It’s All in the Details in a Prewar Home Renovation

Gray kitchen cabinets and a new fireplace mantel bring elegance to a Fort Greene home

custom bookcases

  • Homeowners: Cat and Jordan posted their prewar co-op renovation on Sweeten
  • Where: Fort Greene, Brooklyn, New York
  • Primary renovation: Remodeling their living room and kitchen to fit a more modern aesthetic
  • Sweeten general contractor
  • Homeowner’s quote: “The contractor genuinely loves working with clients, explaining choices and limitations. He knew when to give us the ultimate stylistic decision and when to push back with his expert opinion.”
  • Sweeten’s role: Sweeten matches residential renovation projects with vetted general contractors, offering know-how, support, and up to $50,000 in renovation financial protection—for free.

Written in partnership with Sweeten homeowners Cat and Jordan

Making the space modern

Cat and Jordan closed on their 1,000-square-foot, co-op apartment in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. They loved the prewar apartment’s location and proximity to the park. But, they were put off by the interior’s worn and outdated appearance. The color scheme—yellowy-beige walls against the bright red brick of a non-functioning fireplace and tired cherry cabinets—was not to their taste.

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custom bookcases

The walls had been repainted too many times to count. As a result, it had a “thick, uneven, mushroom-colored appearance.” The wiring, which lined around the baseboards, was nonfunctional. Layers of shiny yellow varnish obscured the parquet wood floors (which Cat was partial to, having grown up in a home with it).

The couple wanted to brighten up the space by stripping the walls and floors. Bookcases around the fireplace would add interest to the long span of wall. A new dark gray kitchen ticked the box of the “warm modern home with spare decorations” they wanted.

Finding the right renovation team

The main goal was to make their apartment “look as big, bright, and clean as possible.” They were uncertain about how to turn their vision into reality. They weren’t “design people,” Cat admitted, and “needed a lot of guidance.” Posting their project on Sweeten, they found a contractor to provide the direction they needed. The couple described the process: “The contractor genuinely loves working with clients, explaining choices and limitations. He knew when to give us the ultimate stylistic decision and when to push back with his expert opinion.”

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Installing dark gray kitchen cabinetry

In the kitchen, they would create an elegant and functional design. Since the kitchen opens into the living room, it was important for the materials in both rooms to echo each other.

The dark gray kitchen cabinetry contrasted with white quartz countertops and a stainless steel backsplash. Instead of handles, drawers had carved-out pull tabs for a streamlined look. The utensil drawers were made of natural walnut. Cat said, “I never thought that the inside of a drawer could, or even should, be beautiful, but I appreciate seeing the woodwork every time I reach for a utensil.”

custom drawer

Adding a kitchen peninsula

There were some minor changes made as the demolition got underway. Originally, an island was planned for additional prep and storage space, but the demo revealed that the dividing wall couldn’t be knocked down. They scaled the island back to a kitchen peninsula with a smaller footprint.

“In the end,” they said, “the peninsula was perfect and very functional.” On the kitchen side, the peninsula held the kitchenware and cookware, along with a trash and recycling bin. On the dining room side, napkins, placemats, and cookbooks filled the cabinet space.

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“Prepare yourself for the possibility that something unexpected can happen during a renovation, especially in an old building.”

Changing up format and flooring

Their Sweeten contractor suggested the modern and very useful reverse L-shaped bar top. It provided a “comfortable and practical surface for resting a coffee mug or working on a laptop.” The open design between the bar and peninsula created a seamless transition to the living space. The bar top was a natural spot for appetizers when entertaining, and “people seem to naturally congregate around it.”

Cat and Jordan were most excited about the kitchen floor tiles. Cat wanted an abstract, black-and-white pattern. With their contractor’s help, they decided on a medley of Moroccan cement tiles in black, white, and gray hues. As Jordan explained, “The more traditional patterns reflected the age of the apartment and the black casement windows, while the mix of different patterns added an informal feel.” The same tile configuration sits in front of the fireplace tying the two rooms together.

custom bookcases

The value of skim coating

In the living room, their contractor designed a new fireplace mantel to complement the new built-in bookshelves. The clean lines provided a focal point. The walls were also skim coated and repainted. Initially, Jordan did not see the value in spending the time and money on skim coating (a texturing technique to hide construction tape and other imperfections to give walls a smooth and plaster-like appearance). However, they were so glad they did it. “I can’t believe what a difference it made—the whole place looks lighter, brighter, and fresher.” The parquet floors were stripped and refinished in a matte coating, preserving their original wood tones.

custom bookcases

Living at home during a renovation

Cat and Jordan’s biggest challenge was living through the construction. It took longer than expected due to hold-ups with the cabinetry. They had to wash dishes in the bathroom and eat a lot of takeout. Wicket, their Norfolk Terrier, was curious about all the construction, so a baby gate was set up to keep her safe. “Wicket was pretty suspicious of the floor-sanding equipment, wood-cutting tools, and other supplies,” said Jordan. “Luckily, our contractors did a fantastic job consolidating the equipment in the construction zone and cleaning up at the end of each day, so we only had a few barking flip-outs.”

custom bookcases

Lastly, the couple has a bit of advice for future renovators. They say watch some home renovation shows to get design ideas. However, “prepare yourself for the possibility that something unexpected can happen during a renovation, especially in an old building.”

While no budget-blowing issues came up, they did learn to take construction surprises in stride. “Having watched so many renovation TV shows, we felt relieved that nothing major popped up and were less disturbed by minor changes in the plans.”

Thanks to Cat, Jordan, and Wicket for sharing their prewar home renovation story!

Resource materials

KITCHEN RESOURCES:

  • Franke stainless steel undermount sink and faucet: Appliances Connection
  • Samsung 24” Chef Collection refrigerator, 30″ gas range, and dishwasher: Appliances Connection
  • Miele pull-out hood: Appliances Connection
  • Cement floor tiles: Villa Lagoon Tile
  • Custom lacquered dark gray cabinets: Custom by contractor
  • Soft-closing hinges and drawer tracks: Blum
  • Caesarstone ¾” Frosty Carina countertops: Custom by contractor
  • Stainless steel 22-gauge backsplash: custom
  • LED lighting: Contrast
  • Undercounter Flexyled lighting: Richelieu

LIVING ROOM RESOURCES:

A note on appliance deliveries: If you’re on a tight timeline, Appliances Connection has over 10,000 items in stock and ready to ship. In-stock items can be delivered to NY/NJ within 2 days.

Sweeten handpicks the best general contractors to match each project’s location, budget, and scope, helping until project completion. Follow the blog for renovation ideas and inspiration and when you’re ready to renovate, start your renovation on Sweeten.

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