How Architect Elizabeth Roberts Views The New Historical Home


Brooklyn-based architect Elizabeth Roberts built an empire around gently injecting turn-of-the-century homes with contemporary perspective. Here, Roberts waxes poetic on balancing old with new and the appetite for historic charm in the luxury market.

Brooklyn Stairwell

Natural niche: As an undergrad at UC Berkeley, I spent summers on an archeological dig in Crete, which opened my eyes to the layers of history found in architecture. At the time, Columbia University’s Architectural Historic Preservation graduate program offered a Design Sector degree that focused on the reuse of historic buildings; I’m so happy this brought me to New York. I’ve restored more than 50 townhouses here, the vast majority more than 150 years old.

Reno rule: With an addition, it’s respectful to create a clear demarcation where the old building ends and new one begins. I will not design “fake old.”

Never update: Original handrails. Solid mahogany is irreplaceable and when restored, incomparable to any other wood.

Always update: Lighting and paint.

Dream digs: An old Parisian apartment with high ceilings and plaster moldings everywhere.

Characterful update: Minimize sheetrock by installing painted or unpainted wood paneling on the ceiling or walls.

Finding balance: If there is an original detail, I’ll try hard to work around it—and not just in prewar buildings. For a current 1980s renovation, we decided that the unusual roof and double-story fireplace should stay. We’re replacing the lava-stone panels on the chimney breast with handmade tile, but decided the shape and form were important to retaining the feel of the original structure.

Always chic: Authenticity. I spend an enormous amount of time creating unique homes that sit well within their context.