A Row House Reinvented

Cozy meets whimsical and local meets global in a Brooklyn, New York, family dwelling full of unexpected details

Wallpaper by GP & J Baker and a block print by Madeline Weinrib enliven a breakfast nook at the Brooklyn home of Jen Albano and Matt Dawson.
Wallpaper by GP & J Baker and a block print by Madeline Weinrib enliven a breakfast nook at the Brooklyn home of Jen Albano and Matt Dawson.
Albano and Dawson with their children, Esme Bloom and Ogden, in their backyard.
Albano and Dawson with their children, Esme Bloom and Ogden, in their backyard.

The smell of something delicious envelops you upon arrival at the home of Jen Albano and Matt Dawson. “I’m trying out this latke recipe I just learned upstate from a friend,” says Albano, handing over a morsel topped with fresh goat’s-milk yogurt. In the entry hall, Dawson is getting ready to leave for Henry Public, one of the couple’s two restaurants, while conversing with his wife about the color of their home’s front door, which they’ve decided to repaint. Meanwhile, five-year-old Esme Bloom and two-year-old Ogden, who have just returned from the playground, are greeted with barks by the family’s dogs.

Just a slice of life in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn—a brownstone-lined neighborhood that was once an enclave of Italian-American immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. Now one of New York City’s most desirable addresses, it’s managed to hang on to much of its character, thanks in part to residents like Albano and Dawson who prize its old-school roots. The couple opened their first business, the speakeasy-like Brooklyn Social, in a former Italian social club in 2004, long before the proliferation of watering holes on Smith Street, the area’s liveliest strip.

The food-centered family's weekly menu on a chalkboard.
The food-centered family's weekly menu on a chalkboard.
The streamlined kitchen still retains a sense of nostalgia.
The streamlined kitchen still retains a sense of nostalgia.

Their three-story row house was originally built in 1899. “It had great light and more space than we’d ever had,” says Albano, who had heard about it from a neighbor when it was on the market as a rental. “It was charming and simple but with enough moldings and detail for our taste.” A year later, when the owner told them she needed to sell, the couple scraped their finances together to make the purchase. For a few years they lived on its first two floors and rented out the small top-floor apartment. After Albano became pregnant with Ogden, the two decided to take over the whole building and tackle a top-to-bottom renovation with architect Nick Robertson from Seattle’s Studio Piano Nobile. “He really understood my eclectic aesthetic and our desire to honor the house and not obliterate its heart,” Albano says.

A Row House Reinvented

The vertical nature of the townhouse—which is a mere 20 feet wide—helped the couple home in on a purpose for each place. The ground floor is the most casual and communal; the parlor, where the dining room doubles as Albano’s office, is more of a quiet sanctuary; and the upper level is the private quarters, with the family’s bedrooms and bathrooms. While each floor maintains a distinctive mood, they are connected by the architectural bones of the building—a slightly off-kilter staircase, for example, and original pine floors, doors, and moldings. Punctuating these are the details: wallpaper and textiles, vintage lighting sourced all over the world, and religious iconography from India to Mexico.

"This room is everything I love at its most elemental," says Albano.
"This room is everything I love at its most elemental," says Albano.
A settee in the dining room is framed by eye-catching drapery.
A settee in the dining room is framed by eye-catching drapery.

The ground floor reflects the couple’s love for cooking. “We spend an enormous amount of time in our kitchen and include the children in many aspects of food preparation,” Albano explains. Aside from some rental appliances and faux-wood floors added in the 1980s, the kitchen had barely been touched since the building was first constructed. The couple left the original farm sink in place to preserve the feeling of an old scullery, and installed a door to the small backyard so they could easily access fresh herbs and vegetables. “It makes life in the city feel a bit closer to nature,” says Albano. The kitchen itself was opened up to flow into a play area and family room. Seating includes lab stools around the island and a breakfast nook built in the 1920s, with the formal dining room upstairs reserved for special occasions.

A Row House Reinvented
A Row House Reinvented
BRINGING TEXTURE HOME

Jen Albano’s Brooklyn townhouse is full of visual variety that never overwhelms. Here are four ways she made it happen

  • WALLPAPER

    Use soft patterns in lieu of paint to unify a space. “I wrapped our entire parlor entry with a soft gray-and-white block print that continues up through the top-floor hallway,” Albano says. More vivid designs are used to accent architectural details or frame a piece of furniture: “I papered the flue behind my daughter’s bed with an Arts and Crafts pattern—a timeless depiction of elements in nature.”

  • TILE

    Bring fanciful tiles into otherwise clean-lined environments. “For the master bath, I had hand-painted tiles made in India. They add a lively element to European marble.” In the kitchen, the hand-stenciled terra-cotta tiles behind the stove form an intricate juxtaposition to the open shelving.

  • TEXTILES

    Embrace disparate designs and juxtapose patterns of varying scale and hue. “I like to layer rugs—old and new, pristine and shabby. The living room [features] a 1920s Berber over an old Oushak.” On Esme Bloom’s bed, quilts, sheets, and pillowcases of varying prints echo the fairytale quality of the wallpaper and contrast with the relatively neutral Konya rug.

  • COLOR AND STORY

    Use repeated motifs that speak to you deeply to create a narrative flow. “Shades of pale gray and green, pops of red, birds and flowers, shimmering folk art, all occur throughout my house,” Albano says. Even the vignette at right features a menagerie of creatures peeking out amid the pillows.

A Row House Reinvented
A Row House Reinvented

The process of decorating her own home and two restaurants led Albano to a more serious interest in design. She’s now working on interiors projects for other clients, including two more Brooklyn townhouses as well as commercial spaces. On her dining table, fabric swatches, paint chips, and clips from World of Interiors point to a sensibility whose influences run the gamut from Coney Island to Old Shanghai. Many of the home’s decorative details have a richly layered provenance: the antique bathtub discovered in a salvage joint in Pennsylvania; the funky Hollywood Regency cabinet Albano found on eBay, which Dawson painted in Benjamin Moore’s White Dove and installed in their daughter’s room; Hindu oleographs embellished with sequins, beads, and bits of fabric; the pineapple chandelier revived with an application of Farrow & Ball’s Arsenic; and a Romanian reverse-glass painting of the Madonna and Child picked up in New Mexico.

"Think of your home as one story, with secrets, out-of-the-way details, and hidden moments that add depth," Albano advises.
"Think of your home as one story, with secrets, out-of-the-way details, and hidden moments that add depth," Albano advises.

“With myself I'm comfortable being almost completely intuitive,” Albano explains, “but with my clients, the process is more streamlined. In both cases, I believe in starting from a personal place—from beloved items and dearly held notions.” It takes a story, after all, to create a storybook home.

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