So You Want to Blow Out Your Brooklyn Brownstone


Elizabeth Roberts lives in a four-story townhouse in the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn that is light filled and lovely but not, strictly speaking, an “Elizabeth Roberts townhouse.” The entire ground floor hasn’t been turned into a glamorous kitchen with a marble-topped island the size of small car, for instance.

Ms. Roberts’s kitchen is on the parlor floor, and rather modest, though she is installing Sapele mahogany counters. And the exterior brick wall of the 1866 house, where Ms. Roberts lives with her husband and young son, remains intact; it hasn’t been “blown out” in the back to create a glass-walled extension that amplifies the square footage and floods three stories with natural light.

Such design elements, along with elevated wood-burning fireplaces, white-walled rooms and modern furniture mixed with gorgeous period details, are signatures of a certain urban domestic fantasy as manifested through the Brooklyn townhouse. And arguably these hallmarks can be traced to Ms. Roberts’s firm, Elizabeth Roberts Architects.

Like the Taffera brothers, those other sought-after creators of the Brooklyn look, Ms. Roberts has renovated so many townhouses in the past decade (40 at last count) that she can make the process predictable for those who can afford it. Ms. Roberts would not disclose her fee, saying only that for residential projects it is usually a percentage of the total cost of reconstruction.

“She’s proven she knows how to lay out a townhouse, how to transform them to modern living while still keeping the character,” said Ms. Calderone, whose whose Greek Revival in Cobble Hill was renovated by Ms. Roberts and was featured in Architectural Digest last year. “She definitely built a reputation for herself that she was going to deliver.”

The master of the Brooklyn brownstone, it turns out, is a Californian: Ms. Roberts is from Marin County, north of San Francisco.

She moved to New York in 1994, to earn a graduate degree in historic preservation of architecture from Columbia. She returned to California after school, living and working in Los Angeles and San Francisco for a few years, but, she said, “I was constantly looking for the New York-like corner of the city or the New York-like cafe. And finally, I just packed the U-Haul and came back for good.”

Scott Z. Burns, a screenwriter, director and producer, met Ms. Roberts on the West Coast and hired her to “warm up” his modern home in the Venice section of Los Angeles. She designed a shelving system for his writing office, made over the bathrooms and helped with furniture purchases.

“At one point, I had introduced her to Sheryl Crow, and Sheryl had been looking for an architect,” Mr. Burns recalled. “And then the next thing I knew, Elizabeth was saying that she might play cello for Sheryl. She was great at that. If you went over to her house for dinner, she was great at that. Everything I had ever known her to do creatively was so well considered and mature and not frivolous.”

In 2007, back in New York and working for herself, Ms. Roberts and fiancé (now her husband), Michael McKnight, a physician at NYU Langone, put in an offer for a carriage house in Clinton Hill. The deal fell through, but right around the corner they found a brownstone three times the size, for the same price, in rough condition.

“We had to figure out how to renovate that house for the same construction budget we had cobbled together for the carriage house,” Ms. Roberts said.

She had renovated a few townhouses by that point, including a 3,600-square-foot one in Park Slope for Ms. Gyllenhaal and her husband, Peter Sarsgaard, who had been neighbors in the Manhattan loft building where Ms. Roberts formerly rented. She managed to open up and brighten her own brownstone on budget.

Working at home with low overhead, Ms. Roberts could be selective in taking on projects, which “allowed me to build a portfolio that spoke accurately about what I love to do,” Ms. Roberts said. “My interest was, and still is, adapting old buildings, reusing them, changing them.”

The founding of her firm coincided with a great renaissance for the Brooklyn brownstone — not just as a fixer-upper for gentrification pioneers, but as luxury residences for hedge fund managers, corporate lawyers and Hollywood actors who wanted to raise families in the city but were starved for space in Manhattan.

She now oversees 20 employees inside a former factory building in Gowanus, where she took over an abandoned elevator shaft for herself, her plain white desk sitting below a 23-foot-high skylight.

Increasingly, the firm has been taking on commercial projects, including a restaurant and flower shop, Il Fiorista, set to open this summer in the NoMad neighborhood of Manhattan. She is also overseeing townhouses in the West Village and ground-up construction of a country house in the Catskills.

The challenge for Ms. Roberts, as with any successful architect who develops a recognizable style, will be to not rely on familiar gestures in the future. Around the office, the joke is that clients can choose from a range of colors; they include white and white.

“People may want her to stamp out things that look like work she’s already completed,” Mr. Freundlich said.

“It’s sort of like how do you not make it something that already exists? I try to remain open. I try really hard not to have this tunneled view,” Ms. Roberts said.

During a recent visit to the office, she gazed up into the shaft, where she said she plans to install a custom-made hammock, for napping. “There are not a lot of soft surfaces in this architecture office,” she said, “and there are a lot of late nights.”



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