My 3,900sqft: Four Ladies Turn a Clinton Hill Townhouse into a ‘Pop-Up Mansion’

February 10, 2015

Our new series “My sqft” checks out the homes of 6sqft’s friends, family and fellow New Yorkers across all the boroughs. On our first interior adventure, we check out a home in Clinton Hill.

What happens when you let four ladies run loose in a four-story Clinton Hill townhouse? Closets, corners and a pantry spilling over with shoes and coats, apparently. “There are shoes lining the kitchen pantry shelves; the tiny third bedroom upstairs that resembles a Swiss chalet in the twilight zone is filled with racks of vintage frocks, coats and designer handbags. You can really tell almost everyone in this house either works in fashion or hoards it,” says owner and 6sqft writer extraordinaire Michelle Cohen. 

We recently visited Michelle in her Brooklyn home to see the pretty amazing setup she has created for herself. Michelle, whose house you’ve certainly seen on our site before, is currently undertaking a major renovation that will turn her and her fiance Stanley’s brick-clad buy into a modern-meets-historic home with a rental garden apartment. But while Michelle’s poring over drawings with her architect, she’s found a few friends to share the journey, and the house; namely three fabulous women with wonderfully different personalities. “Stanley likes to call it a sorority for outstanding ascendant young creative professional women,” she muses.

Jump ahead to meet Michelle and the girls—who range from a Vogue fashion stylist to a creative producer to a journalist who covers evolution, disease and health policy—in their home to get a closer look.

123 GATES brooklyn kitchen, historic brooklyn townhouse

123 GATES Clinton Hill Brooklyn

The home was originally built in the 1860s and renovated in the later 1920s/early 1930s—creating a distinct architecture that’s got Michelle calling it a “franken-house.” There are beautiful and not so commonly-seen details, like a gorgeous center staircase that winds up from the parlor floor to the top.

“Though the building is functional, there are plenty of ‘old house’ quirks,” she says. “Most of the light switches turn on no lights in this house that we know of, for example. About a quarter of the doors have no doorknobs and don’t close all the way, except my room which locks from the outside when you close it—which I found out the hard way once. But you can open it easily with a knife!”

123 GATES Ave Parlor floor, brooklyn townhouse, historic brooklyn townhouse

123 GATES clinton hill brooklyn

The home is very simply decorated, mostly in anticipation of the renovation. The setup is “all very temporary” she tells us. “It’s certainly comfortable and really it’s a rare chance for me to live without clutter. But it’s pretty unfurnished and unadorned. I kind of like a minimalist vibe anyway but it really hasn’t acquired our personality yet. The girls on the other hand are a different story.”

“When we closed on the house, we’d planned to do this—have a short term rental with a nice cozy boho communal situation. I’d stay here and have some nice housemates. But we did expect it to be a lot more short term. The ‘pop-up mansion’ was really a happy accident.”

And with that said, let’s meet the ladies…



Where did you grow up?
I was born to a British mother and an American father and spent most of my childhood living in the suburbs just outside of Los Angeles in a magical place called Malibu Lake. It’s about 40 minutes from West Hollywood and 20 minutes from Malibu. My parents wanted to get my brother and I out of the hustle and bustle of West Hollywood and my Dad discovered this secret place at the time. I bounced around between the North West of England and Los Angeles but most of my years were spent in Southern California.

What do you do for a living?
I’m a world-traveling, boss-wrangling, shoe-obsessed fashion stylist. I like to dress people. I do a bit of everything. I have worked for Tabitha Simmons at Vogue magazine for the last five years as her first assistant and have also worked with her very closely on her shoe collection. It’s turned into a sick passion for me and I’ve pretty much been involved since the beginning. But I’m actually about to leave her nest and embark on an exciting move to London.

How would you describe the house you live in?
Ahh the mansion! I knew from the moment I walked in to see it that I could see myself living here. Its history and exquisite details are what I love the most about it. I always think about when it was built and the family that roamed this entire house and who they were and what they did. I mean, there is a dumbwaiter and two staircases. Who knows what went down here. It’s incredibly charming and cozy—two very important things to me when living somewhere. I like that it’s old and creaky and there are little secret places. It’s a mansion, I feel very grateful to live somewhere with so much space. I’ve been really lucky during my nine years in New York. I never ever had to live in the “shoebox” apartment that most people deal with. I need the room for all of my shoes!

shoes, fashion shoes, luxury shoes

How would you describe your room’s interior design approach?
Light is very very important to me. I need light. I’m one of those people where if it doesn’t feel light and airy then I’m quite melancholy. I also need a constant breeze in my room. Even during winter, the window is always cracked open slightly. I’m a color person. I love color. I like to mix blasts of color with simple white. I’ve had these green curtains for years which are really the main fixture in my room. They are from an Indian shop in the East Village that I have been frequenting for a long time. Also, very important and a must have is flowers. head flower vaseMy mum is a floral designer so it’s something I grew up with. They bring instant happiness to any room. I basically just like to have pretty things around me at all times.

What are you favorite spots in the neighborhood and what’s your favorite thing about Clinton Hill?
I think we are really lucky in Fort Greene/Clinton Hill in terms of restaurants, there are so many delicious places to dine. I absolutely love Roman’s and have been going there for years. I think it’s some of the best Italian food I’ve had outside of Italy. Clinton Hill also has some great pizza spots; Speedy Romeo is super yummy as they have a wood burning oven which gives everything such good flavor. The pizza is delicious and they also have other more interesting dishes if you are more of a foodie. Emily Pizza is a new favorite. I have been going there quite often lately. Emily, the owner, is really lovely and will do anything for her guests. The last time I was there was on a Friday night and the whole restaurant was just tables of girlfriends eating dinner. Ace of Base’s “The Sign” came on the radio and everyone started belting out the words to the song. It was so much fun. Only in Brooklyn!

I also love Fort Greene Park, I think we are really lucky to have it so close by. I love when it turns into a dog park in the mornings, or during the winter you can go sledding there. In the summer I’m in my bikini laying in the grass and drinking rosé!

What do you wish was in the neighborhood?
I wish there was a really fun place to go dance. A great place with a juke box that pumped out some doo-woop and soul with a dance floor and booths to sit in with your friends.

amy maxmen writer, amy maxmenAmy on her motorcycle. Image courtesy of Humans of New York


Where did you grow up?

What do you do for a living?
I’m a freelance journalist and editor who covers evolution, disease, health policy, and other, mainly science-related themes for Newsweek, The Economist, Al Jazeera, Nature, and Nautilus among other outlets. I have a PhD from Harvard in evolutionary biology. I ride a Triumph Bonneville. I’ve written about my time riding with a group of hot NYC motorcycle babes called The Miss-fires a few months ago for Roads and Kingdoms, here.

amy maxmenHow would you describe the house you live in?
I call it a mansion. It’s the biggest house I’ve ever lived in.

How would you describe your room’s interior design approach?
Cover the walls with thrift store illustrations. Hang up, or arrange the objects that make me feel at home. I put down some fabrics I picked up from Peru on the floor so that I don’t get splinters. I have a jade plant because my friend Roxanne told me it’s good luck.

What are you favorite spots in the neighborhood and what’s your favorite thing about Clinton Hill?
Mr. Melon. No question. Good, cheap produce. Inexpensive fresh juice. And charismatic Mr. and Ms. Melon at the cash register. I don’t know if they are married, but I like to think so.

What do you wish was in the neighborhood?
Nothing. This neighborhood is perfect. I wouldn’t change a thing.

amabile dyer


Where did you grow up?
I was born in Oakland, California unto hippy rock musicians. My dad owned a music recording studio in our backyard, I learned how to walk around sound boards, guitars, drum kits, and ride a bike in front of Huey Lewis. We moved to LA when I was seven so my dad could take a job in television. I went to Waldorf school, a super creative, religiously diverse, magical, hippy, free love school where I learned everything from the basics (math, science and English) to watercoloring, woodworking, French, piano, Eurythmy, organic gardening and beyond. It was a lovely, well-rounded education. My upbringing from then was straight out of Frank Zappa’s movie “Valley Girl”, but swap out Nick Cage’s character for an Asian gangster boyfriend. In my adult life, I’ve bounced back and forth from the East Coast to the West Coast, living in Annapolis, MD, Phila, PA, Lake Tahoe, CA, SF, CA and am on my second stint in Brooklyn. I’ve done a lot of growing up through those experiences too!

What do you do for a living?
I am the Captain of Team Awesome, a Mission Accomplisher. I’m the Senior Producer for Guild, an art-forward design-and-build collective that makes elevated, compelling environments and experiences for an upper-echelon of clients. I am a moral supporter, a problem solver, a student, a teacher, and can-doer. I work with a group of bad ass creatives, architectural designers, metal workers, painters, and the candlestick maker! I make things look pretty and cool and bad ass.

123 GATES Brooklyn, dumbwaiterBoots inside the dumbwaiter, and even more coats hidden in a tiny upstairs bedroom

How would you describe the house you live in?
A beautiful, luxurious, nurturing home. I feel incredibly lucky to live in such a beautiful piece of Brooklyn history. I’ve had the great pleasure of living with some of the most talented, kind, fun group of ladies. We cook, we laugh, we cry, we drink, and we’ve pretty much solved all the world’s problems with our brilliant conversations. This is the largest home I’ve ever lived in and it’s something special to see how women take over a mansion! We’ve turned an entire room into a coat closet and a pantry into a shoe and stemware nook, clothes are stuffed in every inch.

How would you describe your room’s interior design approach?
I moved into the mansion in July and took over a room tucked away on the fourth floor. It has gorgeous french windows that over look the tops of luscious trees that line our street. I thought of clouds wafting through the tree tops and wanted to build on that relaxing, calm feeling. White seemed the the best place to start, which is a far cry from my previous rooms that were packed with color and patten. This ended up a brilliant background to let all of my beloved things shine—my graphic and colorful art work, a favorite dress adorning my tailor form, the books that have traveled with me over the years, and my vanity!

123 GATES clinton hill brooklynThe girls’ shoes line the pantry right alongside their stemware

“If you are a dreamer come in
If you are a dreamer a wisher a liar
A hoper a pray-er a magic-bean-buyer
If youre a pretender com sit by my fire
For we have some flax golden tales to spin
Come in!
Come in!”
― Shel Silverstein

What are you favorite spots in the neighborhood and what’s your favorite thing about Clinton Hill?
Everything, it’s the perfect neighborhood, wide sidewalks, beautiful brownstones, all walks of life bustling around, the best restaurants, grocery stores and accessibility to all parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan. I especially love taking runs around Fort Greene Park and through Pratt’s sculpture garden and sipping on drinks at No. 7.

What do you wish was in the neighborhood?
Brown bins for curbside composting. I’m an earth mama Californian!

michelle cohen, michelle cohen writer, michelle cohen 6sqft, michelle cohen editor


Where did you grow up?
I grew up in the quaint historic little village of Granville, Ohio, a university town near Columbus. My parents are Brooklyn born and bred, though, and I grew up on stories of a New York City childhood. They did some pretty interesting stuff, though the city was really different back then. I lived in a lot of other cities after that–San Francisco, LA, Boston, some others, but always planned to end up here.

What do you do for a living?
I’m a writer for 6sqft! I’m also a copywriter and content/website producer. My ideal subjects are cities—this one in particular—urban development and culture in general, design, style and architecture.

How would you describe the house you live in?
We were lucky enough to be able to buy this house after an insane two year search. We both fell in love with it on sight. Stanley is a collector and dealer of antique lighting (check out Old Lights On for a million different kinds of great old lights) and has always wanted to live in an “antique” house. I love old buildings for their thick plaster walls, high ceilings, wood floors and classic details—you get the feeling that if it has withstood time for this long (the house was built in around 1870), what’s another 100 years. I prefer modern to antique lighting, somewhat ironically, but we both agree on this one amazing, huge chandelier from I think the early 20th century for the entry hall.

historic brooklyn windows

123 GATES Clinton Hill Brooklyn

The house got a major renovation in the 1920s or ‘30s. In a way it’s kind of franken-house–it’s not pure, perfect and original, but it wasn’t cut up into a hive of little apartments (or worse) like many in the neighborhood were. It’s full of surprises. The architects and such that we’ve brought over don’t know quite what to make of it. For example, while its neighbors have the original brick facade, ours has, basically, a pink and white stone facade. That sounds a lot weirder than it is. And I love anything from the 1930s so that has something to do with it. It has a great feel to it. And I love the mural in our backyard, it’s from the early 1970s and signed. All the bits of its cultural history are good additions, to me.

123 GATES brooklyn mural
When they moved in, they were greeted with a signed mural from from the early 1970s

To us, it’s a lot of things: A joint venture for the two of us, a huge learning experience (for me especially) in real estate and renovation, a chance to try to do something just the way we want to, a chance to live in a beautiful neighborhood, and—at the moment—an adventure in communal living, as we have found a dangerously interesting, photogenic and fabulous group of additional tenants for the time before we renovate. My housemates call it “the mansion” and I affectionately christened the house Ratwhisker Abbey.

ikea ratsAs far as the interiors, in general most of everything that’s here came with the house from the previous owners. Some of it was installed rather hurriedly before they sold it, so it’s new and functional. We bought a lot from Ikea (I love Ikea, though). The current tenants added a lot of necessary warmth (and also high-end kitchen goodies).

How would you describe your room’s interior design approach?
Though the intent was just to have the bare necessities, I think it does reflect my design preferences—I like a sparsely-furnished bedroom, it’s nice to have a peaceful refuge, and the room has lovely bones. And a huge closet. A lot of my furniture, art, etc. is still living in my East Village apartment which I’m subletting. So what’s here at this point is really stuff I love: my old Le Klint lamp that I bought years ago, these Ikea PS locker cabinets–they look great in pairs—and the Ikea “Alex” architect’s drawer that we use for a nightstand.bunny pillows, modern bunny pillows I’m obsessed with bedding—my one splurge here has been my Danish Hay “dot” quilt; and I keep buying duvet covers. I like a bed you really want to dive into. I found these amazing “best bunnies” pillowcases on etsy. The Ikea rats are like our mascots, I can’t stop acquiring them.

I’m a modernist at heart, but I think old houses with big windows and high ceilings and wood floors are the perfect frame for clean, modern interiors. I’m not really into “restoration;” I think if a house “wants” anything at all, it’s to be a comfortable home that is loved by the people who are living in it, not a historic showpiece. I’m one of those annoying people who wants to paint everything with a coat of thick white paint. And I love mid- and early 20th century modern furniture, lots of wood and chrome and black and modern lighting. I’m a fan of designs created by architects and engineers, the idea of form following function. I wouldn’t really call myself a minimalist, though. I have a lot of stuff. Storage is key.

One thing I really do believe is that you should only have things you use or need–and things you love–in the house. I guess one of my favorite “looks” is “sunny graduate student apartment” with lots of art, books, music, white walls and some great coffee being brewed.

What are you favorite spots in the neighborhood and what’s your favorite thing about Clinton Hill?
It is so hard for me to say what I like best about this neighborhood. I’m knocked out every day by how beautiful it is. I’ve loved this neighborhood ever since I first saw it, maybe 15 years ago. The beautiful architecture of course would have to be up there; the incredible diversity of the people who live here. Visually there’s just this air of genteel bohemia and old fabulous slightly disrepaired mansions (though some would say that is really from a past time), a laid-back and intelligent vibe with so much neighborhood pride.

123 GATES brooklyn mural

We’re near everything transportation-wise, amenity-wise and near half a dozen other great neighborhoods like Crown Heights, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Bed-Stuy, the Navy Yard and of course Fort Greene next door and there’s a lot of exciting things happening in all of them. And the Pratt campus of course. I can be anywhere in a few minutes, including Manhattan. And though it’s leafy and neighborhood-y, it’s anything but suburban. It really is a classic city neighborhood, and a classic Brooklyn neighborhood with a million different histories.

My favorite actual establishments would probably be either Urban Vintage or Primrose cafe– there’s always a sunny corner to eat or work. There’s a terrific restaurant down the street called Aita, and there’s a beautiful little cocktail bar called Mayflower next door. Of course the flea in its summer home is a great place to snack, shop and people-watch. Pizza Loves Emily is this new fancy-pizza restaurant that is absolutely delicious and great for drinks as well. Fort Greene Park is lovely, and there’s a weekend farmer’s market. The Pratt sculpture garden is magical.

What do you wish was in the neighborhood?
I know a lot of people with kids who live here, and they love the neighborhood, but I think the schools need to get better. That is a good kind of investment in the neighborhood.

A market with a good salad bar would be great. An odd request in this day and age I suppose, but I’d love a nice big bookstore. There’s one nearby in Fort Greene (Greenlight Books) but it’s always so welcoming to have a bookstore in the neighborhood. I wouldn’t mind some music venues and more galleries.

As far as what I would change, I’m somewhat concerned that with all of the investing that’s going on–people buying houses to rent out and/or fix and flip, it’s not good for the neighborhood. It’s the kind of thing that has happened in a lot of neighborhoods like this in London, too: Investment funds and superrich foreign buyers have bought houses because they’ve been told it’s a good investment. They don’t really plan to spend much time here or send their kids to the schools or frequent parks, markets and cafes. Everyone wants a good return on their investment so the rents go up to beyond what people can afford.

historic townhouse brooklyn, 123 GATES clinton hill brooklyn-baseThe bottom floor of the home which Michelle plans on turning into a rental. The “throne” belongs to Amabile.

For a neighborhood to be really great in this city I think rents need to be affordable to a diverse group of people, especially young people. But the worst part is that the retail and commercial landlords get too greedy and then innovative and excellent restaurants, cafes, shops and other establishments can’t afford to do business here, and those things are definitely what make a neighborhood a great place to live. This eventually works against the investors, too, who can be quite short-sighted. It’s not so much an issue of “gentrification” or well-heeled neighbors, it’s a matter of there being a cut-off point where it becomes less desirable for everyone. I don’t think that has happened yet, just something I’m wary of; otherwise this neighborhood is as near perfect as I can imagine just the way it is.

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