A 1915 Crown Heights House That’s Only On Its Third Owners

The Kitchen: The eat-in kitchen has a family vibe. The wallpaper is by House of Hackney. A Noguchi lantern hangs above the vintage farm table, and Room & Board pendants illuminate the kitchen island.
Photo: Skyler Smith

This is the first time I’ve not had furniture in storage in 20 years,” says Thomas Gensemer, a globe-trotting adman who met his peripatetic match in Gabe Brotman, then an executive at Politico. “Between the two of us, we’ve had places in New York, Los Angeles, Washington, London, and Brussels,” says Brotman. And in the process, “we just collect too much stuff.” By 2018, they knew they had to make a home together in the same city, and Gensemer’s Brooklyn Heights one-bedroom wasn’t going to be big enough for the two of them, not to mention the family they are planning to start.

They had been looking at houses in Fort Greene and Bedford-Stuyvesant when a listing caught their eye. “Embarrassingly,” Gensemer recalls, “it was literally 3 a.m., coming home from a Brooklyn warehouse dance party, and Gabe was on Zillow on his phone and found a 9 a.m. Sunday open house.” Bleary-eyed, they walked in and made an offer immediately. It was just what they had hoped to find.

“It needed a lot of work,” Gensemer says. “But we could see the original intent.”

The Kitchen: Gensemer and Brotman worked with the British bespoke cabinetry makers, Plain English, to create the design of the working side of the kitchen, seen here. The fixtures are by Perrin & Rowe. The backsplash and countertops are Arabescato–Calacatta Corchia marble. The door leads to the back garden.
Photo: Skyler Smith

The 1915 Crown Heights rowhouse was an estate sale and, for most of its history, had been occupied by the same family; Gensemer and Brotman are only the third owners. “It was amazing to find a house that hadn’t been touched since the early ’50s,” Brotman says. The bones of the original were not only good but still present, which meant that the task of the renovation was to preserve and restore, not gut and replace.

Before: The Kitchen (left): “The original kitchen was a galley space with General Electric appliances with tiled floors.” Brotman says. “It was a time capsule of the 1950s, the last time the house seems to have been touched. Given food is so central to how Thomas and I live and entertain, we wanted the room to be a main focal point of the house that brought together a lot of rich ingredients: restored wood paneling in the dining room to sit side by side with gorgeous wallpaper from House of Hackney, new parquet floors that match the original floors in the rest of the house, and an oversized Noguchi hovering over an old farm table we had in storage.” The Living Room: The beautiful bones of the house were aged but had not been tampered with, to Brotman and Gensemer’s delight. “Stylistically we wanted to preserve as much of it as possible.” Gensemer says. Photo: Gabe Brotman.

Before: The Kitchen (left): “The original kitchen was a galley space with General Electric appliances with tiled floors.” Brotman says. “It was a time…
Before: The Kitchen (left): “The original kitchen was a galley space with General Electric appliances with tiled floors.” Brotman says. “It was a time capsule of the 1950s, the last time the house seems to have been touched. Given food is so central to how Thomas and I live and entertain, we wanted the room to be a main focal point of the house that brought together a lot of rich ingredients: restored wood paneling in the dining room to sit side by side with gorgeous wallpaper from House of Hackney, new parquet floors that match the original floors in the rest of the house, and an oversized Noguchi hovering over an old farm table we had in storage.” The Living Room: The beautiful bones of the house were aged but had not been tampered with, to Brotman and Gensemer’s delight. “Stylistically we wanted to preserve as much of it as possible.” Gensemer says. Photo: Gabe Brotman.

The couple went back to the contractor, Mario Chotoosingh, whom Gensemer had used in three previous renovations in the city. Even while updating most everything, they managed to keep many original details, including the parquet floor, and largely left the procession of rooms intact. “The layout from the front door on through had a really gracious flow,” Gensemer says, and so they wanted to keep the floor plan as it was. “Almost nothing in the house is new,” Brotman notes.

The Living Room: While Brotman lived in Brussels, he collected a number of mid-century pieces, including the glass-travertine-and-brass table in the window, the Danish mid-century wood armchair, and the vintage Swedish coffee table. The swivel desk chair was found at Porter James in Greenpoint. A “Tree of Life” 1930s Persian Kerman carpet grounds the room.
Photo: Skyler Smith

The period bathrooms and kitchen were the exceptions. The kitchen was created in collaboration with the U.K. company Plain English, specialists in bespoke cabinetry inspired by British country houses. (“They used charming terms like joinery and ironmongery,” notes Gensemer.) It’s the house’s hearth, and you can practically imagine bleating sheep outside. (Not that their two rescue dogs, Samson and Clementine, wouldn’t have something to say about that.)

And now, finally, there’s the room for the furnishings and art Gensemer and Brotman have collected. “The house is very much a scrapbook of our travels and past lives,” says Brotman. And there’s room enough for a few more lives yet.

The Library: One of the few new pieces bought for the house was the Émile-Jacques Ruhlmann table found on 1stdibs. The light pendant is vintage, and the floors are original.
Photo: Skyler Smith

The Upstairs Den: A custom window seat and pillow fabric by House of Hackney invite reading and hanging out. The art deco bronze side table is vintage, and part of Gensemer and Brotman’s fine art and photography collection have found their place here.
Photo: Photo by Skyler Smith

Before: The Master Bathroom (left): The room was showing its age as you can see here and was ready for an update. After: The Master Bathroom, Finished: The room has been transformed by a medley of bold pattern achieved with Stellar Palisades Matte Field Tile by Sonoma Tilemakers covering the walls, while the floor is done in Thassos Carrara Nero Optic Cubic Mosaic floor tile by Complete Tile.  The fixtures are by Perrin and Rowe, the sconce is by Restoration Hardware, and the sink is by Duravit. Photo: Gabe Brotman (before); Skyler Smith (after).

Before: The Master Bathroom (left): The room was showing its age as you can see here and was ready for an update. After: The Master Bathroom, Finished…
Before: The Master Bathroom (left): The room was showing its age as you can see here and was ready for an update. After: The Master Bathroom, Finished: The room has been transformed by a medley of bold pattern achieved with Stellar Palisades Matte Field Tile by Sonoma Tilemakers covering the walls, while the floor is done in Thassos Carrara Nero Optic Cubic Mosaic floor tile by Complete Tile.  The fixtures are by Perrin and Rowe, the sconce is by Restoration Hardware, and the sink is by Duravit. Photo: Gabe Brotman (before); Skyler Smith (after).

The Guest Room: The vintage-looking bed frame is from Crate & Barrel. Art by Joan Gardy Artigas hangs opposite a framed Fernand Léger poster.
Photo: Skyler Smith

*A version of this article appears in the January 4, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!