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How to Replace Facade Elements on a Historically Protected Building

A New York architect walks through the process of replacing the facade of a historic townhouse

Facade restoration is nearly complete on this historic Brooklyn townhouse.
Facade restoration is nearly complete on this historic Brooklyn townhouse.
Max Touhey

The house: A three-story townhouse in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn, Historic District. Like many others on the block, it was designed with a brick and brownstone facade sometime in the late 19th century. In more recent years, the facade was painted over, and the home was eventually abandoned.

The condition: After years of sitting vacant, the townhouse was "in total disrepair," said construction manager Myrta Echevarria. There was no running water, no kitchen, and no bathrooms. Parts of the roof were open so there had been water damage, and possibly a small fire at one point.

"Windows were broken, animals had lived inside—it was bad," Echevarria said. The facade had peeling layers of gray and pink paint; the stoop was also painted and crumbling. Boarded-up windows were surrounded by rotting-away frames, and some of the exterior facade details had started to crumble.

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The plan: The owners were working on a budget and prioritized the interior renovation, which began first. After starting on the complete interior gut, "We found it was impossible to do just interior repairs," said Echevarria. "The stone was coming down, the facade details were falling off." And so it was necessary to undertake a facade restoration as well, which would be done under the jurisdiction of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission.

The team: Myrta Echevarria is a construction manager and real estate broker who works with clients on a budget by word of mouth. The owners of the townhouse found her after she had worked with their good friends a few years back. Echevarria brought on Eric Safyan, of Eric Safyan Architects, to oversee the interior and exterior design. And she hired Mohammed Rokib, who she often works with on brownstone restorations, for the facade work.

Peeling paint on the facade before it was restored.
Courtesy Eric Safyan.

The timeline: Work began last summer, with a goal to finish everything this spring. The interior work wrapped in December, and the owners are now living in the home. The exterior work is in its final stages.

The first challenge of the facade restoration was what to do with the layers of paint. "The wood cornice was painted, then the upper portion [of the townhouse] was painted-over brick that needed to be stripped, re-pointed, and restored," said Safyan. "On the lower facade, you could see a sandstone color underneath peeling paint."

The owners originally wanted to paint the facade to match the lighter limestone townhouses on the block.
Max Touhey

The owners wanted to repaint the facade in a light color, to match the limestone townhouses on the block. So a plan for repainting was submitted to the LPC, with the proposal to match the original paint color of the house. (All facade work was done with the LPC at a staff level; because the project did not include any dramatic changes to the facade, it didn’t require a formal hearing.)

The LPC pushed back against the idea of repainting the facade. "The LPC had obtained a photo of the house at some point and we saw that the original look of the facade was no paint," Echevarria said. "When you’re working in a landmarks district, you’re locked into restoring what was there," Safyan said. So after convincing the owners to abandon the repainting plan, the team moved ahead with LPC approval to strip all the paint, repoint the brick, and return the brownstone to its original sandstone color.

The facade ornamentation was carefully restored by hand.
Max Touhey

Rokib was hired "to restore those colors," said Safyan. He created a few different mortar mixes, basically brownstone mixed with cement, and picked the one that most closely matched the original sandstone color. By hand, he restored elaborate facade details like the ornate banding around the doors and windows.

The wood cornice was covered in multiple layers of paint, with part of it crumbling. It was stripped and repainted the original black color.

The LPC also required that the rotted wood windows on the front facade be replaced with the same material. They were replaced with Kolbe wood-framed windows. The wood pilasters that surrounded the front windows were also restored by the window company. The owners took the arched stained glass window to Sunburst Studio to be restored.

On the back facade, the brick was cleaned and repointed. "The upper windows were in decent shape so we kept the stone sills and lintels, and just popped in new windows," said Safyan. Back here, the LPC was more lenient with the window replacement materials so they picked aluminum-clad windows from Marvin.

The stoop had to be completely rebuilt.
Max Touhey

At the garden level, the team reconfigured the window and door configuration for a new kitchen in that spot.

Underneath more peeling paint, the stone in the stoop had become loose because a previous owner put cement between the stones. "When people use plain cement for repairs, if it’s done when it’s too cold out or not dry enough, you get a lot of cracks," explained Echevarria. All of the old stone was removed and replaced with a similar brownstone and cement mixture used for the facade. Echevarria compared it to giving the stoop "a new skin."

One approval the team did not get from LPC: Their proposal to put the home’s mechanicals on the roof. Because roof mechanicals would be visible from about two blocks away, they went in the backyard instead.

"It’s a different house," said Echevarria, of the successful restoration. Safyan called it "a true restoration of the original facade." He continued, "For the interior, there was a casual use of the original details… with the facade, it was a true recreation down to the window shutters and matching the original color."