Designer Miles Redd heard the criticism: “You can’t have both awnings and shutters. Never mind that revered French decorator Madeleine Castaing had the same features on her house—it just shouldn’t be done.” But rather than heed the advice of naysayers while planning the restoration of the façade of his town house in New York’s Little Italy, Redd went to Gil Schafer, III, of G.P. Schafer Architect, PLLC.
“With the shutters and awnings, Gil was one of the few that said, ‘Okay, I get it. It’s not what I would do, but it’s a great photo op,’” Redd says with a laugh. Schafer adds that the tension between his academic approach and Redd’s self-described “idiot savant” sensibilities can produce wonderful results. “Sometimes the tension between those two forces can yield something more interesting,” Schafer says. “Just to be perfectly correct all the time can be really boring.”
Completed over roughly two months in the summer of 2009, the façade restoration on Redd’s 1826 home was the final stage of the one-and-a-half-year overhaul of the town house, and the most recent in a series of collaborations by Schafer and Redd. The duo had previously worked together on an apartment in Greenwich Village, a Greek Revival house in Millbrook, and a home in upstate New York.
Though Schafer wasn’t involved in work on the interior, Redd says the inside—highlighted by the addition of a mammoth David Adler bathroom purchased from a salvage warehouse in Chicago—set the bar and influenced the meticulous attention paid to the façade. “You can’t have these glamorous spaces and not care about the outside,” Redd says. “That was my impetus for going the extra mile, whereas in New York, most people don’t tend to do that quite as much.”
The restoration of the town house, which has been Redd’s residence for about 10 years, was completed under the auspices of the New York Landmarks Commission. The philosophy toward the restoration was fairly simple, Schafer says. “‘Preserve the bones’ of the town house to keep its character in tune with the rest of the neighborhood, but add a flair unusual for a New York town house with a variety of layers on top.”
Redd adds, “The idea was to be true to certain Federal details—the lintels over the windows. And the surround around the door is original. But I wanted to have a little bit of a French feel.” Among other sources, Redd consulted a book from the 1930s titled The Small Outbuildings of Versailles and explored a litany of French homes. Redd had formed most of the concepts before speaking with Schafer. “He had a very clear vision, and it was really just up to us to help execute that,” Schafer says.
To add some vibrance to the town house’s façade, which was originally natural brick, Redd painstakingly scrutinized the soft blue-gray he intended to use, adapting it to more or less match that of a similar home down the street. But more important, the color scheme was intended to contrast with its stark brick neighbors on either side. “I’ve never really been a fan of brick, and our brick wasn’t particularly pretty,” Redd says. “I definitely come from the school of painted finishes and surfaces, but it works and is well integrated into the street.”
The windows needed the most work. “They were hideous metal windows with bars across them, probably left over from a 1970s renovation,” Redd says. In their stead came French casement windows with Greek key lintels. “The lintels were more historically appropriate with the Greek key motifs,” Schafer adds. And then, of course, there were the shutters and retractable awnings. “I actually do use the awnings from time to time in the summer. They pull all the way down, and it gives the house such an Italian feel,” Redd says. “And it creates such an interesting light inside, kind of soft…you just feel like you’re in a different place.”
Inspired by a similar piece on the McCormick Blair House, the restoration also involved the addition of a railing and a small black-and-white door that leads into an English basement. One of the most eye-catching elements of the façade is also a relatively subtle one: an enormous E.R. Butler door knob with a rose-shaped backplate attached to the three-paneled French front door. “It’s not nickel. It’s actually silver, so that has a lot of impact,” Schafer says. “But it’s something you see when you get up close.” An Adler-inspired lantern and a wrought-iron hanger loom over the door and the front steps, which, with the exception of the caps and large stone spheres, were left untouched.
Schafer also initiated the design of a black garbage enclosure with Greek key fretwork to keep the unsightly refuse out of view. “He just told me, ‘You’re going to have a big, beautiful, black box,’ and it all worked so perfectly,” Redd says.
Instead of stemming from any sort of architectural epoch, Redd says his sensibilities come from emotional responses. “Every day, I wanted to feel as I walked into the house that I was happy to live there,” Redd says. “Every time I look at this house and see that the lantern is lit, or it’s covered in snow, or the apple tree in the front is starting to flower, all those little parts of living in a house and seeing it through the seasons are inspiring to me.”
Jeff Harder is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Massachusetts.Published in: New Old House Spring/Summer 2010