TV and Lego pavilion.” In the rear is John’s room, outfitted with his father’s wooden building blocks, along with a huge map of the world on which John can trace his mother’s travels — most recently a safari in Bangalore, India — and a large plush tiger. (Having a mother with an office at the Bronx Zoo has its upside.) The top floor is devoted mainly to the couple’s bedroom.

Architects invariably yearn to build something of their own, or at least to get their hands on buildings they can retrofit. Mr. Coburn is no exception. “If it were up to me,” he said, “we’d have a tiny Greek Revival farmhouse somewhere in the country and change row houses every couple of years.”

Ms. Ceccarelli looked slightly ashen at the possibility. “Um, maybe not,” she said. “I didn’t quite sign up for that.”

Source: nytimes.com E-mail: habitats@nytimes.com Tina Fineberg for The New York Times

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