Total Converts

As more and more glass-walled, gazillion-­story-high apartment towers sprout up across the city, buildings with character are more in demand than ever. A nice brownstone, of course, is one antidote to the flurry of dime-a-dozen fishbowls. But the answer for New Yorkers seeking a truly unique space is the conversion. In the past few years, both Anderson Cooper and Terry Richardson renovated former firehouses, and one of the priciest penthouses in Brooklyn right now is a converted clock tower. Such spaces are ­often crammed with unusual amenities (massive timepieces, horse-head-accommodating windows)—and that’s precisely the point. Here, a look at five homes that have undergone mammoth transformations, plus the nitty-gritty specifics of deconsecrating a church, salvaging a fire pole, and finding that elusive convertible in the first place.

The Stable
A 2,400-square-foot, three-bedroom former stable in Clinton Hill with large double doors—initially designed to accommodate horse-drawn carriages.

How’d you find this place?
Geoffrey Freeman, current owner: I bought the mansion next door, and the stable was part of it.
Julian Richards, current tenant: I’ve leased it since September 2011.

What condition was it in then?
Richards: Pretty tumbled down. There was graffiti on the outside, and inside, it was a cavernous, menacing hole. Like a lost tooth. freeman: There had been a hayloft up top, which would have had a small living quarters for the coachmen, but that was gone and the beams were in bad shape. The floor was dirt: When it was a stable, the horses’ pee would be absorbed by the ground.

What was the renovation like?
Freeman: It was structurally unsound, so we took the stable walls down and rebuilt them, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission gave us permission to restore it according to historic specifications. I had to have the bricks hand-hewn.

Those tiny windows high up on one wall: What are they?
Richards: Horse-head windows. I used to wonder, “What kind of horse would have their heads up that high? Giant unicorns?” When you used to drive the carriage in, the areas on the left and right were raised, so you’d see horse heads sticking out.

What else gives it away as a former stable?
Richards: Not only are we street-level, we are on the street. The paving stone actually goes partway inside the house. And when it rains, water creeps up underneath the door.

So that’s a disadvantage to living here, then?
Richards: Well, the proximity of the street is a little peculiar. You’re always aware if someone’s out there. You might feel a little conspicuous when, say, you want to get naked. If you have an argument, people outside hear it.

What’s the best thing about living in a converted stable?
Richards: Opening the doors onto the street. In the summer, we open them and eat breakfast; it’s like living in Provence. Everybody who walks by double-takes, because who the hell expects such intimacy with people eating croissants?

The Church
A four-story, 2,500-square-foot former Lutheran church in Cobble Hill with original stained glass intact.

When did you buy the church?
Sandy Miller, original post-conversion owner: In 1996. It was very Germanic, heavy with dark wood.
Tom van den Bout, architect: It had clearly fallen on hard times. Some of the stained glass was broken, and there had been years of water damage. One of the roof timbers was in such bad shape it needed to be replaced.

What were the big challenges in converting it?
Van den Bout: Trying to maintain its openness and yet installing glass stairs to get you up into the choir loft, which we were turning into the master bedroom. There were temporary plywood steps in place during the conversion, but most of the time we were scrambling up and down on ladders.

Did you have any reservations about living in a church?
Miller: Gutting it exposed the baptismal pool in the basement, and that was kind of creepy.
Molly McBride, current owner: I think I was the first person to see this place when it went on the market. When I walked to the address, I was like, “This is a real church!” I was freaked out. But when I saw the kitchen with those stained-glass windows, I realized it wasn’t really a church anymore; it was this marvelous hybrid.

What’s the hardest thing about living here?
McBride: The stairs are very vertical and made of glass. If you have vertigo, it’s not for you.

And the best thing?
McBride: It feels like a sanctuary. You walk in, take a breath, and it puts you in a special place.

That sounds rather churchlike.
McBride: Yeah, without any of the dogma. All the glory and no shame.

The Storefront
An 800-square-foot antiques store turned home in Greenpoint.

What’s the history of this building?
Maya Marzolf, owner: I opened my antiques store, Le Grenier, here in 2009. When it was built in the 1880s, there was likely a commercial space on the ground floor, but I haven’t unearthed what it was. It had been purely residential until my friend and I purchased the building in 2007. We had to put in I-beams and rip out the façade; it was a complete gut job.

What gave you the idea to turn the store into an apartment?
2009 was really too soon to open a shop at the far end of Greenpoint Avenue. So I decided to close up and try renting it out as an apartment. But as soon as I converted it last year, all my inventory went into the basement, and then the basement got flooded during Hurricane Sandy. The idea was always that I wanted to have the option to reopen my store after I converted it into an apartment. I’m still hoping I can.

What did you have to do to make it livable?
Create a living room, bedroom, kitchen, and dining area. Most of the stuff that’s in the space now was originally for sale. The glass counter with all the bone china—that was a display cabinet for my store. I did have to bring in the claw-foot tub.

Have you slept here?
Yes. I lived here last December. The great thing is the light that comes in the front; it’s unusual to have a wall of windows.

Any drawbacks to living in a storefront?
Saturday afternoons: People will be strolling down to the park and won’t quite understand that it’s not a store anymore. They’re always trying to open the door.

The Firehouse
A circa-1900, 5,500-­square-foot former fire station in Williamsburg that the Berkshires-dwelling owners, who converted the building into a three-story home in 1996, now rent as a multiuse space.

Why a firehouse?
Jennifer Capala, co-owner: We were living in the East Village and thinking, “Buy a place? Why not?” Back then, The Village Voice was where you looked for real estate. I picked up a copy and saw an ad for “firehouse in Brooklyn.” How could you not look at that?

What state was it in when you first saw it?
A bit of a wreck. I was peeling cobwebs away. I said, “No way. This is just too much of a project.” My husband fell to his knees and said, “There is no way we cannot get this.” He has a great ability to see the potential of a property, and he felt like the large, open spaces were a blank canvas for creating something simple yet dramatic.

What is the history of the space?
It was built as a firehouse in 1900 and later used as a rag business; I guess the city was selling off some of its real estate during the Depression. At one point, the downstairs was rented to a group of jugglers and circus performers, because they loved the high ceilings.

What were some of the quirks?
When I say I parted cobwebs down in the basement, there were literally sheets of them down there. Plus piles and piles of rags. The building had an old freight elevator, but we got rid of it. At first we thought we might keep it, but once you get into a project like this, you either have money to do really detailed work or you strip it down and keep it open.

Was there a pole?
No pole. Once we began renovating, however, we found the hole where the pole once was. That’s where we put the spiral staircase.

Do people ever mistake this for a working firehouse?
Every once in a while, the doorbell will ring and there’ll be five or six firemen there. They say, “We know this used to be a firehouse—can we just come in and take a look?”

The Police-Station Radio Room
A one-bedroom penthouse located in the former dispatchers’ hang of the converted New York Police Department headquarters in Soho.

Do you ever imagine the emergency calls the police would have fielded here back in the day?
Angelika Schubert, owner: Not really. I heard there were underground tunnels you could use to walk to the courthouse, but I don’t know if that’s true.

So then what drew you to this apartment?
Coming from Vienna and growing up surrounded by grand architecture, I always wanted to live in a domed building. When I found this in 2002, I just fell in love. It was like, “Oh my God! This is it.”

What condition was it in?
It had a dropped ceiling, and all of the beautiful beams were enclosed. And the kitchen was basically nonexistent, it was so small. Still, you could feel the possibilities. The ceilings had to be peeled off to expose the beams, and then I put the skylights in. And all of a sudden there was this height!

What was the biggest renovation headache?
The rules and regulations. There are so many when you’re working in a landmarked building. Plus, we had to figure out how to decorate it. It’s hard to know what to do in a room where you can’t hang much because the walls are slanted.

What do you love most about the place?
With no windows in the round room, you have total privacy, and light streams in from the huge skylights on top. You feel safe and secure, and when the rain comes down it’s just crazy and beautiful. I’ll lie on my couch and just stare up there.

The Stable Photo: Henrik Knudsen

The Stable Photo: Henrik Knudsen

The Stable Photo: Henrik Knudsen

The Storefront Photo: Jenny Westerhoff/New York Magazine

The Storefront Photo: Jenny Westerhoff/New York Magazine

The Storefront Photo: Jenny Westerhoff/New York Magazine

Keith Powell (left) Avenue L and East 92nd Street, Canarsie. On August 20, 2006, Powell was on his way to visit a brother when he was struck by a drag-racing car. Witnesses said the driver ditched the stolen car and fled. Jian-Lan Zhang Allen and Hester Streets. Zhang, a 55-year-old Chinatown resident, was struck and killed by a delivery truck on April 16, 2008.

Total Converts