Fancy Meets Family Fun In This Restored Harlem Brownstone


In the vestibule of this historic Harlem brownstone, the surprising insertion of Ann Sacks‘ Dafina mosaic tile set against original, hand-restored mahogany millwork distills the home’s old-meets-new ethos.

living room with red couch,...

In the living room, a tufted sofa of Schumacher fabric chats with a settee in pink Kravet velvet, tying to the colorful Lee Jofa chinoiserie fabric drapes. A custom Studio Four rug, Murano glass chandelier and mirrored Julian Chichester coffee table keep the mood light and clean.

Restoring the grandeur of this historic townhouse meant adding new spaces, like a library between the living room and dining room. “The owners wanted the parlor floor to be well used, so we created this place to sit down, read a book, play a game,” says architect Scott Hirshson. A Lee Industries blue velvet settee and walls covered in navy Manila Hemp by Phillip Jeffries strike a dressy tone.

“The pantry is my total fantasy,” says designer Bella Mancini of the moody wet bar she decked in Benjamin Moore’s Hale Navy in high gloss, topped with honed Basaltina counters from ABC Stone and lit by a glass-and-iron pendant from O’Lampia. “There’s even a dumbwaiter to whisk away dishes!” she adds.

The clients loved the old-world elegance of the home’s original woodwork, but encouraged Mancini to freshen things up. Enter: a whirl of cheerful koi—an Osborne & Little wallpaper—swimming around the dining room. A glass chandelier by Seth Parks Designs further lightens the formality, as do Artistic Frame chairs in a bright blue Rogers & Goffigon velvet corded in hot pink.

A breakfast nook off the kitchen looks onto the back garden, providing ample space for family meals, or hosting the kids’ soccer team for post-game pizza. Serena & Lily bistro chairs complement the custom-colored terra-cotta tiles by Tabarka Studio. A banquette by Avanti Furniture is covered in child-friendly Perennials fabric. The lantern above is Urban Electric.

white kitchen with navy island...

Abundant natural light makes for a special Manhattan kitchen. Urban Electric globes with a hint of coral and Serena & Lily barstools tie to the adjacent breakfast nook. Custom cabinetry designed by Hirshson and crafted by Furniture Guild is painted Benjamin Moore Light Pewter, with an island in contrasting Hale Navy. The Quarzo Bianco counters are from Stone Source.

The primary bedroom is equal parts peaceful and playful—see: lipstick pink drapes of Brunschwig & Fils silk against a gray hemp Phillip Jeffries wallcovering. Tony Duquette’s dandelion chandelier and a Holly Hunt velvet-tufted ottoman add retro glamour, while a linen-upholstered Serena & Lily bed wears Matouk bedding. The Hickory Chairs loungers sport a Carlton V. dragon print.

Fire-station reds and cobalt blues turn a powder room into a powder keg of energy. The scrollwork patterned wallpaper by Brunschwig & Fils adds geometric interest, while a custom blue articulating sconce by Urban Electric accents the brass trim on the vanity designed by Hirshson and made by Furniture Guild.

The brownstone’s top floor features cozy guest rooms, including this ode to blue, where a zigzag Quadrille wallpaper plays well with John Robshaw block print drapes. Hints of yellow in an antique rug from Katie Leede & Co. layer in cheer, while family heirlooms complement the Chelsea Textiles bed that Mancini chose for its drama.

At the outset, the venerable old brownstone was perhaps more whoa than wow for Bella Mancini. “To be honest, I was a little bit terrified when I first saw it,” admits the designer of the 1890s building her client envisioned transforming into a modern family home. The four-story, once-grand private residence had suffered many affronts during the years it had been sliced and diced into a “single room occupancy” maze. Her client could see her initial reaction. “After our first tour, she said ‘I hope you’re not scared off,’” Mancini recalls.

That fear, however, was soon assuaged by the building’s residual fabulousness. For the clients, as well as for Mancini and architect Scott Hirshson, the brownstone’s original elegance—from mahogany paneling in the foyer to an intact staircase to beautiful plaster cove moldings and fireplaces—shone through the scars from modifications over the years. That, plus ample space to accommodate a growing family, had been the selling point for the homeowners, who felt constrained in their Upper West Side apartment.

“After our second baby, we realized we needed more room. My husband and I both grew up in houses. We wanted space for kids to be able to play and to have people over without having to shove toys away in a closet,” says the wife. Not until happening upon a listing for a townhouse at their price point, she adds, “had it ever really occurred to me that you could have a house in Manhattan.” When their realtor sang the praises of Harlem’s hidden gems and neighborliness, the couple extended their search north and found the historic building in a landmarked district. “The bones were still there and still elegant,” the wife says—but it needed serious TLC.

Hirshson embraced the challenge of restoring the home’s original grandeur, while making prolific adjustments—for example, adding a large kitchen and breakfast room on the garden level, and digging out a basement to accommodate a workshop for dad and Lego-heaven for the boys. “We first thought about how the home was originally intended to be used, then translated that into a more modern sensibility,” says the architect. “It was truly a gut renovation, with restoration.” Working with general contractor John Hite, the team removed and catalogued trim, doors, paneling and fireplace mantels, and refurbished what they could, often repurposing it elsewhere in the house, such as the mantel in the primary bedroom, which was salvaged from a guest room and freshly stained.

To address light and flow challenges innate to vertical townhouse living, Hirshson added a skylight at the rooftop stairwell, cascading light throughout the floors below, and enhanced aesthetics and functionality, like his repositioning of the primary bathroom to gain a window—“a real luxury in New York,” he says. “In no moment does this house feel narrow and dark, and that’s because the design was so purposeful. There are a lot of character moments,” adds the architect, noting a touch of nostalgia via a window he incorporated into the third-floor landing, which was salvaged from the college dorm where the clients first met.

There are plenty of vivid colors and lively patterns, too, thanks to Mancini and lead designer Taryn Burns’ exuberant choices. “I love that the client favored such strong, saturated colors—there’s nothing muted. The palette complements those rich, bold woods so nicely, and the house’s grandness allowed us to be playful with the design,” says Mancini. To wit: koi swimming along blue dining room walls, jellyfish gracing the powder room on the parlor-level (the “fancy floor,” per the wife), and a splash of custom tile in delicious apricot and blue framing the garden-level breakfast nook. Even in the entryway, Mancini amped up the fun with a mosaic-like wallcovering and a graphic light fixture, which are visible from the street. “I love the idea of entering into a jewel box. It says immediately that you’re in for a treat,” she notes.

For the homeowners, the real treat also extends beyond the front door. The family loves being in close proximity to Central, Morningside and Marcus Garvey parks, as well as to great neighborhood restaurants—and great neighbors. “Harlem’s stoop culture is real!” shares the wife. “We have cocktails and dinners outside on the stoop. For the first time since living in New York City, we have friends on our street.”