Our 4,700sqft: How European expats found a family home in a historic Hamilton Heights brownstone

December 4, 2018

Our ongoing series “My sqft” checks out the homes of New Yorkers across all the boroughs. Our latest interior adventure brings us to Laurence and Antoine’s 19th-century Hamilton Heights townhouse. Want to see your home featured here? Get in touch!

France natives Laurence and Antoine moved to NYC in 2006, after spending 12 years in Frankfurt, Germany. Antoine’s career as a software developer brought the family of six across the pond, where they landed in Turtle Bay. But once they got acclimated, they knew they wanted a neighborhood with more character. So eight years ago, they bought a historic brownstone in Hamilton Heights. When asked if they miss anything about living in Midtown they quickly say “no,” as they’ve fallen in love with Hamilton Heights’ charm, convenience, and friendly neighborhood feel.

But take away what’s outside, and Laurence and Antoine’s home alone would be enough to make any New Yorker fall in love. Built in 1890, the 21-foot-wide brownstone retains almost all of its original details, such as elaborately carved moldings and fireplaces (five, to be exact), cozy window seats, and jaw-dropping foliated screens in the master bedroom. However, with their children now out of the house, the couple is ready to downsize and has put their home on the market. But before they depart, Laurence and Antoine invited us in for a personal tour.

The house was featured twice on two television series in the past three years–“Law & Order SVU” and “God Friended Me.”

When you first moved to NYC, you were living in Midtown. What drew you to Hamilton Heights?

Our budget and the fact that we wanted to have much more space than we had in Turtle Bay. We decided on Harlem over Brooklyn. We first started to look at properties around West 125th Street, then at properties located in an area that just happened to be called Hamilton Heights. The architecture, tree-lined streets, transportation network, parks, light and residential feel, and prices per square foot were what attracted us then to the neighborhood.

The parlor floor boasts high ceilings, three flowing rooms with wide pocket doors: the front parlor, the central parlor, and the formal dining room with an adjacent butler’s pantry.

You mentioned that you looked at quite a few houses. What was it about this one that stood out?

It didn’t need any major renovation before moving in. The facade has this unique style, very different from that of the other classical brownstones we had visited before. And although this facade may look kind of austere, we were delighted to discover a totally charming interior space with lots of original details. We also immediately loved the big kitchen with its direct access to the backyard. And it’s very close to the A/D express stop at West 145th.

Did you learn anything about its history?

The house has had only six different owners over its 128 years of existence. It was Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton’s residence in the ’70s. It then belonged to Dr. Richard Dudley, a psychiatrist, who sold it to Ryan Brant, founder of Take-Two Interactive Software, whose portfolio includes Grand Theft Auto,” from whom we bought the home.

At the time, your two oldest children were in college, but your younger girls were in high school. How did they feel about the move?

They were excited, mainly because each of them was going to get her own big bedroom. To move into a house fondly reminded them of our house in Germany, a house they were terribly missing in Midtown! They also were happy to be able to walk to their tennis practice a couple of times a week at the HJTEP (Harlem Junior Tennis and Education Program) at the Harlem Armory. And they had an easier commute to their high schools.

The dumbwaiter in the butler’s pantry was electrified, and Laurence and Antoine still use it when they host dinner parties.

How have you seen Hamilton Heights change in the eight years you’ve been here?

Over that time, new restaurants, cafes, and bars opened, houses were renovated, and another yoga studio opened on West 145th Street (Brahman Yoga Harlem).

The custom gourmet kitchen is on the garden level and opens up to the backyard.

Speaking of, favorite spots in the neighborhood?

For food, Agave, Chopped Parsley, Tsion Cafe, Oso, Barepas, the fish market on Broadway and West 144th street, and our supermarket on West 145th, Super Foodtown. We also love the Hudson banks and St. Nicholas for running and the tennis courts at the Riverbank State Park. And my (Laurence) favorite hair salon in the whole city (no kidding!) is Ayten Farell Salon on West 150th Street. The owner, Ayten, is a great hairstylist and comes from Munich, Germany, so I practice my German with her! The salon is a true, authentic, neighborhood spot.

Laurence first starting collecting posters of Japanese versions of French movies. She now has so many that some are stored in boxes.

You got lucky that almost all of the original interior was intact. Were there any updates you had to make?

We had both facades repointed, all windows facing the backyard replaced, the iron fence and the stoop restored, and both outdoor spaces completely remodeled. We also chose to have the walls of most of the rooms covered with light color paint, replacing colors or heavily victorian inspired wallpapers that we didn’t like.

On the third floor, the his-and-hers bedrooms are connected by a double dressing area with beautiful foliated screens at both entrances. In the master, the three art pieces above the dresser are actually framed men’s headscarves traditionally worn during Japanese festivals. 

What are your favorite spots in the house?

Antoine: The kitchen, top-floor bedroom, and backyard

Laurence: The office floor, backyard, and kitchen

Laurence and Antoine set up the second bedroom here as an office and an extension of the master bedroom. In the “hers” bedroom, the detailing is of a shell, whereas in “his” bedroom it’s of the head of a ram.

Laurence, how did you get into collecting Japanese antiques?

While a student at a French graduate business school, I spent part of a summer in Nagano Prefecture, in Japan, working at a small company that was producing traditional Tsumugi silk fabrics. After graduating, I started a job in Tokyo. Then I started to collect Japanese posters of French movies. Back in Europe, a couple of years later, I started to deal with Japanese antique furniture, tableware and objects, most of which I was regularly buying in Japan.

Do you try to incorporate pieces from France?

From France we have mainly antique pieces of furniture, like the bench (called radassier) by the windows in the front parlor, the Alsatian painted buffet in the dining room, the child armchair in the dining room, and the farm table Laurence uses as a desk in the office. We have paintings by a French artist we like very much, Francis Brun, who did the portrait in the front parlor and the paintings in the dining room. A small pink and shiny Eiffel tower is present on the fireplace mantel in the front parlor, next to the Elizabeth Regina.

A large skylight on the fourth floor brings natural light to the wide staircase. This top floor features two bedrooms, one of which has a”cathedral ceiling” lit by a mullioned round opening. In the corner is a kotatsu, a low Japanese table with a removable top. Laurence used to buy these at auction in Japan. 

Do you have a favorite piece of furniture or art?

Antoine: The Japanese kitchen cabinet (mizuya) and the Alsatian buffet in the dining room.

Laurence: I’m unable to pick, they all have a story!

Do you spend a lot of time in the backyard?

Definitely, as long as it doesn’t snow, rain or freeze. We dine, brunch, lunch, entertain in the backyard as much as we can, mostly during spring/summertime.

In one of the top-floor bedrooms, Laurence repurposed Indian tea crates as nightstands. She found them on the street in Frankfurt, restored them, built a lid, and added wheels. 

Any ideas of where you’ll move next?

We haven’t decided yet. We would love to stay in the neighborhood.

What will you miss most about the house?

Antoine: The backyard, the large rooms, the quietness

Laurence: The “soul” of the house, the spaciousness, the quietness


All photos taken by James and Karla Murray exclusively for 6sqft. Photos are not to be reproduced without written permission from 6sqft.

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