A few years ago, I bought an apartment in New York. The city had been my home base for a while. Since serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand in the early 1990s, I’ve shuttled between Asia and the U.S. in my work as an activist for community organizations in developing countries. But as a single woman approaching her 40th birthday, I was feeling a pull to give my home base a more permanent structure.
After eight months of scouring real-estate ads, meeting brokers, and visiting open houses, I found a listing in the New York Times that interested me: a garden co-op in a Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, townhouse. The place certainly had its quirks. The railroad flat seemed to have four rooms, but no real bedroom in its 720 square feet. The front of the apartment was open for the first 20 feet, and then confronted a bizarre half-wall with a large window-shaped cutout and no connecting walls. The kitchen featured exposed brick, subway tile, and mismatched appliances. Beyond was a tiny bathroom with a miniature sink barely hanging on to the wall and an original claw-foot bathtub. The final 6-by-7-foot room was a mess: rotting plywood flooring; a small, plastic-laminate window with a broken sash; and a dropped ceiling that had started to drop even further at the edges. Still, the flat had some lovely features, including 100-year-old pumpkin-pine floors and a garden that had a lot of potential.
I was smitten.
Immediately upon closing, I enlisted my family to help in renovations. My brother, David, is a licensed architect and my mother, a practiced home renovator. I’d serve as the general contractor. I wanted to build a new bathroom in the current bedroom alcove, which would necessitate new plumbing. My mom suggested turning the current kitchen into a proper bedroom, and she recommended transforming the current bath into a laundry, a priceless decision. Mom was irked that there were no closets, so she proposed that we divide a walk-in pantry into three separate closets: a hall closet, a large bedroom closet, and an open linen closet in the new bathroom.
As general contractor, I wanted to find distinct craftspeople for each job and do a lot of the work myself—to save costs, to learn new skills, and to inject creativity into my home. I also knew that I would enjoy it. After work and on weekends, I demolished. I wore weathered Carhartts, drank beer, and listened to a classic rock station. I made a mess and cleaned it up again.
I bought a handheld sanding machine for ceiling beams, an eight-foot ladder, and a drill gun. I used a crowbar toun- cover brick in the bathroom, going through Sheet rock, wood lath, and cement layers.
I finally called in a general contractor for the electrical work, plumbing, Sheetrocking, tile work, masonry, and scraping 100 years’ worth of paint from the flat’s window trim, doors, and doorframes. Meanwhile, I focused on details. Relying on my subscription to This Old House, I learned how to boil the paint off of original black porcelain doorknobs and mortise locks.
I visited an architectural salvage shop in Manhattan and bought old glass knobs for my doors. I also found antique coat hooks for a coat rack I constructed for my foyer, using a scrap from the yellow pine wood as the baseboard. For finishing touches, I gravitated to my traveler side. On one of my trips to Cambodia, I hauled back French-style concrete tiles for the new laundry floor and wine-colored silk material to make living room curtains.
After more than two years of dust, sweat, and tears, my house was a home. I would do it again in a minute. Just don’t tell my family that I’ve begun browsing the real-estate section for my next project.