From time to time, a random idea comes along and changes the course of a life. It was that kind of suggestion that landed architect Gary Brewer, a committed Brooklynite, in Park Hill, Yonkers.
“The New York Times used to run a column about what it would be like to live in different places, and one Sunday it was about Park Hill in Yonkers,” says Brewer, a partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects. “I was working on the new Visitor Center in Wave Hill in the Bronx, and after work one day I drove up to Yonkers to look around. I checked out a few houses on the market, but when I pulled up to this one and got out of the car, I knew.”
With classic lines and a wide, welcoming porch, the house has the undeniable appeal of the American Foursquare. Even if you’ve never lived in a house like this, the style is so ingrained in the country’s psyche, it looks familiar and homey. Brewer says it’s typical of the old houses that populate Yonkers. “There are many great old houses here; and some have Hudson River views,” he says.
Given that he could have a house and garden in Yonkers for less than the price of a Brooklyn townhouse, what had seemed like a hassle of a commute started to look a lot more possible and desirable. “Part of what our firm does is design new homes for our clients,” Brewer says. “It seemed appropriate that I should live in a house myself.”
But the charm started to dissipate once he crossed the threshold. “It had been in the same family for many years. They had remodeled in the 1970s and 1980s, and it showed,” says Brewer. The period finishes included wall-to-wall pink shag carpet and a mostly brown kitchen featuring an orange-and-yellow wallpaper printed with bamboo and butterflies. (Contemplate that for a minute: butterflies and bamboo done in orange and yellow. Has a more 1970s sentence ever been written?)
The backyard wasn’t small, but it wasn’t pretty. “There had been a dog kennel out there,” Brewer explains. “It was covered with gravel.”
It would take more than a few butterflies on the wall and a gravel-covered backyard to frighten Brewer away from the project. “I wanted to make it more of what it should have been,” he says. “I bought it and decided to make it look more like what it did when it was built in 1906. I wanted anything I changed about the house to be period appropriate.”
Given his position at Robert A.M. Stern Architects, a firm known for its classicism and the creation of more than a few country estates, you’d be hard pressed to find someone in a better position to thoughtfully renovate the place. Brewer’s plan was simple: restore the molding and trim that was left; replace the pieces that were missing; and utilize the outdoors as living space.
Brewer brought a Stern sensibility to the project, but he left the architectural procedure at the office. “When I work on a project for a client, the planning is thorough. A master plan is developed, and everything is carefully plotted,” Brewer says. “For myself, I broke all the rules I lay out for my clients. I simply tackled the projects one at a time in no particular order, but starting with the room I hated the most—the kitchen.”
Even the most dedicated architectural preservationist has been known to make an exception for kitchens, giving into the desire to make the space large enough for gathering and to accommodate today’s super-size appliances. Brewer resisted temptation.
“Back when this house was built, kitchens were more modest, and I honored that by keeping it close to the original size,” he says. “However, once I started, I realized that I wanted to see the backyard from the space, so I replaced the existing small windows in the breakfast bay with large windows and a door with sidelights.”
That connection to the outside was an important part of the program throughout the house. In the living room the architect added a picture window and mullioned doors; in the dining room he added another picture window. “This is a trick to make a small house seem larger by connecting it to outdoor garden rooms,” says Brewer. “They are truly an extension of the living space.”
The blending of indoors and out is accomplished by color. “When it comes to color, I’m not afraid,” says Brewer. “I wanted the colors to blend together; even though each room has it’s individual look, the colors relate to each other. Since I’m surrounded by trees, many of the shades come from them.”
The furnishings are nearly all vintage, assembled after years of visiting flea markets and antique stores. “I knew I would keep it classic. Not only is that what I like, I don’t believe in ignoring the era of a home,” says Brewer.
To adapt an old saying and an age-old question, once you take the man out of Brooklyn, can you take Brooklyn out of the man? “It took some getting used to, and at first it was a bit like a Green Acres scenario—many of my friends acted like I’d moved to Mars,” Brewer says. “However, I’ve become something of an ambassador for Park Hill, and I’m constantly having people over to see the neighborhood. It’s a beautiful, garden-filled place with great historic houses. When my friends are struggling to make it out to the country during summer weekends, I am already relaxing in my garden. This is my summer house.”