Little House on the Highway

Little House on the Highway

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Like many couples renting in highly desirable and increasingly expensive parts of Brooklyn, Eric Mailaender and Emily Lowe Mailaender waited too long to buy. But with their children, Stella, 9, and Bo, 6, in school in their Cobble Hill neighborhood, they felt tethered to the area.

It was their search for something affordable that landed them in South Slope, uncomfortably close to the Prospect Expressway, which Mr. Mailaender sometimes refers to as “my nemesis.”

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Credit…Mark Wickens for The New York Times

But the circa-1890 house they bought for $1.48 million in 2018 was a gem, “a shockingly intact brownstone the likes of which you don’t often find these days,” he said.

So what if it was near the junction of the Prospect and Gowanus Expressways? Unlike many houses in the area, it hadn’t been repeatedly updated and modernized. And as the principal of Resistance Design, a Brooklyn architecture and design firm that emphasizes affordability, Mr. Mailaender, 55, welcomed a chance to do a project on his own terms.

Ms. Lowe Mailaender, 41, a senior vice president at the public-relations agency Rogers & Cowan PMK, was happy to give him free rein. “My main request was for something that was fun and not so serious,” she said. “I didn’t want to feel like I was living in my parents’ house.”

Mr. Mailaender’s idea was to preserve where it was possible and update where it was essential — all on a budget of about $300,000, which for any brownstone would present a challenge.

He embraced the quirkiness of the narrow, 16-foot lot. “Most people would have taken the middle wall out,” he said, referring to the wall dividing the center hall from the living spaces. “But I didn’t want to open it up — partially for money, but also because I really wanted to retain the original layout.”

So instead of large, multifunctional spaces, they wound up with a series of smaller, more intimate rooms. To keep costs down further, the work was done to high standards — but not too high.

“What I basically told the contractors was I wanted them to correct the big offenses,” Mr. Mailaender said. So the boards in the parlor floor that had exposed nails or gaps were replaced by others salvaged from the second floor, which got new flooring.

Repairing millwork and plasterwork can be costly, but Mr. Mailaender found ways to save money there, too. Instead of stripping the wood, an expensive process, he repaired wood surfaces by working a filler into cracks with a trowel, to smooth out some of the age without making them look brand-new. And original plaster details were rescued without replastering entire surfaces: The ceiling medallion on the main floor, for example, was cut out of the plaster ceiling, remounted onto Sheetrock and replaced (along with a custom light fixture he designed).

The upstairs received some updates, including new door hardware and bedroom doors, and a slight reconfiguration that involved moving the bathroom inside the master suite.

Downstairs, modern touches include unexpectedly bold floor tiles in the kitchen and wallpaper in the parlor-floor bathroom, which Ms. Lowe Mailaender chose from options her husband presented.

But much of the budget went toward things no one can see, like work on the foundation, concealing new plumbing inside cleverly designed soffits, and installing modern heating and cooling systems. Mr. Mailaender also replaced the old windows with heavily laminated, double-paned ones, to dampen sound from the highway, and injected foam insulation into gaps around windows and doors. He installed shutters to block the world outside, leaving a view of only the sky.

The result is a home that is intentionally less modern, less open and less “perfect,” Mr. Mailaender said, than what many designers are doing these days. And that’s fine with him. His concept of space has come a long way from his bachelor days, when he lived in a big loft in Midtown Manhattan — “a ridiculous amount of space for one person,” he said.

“There is something to the intimacy and scale of being squished in,” he said. “This is the right scale for a four-person family. All the spaces work just right. We’ve enjoyed rediscovering this traditional scale of house. It’s something that works very, very well.”

And his relationship with the highway? “I’m at relative peace with it.”

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