Designer Steven Gambrel Returns a Greenwich Village Row House to Its Historic Roots

Although some people might argue that Greenwich Village has sold its soul to commercial interests—just take a stroll down Bleecker Street—countless artists, writers, and musicians still make their homes in its historic row houses. While many of these were converted to apartments in the post-WWII era, they continue to give the low-rise, leafy neighborhood a bohemian vibe that hangs in the air like smoke even today.

The four-story redbrick charmer on these pages is a rescue, lifted from years of abuse by loving owners and the talents of designer Steven Gambrel, whose office is only a few blocks away, off Sheridan Square. Located on one of the neighborhood’s least spoiled blocks, the house was purchased as a multiple dwelling with three rental units carved out of its 4,000 square feet. The Canadian-born owners, who moved here from Chicago, turned the problem of transformation over to Gambrel after seeing his own West 10th Street townhouse, which was on the market at the time.

A trained architect with a degree from the University of Virginia, Gambrel is known for his love of exuberant color and boldly patterned textiles and for his work with period homes. He was a perfect choice to bring the sagging 1840s landmark into the 21st century. “When you’re working with one of the townhouses in the Village,” says Gambrel, “you have to take it down to the four brick walls. Inevitably, the wooden floor joists have warped, and you need to replace them with new steel ones. You need a new roof, windows, and doors”—not to mention code-level heating, ventilation, and plumbing systems. In most cases, Gambrel works with a consulting architect. “With a landmarked property,” he adds, “the amount of time you have to spend to get permissions and the number of drawings you have to do is staggering.” It took 18 months to get the permits and another 18 to do the work.

The advantage of a total gut, however, is the ability to rethink the interior. “You get to decide where the staircase goes, what rooms go on each floor, where to put the fireplaces,” Gambrel says enthusiastically. “For me, most of it is fairly self-evident. You want the kitchen off the garden, for instance.” (Although the owners’ original idea was to have it on the main floor, near the living room and dining area.) Bedrooms, including a large master suite and one room each for the couple’s young sons, are on the third and fourth floors.

When renovating landmarked structures, Gambrel walks a line between period authenticity and a contemporary eye. He attempts to create the look of something old that is simultaneously modern. For this house, “we beefed up the millwork to make the rooms feel younger,” he says. “The style of the moldings is traditional, the scale is contemporary.” And while Victorian spaces would no doubt be colorful, chances are they would not have brightly painted and wallpapered ceilings of the kind the designer installed here.

Gambrel’s flair for color appealed to his clients, but they preferred a softer palette. The master bedroom is cream on cream on more cream. “It’s not my personal taste,” says Gambrel, “but it was fun doing it for them.” In the study on the main floor, however, he was allowed freer rein, so he painted the walls and the ceiling in contrasting custom shades matched to Pantone colors—in a dazzling high-gloss finish. “You can’t make a dark room look brighter by painting it white,” he insists. His solution for rooms with little light: “Embrace the darkness. Go for cozy with deep, saturated tones.”

Scale is as important as color to Gambrel, who custom-designed almost all the upholstered pieces in the house. “Custom furniture gives you the chance to get the proportions exactly right, which you don’t get with manufactured pieces,” he says. “And besides, when you custom-design a sofa, you can make sure it will fit up the narrow staircases typical of buildings like this one.”

Gambrel takes a “whole cloth” approach to his designs. “I have my mind on where I am going with the interior decorating right from the start,” says the designer, who is currently working on a home on Long Island for the clients. “To make a project like this really work, you have to know where you’re headed before you can make basic decisions. Otherwise, things become extremely disjointed, and you can feel it in the spaces. You can also feel it in the level of your clients’ anxiety.”

One sure way to reduce owner anxiety is to involve them in the process. “My clients had a lot to do with the palette and the aesthetic,” Gambrel reports. “They wanted a more feminine, French-y look than I usually go for, but that was fine.” To the custom furniture, Gambrel added vintage and antique pieces, much of it bought in France. “There are six fireplaces in the house, and we bought three of them in Paris. The chandeliers are European, too, but we went with 20th-century pieces to add a little spice to the mix.

“The best part of working on a project of this scope is that it’s all part of one piece, from the millwork to the textiles,” he continues. “Of course, the most successful rooms are the ones that work for the clients, rooms that they want their family and friends to use, and this is a very usable house. Even the kids use the living room almost every day.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 2014 issue of New York Cottages & Gardens with the headline: A Fine Balance.