A Row House Reinvented
Cozy meets whimsical and local meets global in a Brooklyn, New York, family dwelling full of unexpected details
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.