In the beginning, Jarrah Al-Buainain wasn’t interested in renovating. When his work as a lawyer brought him to New York from Berkeley, Calif., in 2019, he just wanted to enjoy all that the city had to offer.
“I wanted something that was more or less turnkey, and just done,” said Mr. Al-Buainain, 35.
At the same time, he added, “I didn’t want a glass box or a very modern building — I wanted character.”
Finding those two qualities in the same place turned out to be more difficult than he anticipated. So when he visited a two-bedroom co-op in an 1839 building in the West Village, his desire for character won out.
“It’s funny,” Mr. Al-Buainain said, “because it was the worst day of the whole year” — it was raining, he was running late, and he had left his bag and laptop at a restaurant. “I was in a really bad mood. But I came in here, and it was such a weird feeling. It was so cozy. It just grabbed me, and I had butterflies.”
The 1,500-square-foot railroad-style apartment had a peculiar layout that forced him to pass through the living room, dining room, sitting room, back corridor and kitchen to reach the primary bedroom. And many of those rooms were decorated in floral wallpaper and vibrant colors.
“As I was going in, there was more wallpaper, more wallpaper and more wallpaper,” Mr. Al-Buainain said. “It felt like ‘Alice in Wonderland.’”
It was clear that the apartment was going to need some work. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had found his home, so he bought it for $2.6 million in February 2020. After interviewing a number of architects to lead the renovation, he found Leah Solk, who shared his desire to update the apartment without erasing its history.
“We both valued what was already there,” Ms. Solk said. “The ‘wow’ factor came from the bones of the apartment. You could just sense what a special history the building and the unit had.”
But the apartment — which was once home to the actress Judy Holliday, who won an Academy Award for her role in the 1950 film “Born Yesterday” — was in bad shape.
“The plaster ceiling was about to start coming down,” she said, “and there were a lot of things that just weren’t working anymore.”
While Ms. Solk took care to preserve the original floors, windows and trim, she moved some of the walls, reconfiguring the layout. She also moved the front door, converting the dining room into an entrance hall covered in wallpaper with an “Alice in Wonderland” theme, a nod to Mr. Al-Buainain’s first impression of his home.
The old sitting room is now the kitchen. Ms. Solk designed a sinuous banquette to replace the one they tore out. The new piece, made by Atelier Delalain, offers seating on two sides — by the fireplace and the kitchen table — and has room for an integrated planter that sprouts with a rubber tree. She also gave the new island a cleaned-up take on farm-table legs, as a play on old and new.
In the wall between the living room and a den that functions as a home office and guest room, she added a built-in cabinet with shelves. When the doors of the cabinet are open, the two rooms are connected; when closed, they provide privacy for guests.
At the back of the apartment, Ms. Solk designed a new primary suite. To bring natural light into the en suite bath, she installed a wall of textured glass layered with chicken wire, inviting sunlight from windows in an adjacent hallway. One of the glass panels by the bathtub can slide out of the way so Mr. Al-Buainain can enjoy a view of treetops while he soaks.
In the primary bedroom, they kept the wood blinds that were already there, but demolished two triangular corner closets that were so awkward it was impossible to hang much of anything in them. As a replacement, Ms. Solk designed a new walk-in closet between the bedroom and bathroom, reusing some of the old wallpaper they had carefully peeled off a wall in the kitchen and painting the rest blue-green.
E.L. Contracting began construction in June 2021, and most of the work was complete the following January. After Mr. Al-Buainain moved in, he and Ms. Solk spent the rest of 2022 finding furniture and accessories, including living room cabinets from Bicyclette Furniture and dining and kitchen tables from Black Creek Mercantile & Trading.
In total, the renovation cost more than $800,000. Doing the work during the pandemic likely increased his costs, Mr. Al-Buainain said, but he is relieved just to have it done. “Every part of the apartment is special,” he said. “It’s still that same historic place, but now it feels like even more of a home.”
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