Repurposing a Dockside Tenement in Red Hook, Brooklyn

Repurposing a Dockside Tenement in Red Hook, Brooklyn

restore & renovate

So, what’s Not to Like About Brooklyn?


Photography by John Gruen

Steeped in History, Red Hook has been witness to everything from the Battle of Long Island​ in 1776 to being what was known in the 1990’s as one of the worst places to live in the United States. In between, it was the port of New York’s main deep water docks where ships unloaded their goods into warehouses and where dockside industries such as flour mills, sugar refineries and brick yards thrived. It was also where hard living was at it’s worst.

Fifteen years ago when New York sprawl went looking for the next best neighborhood to reinvigorate, it found Red Hook just a hop, skip and a jump from the newly trendy Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens. This waterfront community with stellar views of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty attracted artists looking for lofts, families wanting large, affordable homes and even stores that wanted big, easy-to-get-to retail spaces like Ikea and New York’s famed Fairway Market. Today, this quiet neighborhood has warehouses-turned condo’s, cutting edge restaurants, parks, museums and the best views in town.

When architect Rafe Churchill and his wife, interior designer Heide Hendricks, first met this 19th century six-family tenement a few blocks from the waterfront, they saw a diamond in the rough.  Rafe, who specializes in creating ‘old new houses’ based on historic architecture and Heide, whose signature style of mixing the old with the new, were in their element. This was a blank slate, an opportunity to re-purpose an old building for today’s lifestyle without sacrificing its history. This could not be a better match.


The structure, built by the Atlantic Dock Company for their worker’s housing, sat there almost entirely gutted. The solid brick building came with large, deeply set windows, a few existing walls, most of the original 1860’s floorboards and two sections of a center hall staircase.  The scarcity of any historical character gave Rafe and Heide free reign to mix styles and integrate time periods. Since this was not going to be a restoration, but a re-purposing to a one-family townhouse –  including a small first floor apartment, they had the freedom to determine the style. They chose to create a traditional townhouse with some of the open design characteristics of a classic New York loft and committed themselves to incorporate the maritime theme of Red Hook with the historical overtones of the neighborhood in order to bring this old-new house up to date.

Creating New Rooms in an Old House

The most challenging part of the restructuring was to create purposeful rooms in limited space, said Heide, who as the designer, worked with Rafe from the beginning to insure that the architecture and interior design flow and function was integrated.

The only structural elements existing from the original six family apartment layout were the center hall and staircase. The first and easiest decision was to allocate the top floor as the main family living space in an open loft layout. That left the middle floor for the bedrooms and the first floor for a rental unit and an entry mud room/lounge.

The top floor, an open rectangle, has the kitchen and dining rooms on one side bisected by a sky-lit stairwell and the living room on the other. The openness allows each area to share the clear light and beautiful views of Governor’s Island, the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Cruise Terminal.  The kitchen and dining room were designed in deference to the service kitchens of the early 1900’s when kitchen walls were entirely covered in 3"x6" white subway tiles in order to keep cooking areas bright and easy to clean.

Combining the utility aesthetics with the industrial elements, Rafe’s design grounded the open and airy kitchen by using laminated chocolate Formica cabinets topped with thick slabs of Danby Imperial marble. A full, traditional walk-in pantry at the far end of the kitchen and wall mounted pot racks provide for ample storage.  The adjacent dining room complements the kitchen with a collection of black and white Ansel Adams prints grouped on the wall providing a backdrop to Rafe’s Brooklyn-made custom designed table paired with chairs Heide chose from Thonet.

Tasked with renovating the shell of an old 1860’s dock worker’s tenement into a family brownstone with loft-like living space required researching deep into Red Hook’s past

Rafe wanted this home to be energy efficient and included the Shaker-inspired wood stove from Wittus. It easily heats the top floor without assitance from the cast iron radiators. The house also has a 5KW solar array, a rain water cistern system for the garden and a heat recovery ventilation system which conditions the interior air quality.

Down one flight to the second floor, Rafe kept the center hall in tact and recreated what was once 2 family apartments into 4 bedrooms, 2 baths, a laundry room and a family ‘workroom’ equipped with floor to ceiling storage where all the projects, sewing and crafts could be done. The ground floor has the family mud room doubling as a lounge with an oversized leather Chesterfield sofa and an large unframed painting of a fish, another nod to one of the past industries of the waterfront neighborhood.


As part of the strong architectural vision, Rafe used a strong Shaker palette on the trimwork producing a powerful backdrop for Heide to set the decor. “I gravitate towards vintage goods and antiques, because these pieces bring a strong sense of history to the conversation that could otherwise easily be taken over by the bold trim colors.” said Heide of her approach. After inventorying art and furniture from the last home, she edited her choices down to a few key pieces mixing modern and industrial.

“Being budget conscious helped to manage our expectations. It helped to develop strategies in decorating, purchasing the most essential foundation pieces for each room early in the process so we would not have to compromise on them later. Then we went ahead and enhanced with some new and mostly unique finds.”

The master bed, closets and bath, one of Heide’s favorite parts of the house, has an open hall closet that connect the bedroom and bathroom. They were able to mix vintage styled materials, such as the claw foot tub, subway tiles and penny tiles on the floor into a more modern, space saving concept of having the tub set into the shower room. “It seems to nicely bridge the traditional elements with the nostalgia of a New York City artist’s loft,” said Heide. “Of course I could be over romanticizing my own first loft in Brooklyn twenty years earlier!” she added.

The approach is simple. Classic Lines. Natural Plaster Walls. Accents of Shaker Inspired Colors.

Rafe had the moldings and doors constructed in keeping with the original time period of the house complete with working traditional transom windows over the doors for ventilation. Intentionally simple, clean and classic, they were painted in muted colors from Farrow & Ball.  Interestingly enough, Rafe left the plaster walls untouched highlighting their natural matt, chalk-like finish.

The original antique heart pine floors were stripped and oiled and when the patina was revealed they were so beautiful that they decided to keep them uncovered with the thought of possibly adding area carpets at a later time. Even though most of the original flooring was salvaged, there were spots that had to be replaced and luckily, Rafe was able to source perfectly matched replacement wood from The Hudson Company in Pine Plains, New York.  In keeping with his restoration principles, some of the salvaged timbers and floor boards were reused to create the cabinetry in the master dressing room and a firewood storage rack.

The stairwell leads to the ground floor, the mudroom to the right, the door the exit to the street.

The first floor mud room also doubles as a sitting area with a vintage Chesterfield couch and an unframed painting of a fish, another reference to this seaside community, hanging above.

The journey from transforming the derelict building to a family home completed, Rafe and Heide added one more detail, a finishing touch that serves as a reminder for those who leave the house. In the stairwell is an old anchor suspended over a coiled nautical rope sitting on a cross beam. Intended as a tribute to the rich seafaring heritage of this community, it marks their contribution in ushering Red Hook into the next phase of its history.

Rafe Churchill and Heide Hendricks


Masters of the ‘new, old house” Rafe Churchill and Heide Hendricks both practice their crafts based on sustainability, a respect for history and a focus on the needs, taste and style of their clients.

They each maintain their own practices and because they share similar aesthetics, they find themselves collaborating on many projects together. They work out of Sharon, Connecticut.

Heide Hendricks

Rafe Churchill

Hendricks Churchill

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