Townhouse Transformation: Breathing New Life Into an Old Brownstone

Two Brooklyn creatives bring a burst of color and youthful energy to a 19th-century structure

Small touches such as fabric, paint, and artwork have a profound effect in this turn-of-the-20th-century residence.
Small touches such as fabric, paint, and artwork have a profound effect in this turn-of-the-20th-century residence.
Photographed by Sean Santiago

Nana Spears and Daniel de la Nuez are no strangers to a little elbow grease. In fact, to call the couple’s 1879 brownstone in Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill neighborhood a fixer-upper is to make something of an egregious understatement. When the couple moved in, the roof leaked and needed re-tarring; the windowsills were crumbling; the boiler had to be replaced. On top of that, the house was uneven and had shifted off of its major supporting beams. “Everyone says it’s not really that threatening,” Spears says calmly. “With these old houses, it’s always something,” adds de la Nuez. As with any creative duo worth their weight in crusty paintbrushes—she runs the art and lifestyle brand Fort Makers, he’s in video production—Spears and de la Nuez are game for almost anything. Click here to view more images.

Despite these trials and tribulations, or perhaps because of them, the couple does not live in the rundown shack you might imagine. Their home is actually quite the opposite: a stately, albeit compact townhouse located a block away from Clinton Avenue, prime turn-of-the-century real estate once dubbed “millionaire’s row.” In 1940, their home was worth a paltry $4,000 and was owned by a stevedore who likely worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; at one point, it was even rented out as a boardinghouse. “I grew up in an old farmhouse in New Jersey, right outside of Princeton,” says Spears. “I love the feeling of a house that has character and history.”

Townhouse Transformation: Breathing New Life Into an Old Brownstone
In the library, a midcentury table sits next to a hand-carved Adirondack chair from the cheekily named Fort Makers Leave It To Beaver collection.
Townhouse Transformation: Breathing New Life Into an Old Brownstone
An eclectic mélange of periods and cultures is indicative of the couple's decorating style. As their home serves as an unofficial showroom for Fort Makers, they're waiting to dress the windows until the brand makes window treatments.
Townhouse Transformation: Breathing New Life Into an Old Brownstone

[Our brand] really makes you question that thin line: what is art and what is design?

–nana spears

The couple hadn't met at the time Spears was closing on the 13.5-foot-wide brownstone. “Then we met and he moved right in!” she recalls with a laugh. Spears also considered homes in the nearby neighborhood of Prospect Heights before settling on Clinton Hill. “I had looked at this neighborhood around seven years ago, and I wasn’t ready for it then,” she says. De la Nuez, a lifelong Brooklyn resident who went to high school at Brooklyn Tech in nearby Fort Greene, witnessed the area's renaissance firsthand. “This was a part of the neighborhood you wouldn’t come to too much,” he remembers. 

Six years ago, Spears left her position as an assistant buyer at Barneys New York to start Fort Makers, a collaborative art brand. “To me they’re all connected—art, design, and fashion,” she says. Spears works with cofounders Naomi Clark and Noah Spencer to devise and execute a range of brand experiences, some of which have a sellable takeaway—artfully painted dresses, the aforementioned cutting boards—while others, such as a fence installation in Richmond, Virginia, serve a more nuanced purpose. “I love useful art. To me, it brings the art to a different level because it's experiential. If you call one of our cutting boards art...that, to me, is special.”

Townhouse Transformation: Breathing New Life Into an Old Brownstone
The home office presents a slightly softer version of the couple's bold aesthetic.


The couple’s shared interests inform the layered aesthetic of their home. Vintage pieces inherited from de la Nuez's parents happily co-mingle with custom Fort Makers creations, such as Spencer's edgy, hand-carved take on an Adirondack chair. “We travel a lot together—that’s one of our favorite things to do,” says de la Nuez, pointing out a rug picked up in post-revolutionary Tunisia and masks found on a trip to Guatemala. "It's about bringing home our shared experiences and the energy that we found together."

Original art is a focal point in every room, as Spears is an avid lifelong collector. Peppered throughout the home are charming vignettes Spears refers to as “small-scale installations." "I've done that in all of my apartments," she notes. "It’s kind of like the manger—not that I’m religious, but I was always fascinated by that miniature world when I was younger. I just collect little things."

Townhouse Transformation: Breathing New Life Into an Old Brownstone
The bedrooms feature decorative bedding from the Fort Makers collaboration with Anthropologie.
Townhouse Transformation: Breathing New Life Into an Old Brownstone

The couple plans to landscape the backyard, expand the master bathroom, and open up the fireplaces—all in due time, of course. “I’ve never been one to buy tons of things at once because your style changes [over the years]," says Spears. "You can really feel [when it's a] bulk of stuff coming out at one time. I’d like it to be more even and balanced. Eventually, it'll be perfect."

Townhouse Transformation: Breathing New Life Into an Old Brownstone
A custom wall treatment in the kitchen mimics textured wallpaper.


TIPS FROM THIS HOME TOUR
Daniel de la Nuez and Nana Spears on crafting a beautiful environment

1. Don't Paint By Numbers
Michael Lancelotti of Conceptual Glazing painted the home’s interiors and restored the original plaster moldings throughout. “He transformed the home,” says a reverent de la Nuez. “There weren’t straight lines anymore, and he was able to recreate those lines with just paint.”

2. Keep Your Eyes Open
“We definitely go against the trendier things,” says de la Nuez, who is currently scouting vintage Art Deco pieces. Spears admits to being constantly on the hunt for inspiration as well. "That’s  all I ever do is look at fashion magazines or art books—or I’m online, shopping, but not really. Just looking at things."

3. Stay In Shape
With just over 2,000 square feet spread over four floors, the couple won't be needing a gym membership anytime soon. "I feel like we're always on those stairs!" laughs Spears.

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