Novelist Dirk Wittenborn and his wife, Kirsten, a psychologist, are a classic story of escape-from-Manhattan Brooklynites. They’d lived for five years on Second Avenue near 13th Street—“that whole hipster period of my life,” Wittenborn calls it—but when their daughter, Lilo, was born, the desire to move became a mission. “Second Avenue was beautiful on the inside, but when you opened the door, you stepped out into buses and fumes; it was horrible,” says Kirsten, whose water broke on September 11, 2001.
She was pro-Brooklyn; he wasn’t, at first. “I felt like I was going into the witness-protection program,” Dirk says, laughing. “I had just lived in Manhattan for so long.” But the amenities his Brooklyn friends were enjoying (trees, light, their own garages) changed his mind; that, and the more relaxed, European-city feel of the borough. “I wanted to be able to walk my daughter to school,” he says.
After a lengthy search, they saw a parlor apartment in a Brooklyn Heights brownstone. They negotiated to buy the garden apartment at the same time, intending to combine the two—even though it meant letting the tenant live there for six more months after they closed the deal.
The renovations were, naturally, rife with the usual frustrating delays that kept them living like gypsies and taking lengthy working vacations for the better part of a year. After one push-back on the completion date, their architect, Kurt Andernach, put them up in a hotel. “Unheard of,” says Dirk, who’s full of praise for Andernach’s work. Their collaboration was perfectly smooth; it didn’t hurt that they discovered Andernach had gone to the same high school in Germany as Kirsten.
Andernach’s gut renovation exposed the building’s great bones, like the original kitchen fireplace, which now holds the stove, and added a loftlike cleanness to the brownstone’s interiors. It also forced the couple to reconsider their previous design aesthetic. “Our old house wasn’t exactly shabby chic, but it was crammed,” says Dirk. “It’s very calming not to have all that stuff.” Now there’s lots of bare floor, white walls, and natural light. The couple are taking their time selecting more pieces and working out the final kinks; the poured-concrete floor in the kitchen, for example, has had a patchwork of color tests on it for the past year.
One incident in particular cemented Dirk’s love for his new home. Shortly after they moved in, the Wittenborns’ Scottie, Lupo, went missing. A few hours later, as the family frantically searched the streets, they saw notices tacked on the lampposts: found: black dog.
“Would that happen in Manhattan?” he asks. “No.”