For this 4,000-square-foot townhouse, two lots on two different blocks were joined to create an uncommonly spacious footprint
By James Tate
Boerum Hill, long beloved for its urban energy and peaceful rows of 19th-century brick and brownstone townhouses, is a low-rise neighborhood bounded by Downtown to the immediate north and by a rapidly-gentrifying area surrounding our blighted canal to the south.
In Gowanus, around the corner from Littleneck Restaurant and Runner & Stone Bakery on 3rd (both profiled in industry), is the Brooklyn Creative League at 540 President Street. From there, architect Eric Safyan turns out a range of residential and commercial projects dealing with Brooklyn’s landmark brownstones, new construction and enlargements, and its burgeoning restaurant and office space market, from neighboring Littleneck to Roberta’s Pizza in Bushwick, Williamsburg’s wildly popular Milk Bar and Ruby’s Bar & Grill in Coney Island. Safyan, who studied at Tulane University and holds an MA from the Southern California Institute of Architecture, is a Big Apple native. As he tells it, he found his calling early, graduating with a major in architecture from Brooklyn Technical High School. After returning to the city, he opened his practice in 2006 in a Gowanus storefront on 3rd Avenue.
The intervening years have seen his office surrounds blossom, with the long-in-development Whole Foods Market on 3rd opening inroads to growth across the neighborhood.
“That was a green light for a lot of development,” Safyan said. “It led me to move to Brooklyn Creative League. I watched 3rd Avenue develop into a little restaurant row, a club district, an indoor sports district, and a chic hotel district. It’s become all these things.”
In 2015, Safyan began work on a ground-up construction in Boerum Hill, a 4,000-square-foot, four-story townhouse at 411 Degraw Street shown here, not far from the neighborhood’s historic district. For the project, Safyan, developer Joshua Dardashtian, and Corcoran’s Cheryl Nielsen-Saaf and Cara Sadownick broker team made the bold decision to merge two zoning blocks that were available simultaneously, and so an adjacent lot at 259 Hoyt Street became a design consideration as the team worked to create a grand, two-family residence.
“We actually transferred some air rights from the lot on Hoyt to Degraw to maximize the building’s envelope and square footage,” the architect recalled. Though 411 Degraw eventually became a four-story project, care was taken by Safyan to ensure that the building matched the neighborhood’s context. “We were next to this beautiful old carriage house that was a former stable. It’s a Romanesque revival style, with ornate brickwork. It was at a pretty low scale for the block at two stories; the rest of the block was three-story townhouses.”
Safyan’s proposal was for something higher still—“four stories with full-height ceilings,” he detailed. “One way to contextualize that was to design a corniced front facade with brick, and then create a mansard roof that slopes back at the fourth story.” The roof incorporates an eye-catching fish scale metal tile pattern, “rather than the vertical seam tiles which you see in a lot of neighborhoods, to give it more texture. That was conscious in trying to keep it a modern building, but also trying to respect the neighborhood.”
With seven bedrooms and six-and-a-half baths, 411 Degraw is designed as a two-family home with an optional ground-level rental apartment. The main townhouse consists of a second-, third- and fourth-floor triplex incorporating a cellar that bypasses the ground floor.
“We were able to incorporate a really useable cellar into the design,” said Safyan. “It’s not meant to be a living space, but it’s still part of the triplex above it. There’s also a roof deck, and one of the other things we were able to do to enhance the building’s envelope was to put a large skylight over the third floor hallway that creates a double-height space. Instead of a traditional bulkhead around the stair itself, you remain in a bright, open area and then exit to the roof.”
Light continues to spill down into the lower floors. Open riser stairs foster airiness, while their wide, dark wood beams provide warmth. An open-plan kitchen and dining area looks onto a generous back yard through floor-to-ceiling windows that bracket glass French doors. The outdoor space is fenced by horizontal timbers and a wooden lattice on its east wall. Geometric paving stones compose a rustic but modern patio, and leave a rectangular length of exposed lawn open to a gardener’s imagination. (“There’s a sunken outdoor area under the main home’s deck as well, for a potential tenant of the garden apartment,” Safyan said.)
The townhouse took just under a year to build. “I was there when there were just two vacant lots,” the owner said. “We felt that the lot on Hoyt was just at a much smaller scale, so we left it that way purposefully because we felt like Degraw could handle a little bit more,” adding that, for residential projects in old neighborhoods, “I always lean toward a modern, clean look, but try to keep it contextualized to the immediate surroundings. With 411 Degraw, it was agreed by everyone to build up the brick cornice and then set the roof back with the alternating fish scale metal mansard roof. Another detail I’m proud of is that the windows are set back extra deep, so you can read the brick return to the window frame…it’s less of a flat facade and more of a true, heavy brick wall. The brick itself we chose to fit with other buildings on the block. Josh [Dardashtian, from Pinnacle Real Estate Ventures] and the team from Corcoran were concerned about that. I’m also excited with how the facade turned out, and we used the same brick on the rear, rather than putting up cheap stucco, which happens a lot.”
The creation of fresh, modern homes that project a respect for their surroundings is a design line that Safyan is happy to walk. “I’ve been lucky to fall into the restaurant and bar niche,” he said. “On those jobs you get to kind of freak out and do all sorts of crazy interiors, but I also have a lot of home developer and contractor clients. It’s a nice back and forth.”
Eric Safyan / Architect PC
540 President Street / 718.938.8806 / es-architect.com