Real Estate

How to Turn an Ugly-Duckling House Into a Swan

Paneled walls, ceiling medallions, muscular crown molding and arched doorways: Paul and Tatiana Markel’s house in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, is filled with lovingly crafted details that look as if they were installed 150 years ago. But not a single piece of trim is that old — all of it was recently installed.

When the couple bought a frumpy 1930s two-family house for $1.64 million in 2017, they didn’t envision such an elaborate transformation. But it’s not the first time they let themselves get swept up in something unexpected.

Both of the Markels grew up in Jewish families in Ukraine in the 1980s, and both of their families immigrated to the United States in 1989. When their mothers met in Brooklyn years later, they set their teenagers up on a date. It did not go well.

Paul and Tatiana Markel built a new house on an old foundation in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, with help from Jessica Helgerson Interior Design.Credit…Aaron Leitz

“The problem with girls and boys is that Paul was like 16 going on 14, and I was like 16 going on 30,” said Ms. Markel, 41, a partner at the law firm BakerHostetler, whose work includes recovering assets for victims of Bernard L. Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. “Even though we were the same age, I was twice his age, really. It was awful.”

Mr. Markel, a dentist with two Brooklyn offices who is also 41, mainly remembers one detail from that evening: Ms. Markel calling her boyfriend to come pick her up.

Neither of them anticipated what would come next: a chance encounter at a dinner party some five years later, where they fell in love. They married and had two sons, Lev, now 12, and Brandon, 9. And as their children grew up, their starter house in the Sheepshead Bay neighborhood of Brooklyn felt increasingly cramped.

Looking for more space, they bought the ugly-duckling house in Manhattan Beach, figuring they would simply connect the two apartments to make a single-family home, and do a little updating along the way. But just as their relationship began with an unpromising first date that led to something beautiful, they eventually switched from thinking about creating a home that was good enough to building one that was spectacular.

The house has French doors that open to porches on both levels. The decorative cornice was designed with help from Mr. Helgerson’s architect husband, Yianni Doulis.Credit…Aaron Leitz

At first, they moved into the top-floor apartment and began sketching renovation plans with the help of an architect who translated their scribbles into technical drawings. But when they were preparing to file for a building permit, they began having second thoughts.

“Between a dentist and a lawyer, we realized we weren’t designers,” Ms. Markel said. “We also realized at some point that this was going to be it. If we were ever going to make a dream home, this would be it.”

Looking online for someone to give them a second opinion, Ms. Markel discovered the work of Jessica Helgerson, an interior designer based in Portland, Ore., who had recently completed an attractive house in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She called Ms. Helgerson’s office and made arrangements to have the firm redo their floor plans.

When she told Mr. Markel, he was less than enthusiastic. The couple had already spent thousands working with their architect — why pay another designer even more?

“We were at home, and his parents were over, and we were fighting like crazy about this,” Ms. Markel said. “And I have to give it to his parents, who said, ‘You have to listen to your wife on this. She clearly has a vision. She’s never let you down. Just go with it.’”

The kitchen has limestone floors and a custom walnut worktable as an island.Credit…Aaron Leitz

Mr. Markel relented. And before long, Ms. Helgerson’s involvement grew from advising on floor plans to conceiving an entirely new house.

Channeling Ms. Markel’s interest in French design, Ms. Helgerson suggested giving the structure a Franco-American flavor by taking inspiration from rowhouses in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

“We looked at those boxy houses of New Orleans that are embellished stucco,” said Ms. Helgerson, who has lived in France and maintains a satellite office in Paris. “It’s a very simple rowhouse type, but with ornate window surrounds and a little bit of playfulness. That felt right for the neighborhood and like a good way to maximize the footprint without having it be a boring box.”

The resulting 2,700-square-foot home has a facade of French doors that open to porches on both levels and is topped by a decorative cornice designed with help from Mr. Helgerson’s architect husband, Yianni Doulis.

Inside, the lavishly detailed interior mixes modern and traditional elements. The paneled living room has a sculptural Lattice chandelier from De La Espada that hangs in front of a carved Rojo Alicante marble fireplace. The cozy dining room has an antique 19th-century Welsh hutch that sits in front of contemporary Kintsugi wallpaper from Porter Teleo. The generous kitchen has limestone floors, a beamed ceiling, a walnut worktable and a built-in sectional sofa where the whole family can lounge.

When the couple’s builder, Decorative Design Construction, became nervous about producing all the custom woodwork that Ms. Helgerson’s office had designed, Mr. Markel offered to source it. He spent months buying trim, collaborating with woodworkers on turned parts for railings and figuring out how to have custom, flexible trim made from a polyurethane composite to finish the arched doorways.

A library off the living room has built-in cabinetry painted a deep blue and an oversized Brass pendant lamp from Gervasoni.Credit…Aaron Leitz

“I didn’t realize there was so much molding,” Mr. Markel said with a laugh. “But all the custom stuff was on us.”

Being so hands-on helped the couple keep costs down. The house took more than two years to build after Covid-related delays, at a cost of about $1.4 million. During that time, the family lived in a one-bedroom rental nearby. They moved into the home in August 2021, while the finishing work continued and they waited on furniture, which cost another $200,000.

Last summer, their home was finally complete. It was a journey of more than five years, but they had no regrets.

“We love every little thing about it,” Ms. Markel said. “It’s the house I never thought I could have. What could be better than that?”

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