Dara Caponigro Reveals the Stunning Before-and-After Photos of Her New York Home
An architectural diamond in the rough.
By Dara Caponigro
May 20, 2021
After years of living as a Manhattanite, Schumacher Creative Director Dara Caponigro left the concrete jungle and moved north to the leafy Bronx neighborhood of Riverdale after falling for a charming fixer-upper. Read on to see the jaw-dropping before-and-after transformation and discover why the Big Apple native chose this historic home to become her family’s refined city refuge.
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I never thought I’d have a Georgian house. We had been looking for apartments in Manhattan for several years and I couldn’t get excited about any of them. It’s very hard to find a place with charm in Manhattan, and even “pre-wars,” which are known to have more character, can have a certain cookie-cutter aspect to them. Plus, just as everyone else was falling in love with Manhattan, I was falling out of love with it. (I have a tendency to run the other way when something becomes trendy, which helps me in my job but can drive my kids and husband crazy!) Manhattan had become filled with too many chain stores and not enough artists for my taste and much of what attracted me to it—the constant surprises, the raw energy, the mad mix of people and professions—had disappeared.
I was desperate for a change, but my husband (forever a Manhattanite at heart) was reluctant, and agreed to move only if he could still take the subway to work. So I started looking in Riverdale—a neighborhood in the Bronx just north of Manhattan and the very last stop on the 1 train.
When I saw our house, which is in the leafy enclave of Fieldston, it was an absolute wreck and absolute perfection! Domino had just folded and I needed a project. Little did I know that I’d become the editor in chief of Veranda in the midst of our very extensive renovation. The house had no electricity, no plumbing, no woodwork, almost no interior doors and half of the windows had been taken out (we bought it from a couple who got divorced midway through their renovation). But it spoke to me! Even though it was a much more traditional structure than I ever would have imagined living in, it had a purity and simplicity in its scale and proportion. It also had a quirky layout upstairs with winding back halls that felt very European—just my kind of thing.
Because the neighborhood is (thankfully) landmarked, it’s full of historic houses from the early 20th century and every exterior change has to be approved by NYC’s Landmarks Commission, from the color of the exterior paint to the windows. But none of that felt onerous at all because I wanted it to feel as though it had been there forever.
To bridge the spirit of the house’s English character and my more modernist leanings, I channeled some of my favorite British designers who know how to distill traditional design into something clean and new, particularly Veere Grenney and Ilse Crawford. Veere was extremely generous and helped me with my living room—the bookcases, the mirror above the fireplace, the sofas and desk were all his idea. Other friends gave me great advice, too, particularly Thomas O’Brien who helped me reconfigure the kitchen to make it a wonderful open space and solved my off-center living room ceiling fixture dilemma.
It’s been ten years since we moved in and, believe it or not, it took me nine and a half of those to finish decorating! Good things come to those who wait.
Since most of the trim had been ripped out of the house during the former owners’ renovation, we had to install all new baseboards. We found a tiny original piece somewhere and had it copied to stay true to the original architect’s intention. My architect, Elizabeth Parks, was so helpful with these kinds of things because she really understands the proportion of older architecture. The expense of the new baseboards was definitely worth it—it makes such a difference to have clean, fresh trim that hasn’t been coated with layers of paint. The skirted table covers an ugly but useful custom shelving unit where I store my extra tableware. Looking back, I really like the original ceiling fixture but I don’t think the people we bought the house from would sell it to us!
The living room isn’t big and it felt odd—it needed something to anchor it. I put up bookshelves around the room which made it feel more cohesive but I got the scale wrong (through no fault of my architect—I had her copy some English ones I had seen) and they wound up feeling too low and not substantial enough. Being the perfectionist that I am, we ripped them out and I asked Veere Grenney to help with the design of the new ones. They are cleaner, taller and have more presence than the first set and they really bring much-needed grandeur and scale to the room. The antiqued mirror above the fireplace was his idea, too.
We turned the actual dining room into the family room and painted it a dark taupe-y brown. I’ve had that 112” sofa for 25 years. It’s originally from Crate & Barrel and it’s been through a lot of iterations. For this house, I covered it in a smokey-colored Piet Performance linen from Schumacher to match the walls so the whole room feels cosseting and because it is stain resistant—and I can attest to that fact that it really is!
The solarium was what really sold us on the house. It is the most beautiful room and has higher ceilings than the rest of the house. My husband and I fight over who gets to work there on a given day. I loved the concrete pavers but they were too beaten up so we had to replace them. I found look-a-likes that, sadly, weren’t quite as nice in terms of scale (they are smaller than the originals) but only I know the difference. We turned the solarium into the dining room and put radiant heating in the floor to keep it warm in winter. It’s so magical to have dinner parties in there any time of the year.
As you can see, the kitchen was an absolute wreck! My friend Thomas O’Brien was really instrumental in the floor plan. In the original layout of the house, the powder room was carved into the kitchen space but I wanted to have an open eat-in kitchen. Thomas figured out how to move its location near the back entry so we could have a rectangle to work with for the kitchen plan. He also helped me figure out the relationship between the new windows and the counter top (if you look closely, you can see how the windows dip just below the counter). My contractor thought we were crazy but, in the end, everyone was amazed at the result. We were able to have really large elegant windows instead of smaller ones that started above the counter. The open shelving was inspired by Thomas’ own kitchen on Long Island and the spirit of the room, in general, was taken from a gorgeous family kitchen by Ilse Crawford that I had shot in London when I was at Domino. I loved that kitchen because it was a modern adaptation of an old English scullery kitchen with floor to ceiling tiles and felt so right for this house.
The house is really too small for two sets of stairs and when we bought it, the former owners had started ripping out the back stair—probably to create more storage or an office area. For me, though, the back stair was one of the things that made the house so charming. It wasn’t the most practical thing but, in my world, charm sometimes has to take precedence over practicality. So we rebuilt it and I haven’t regretted the decision one bit!
The bedroom was not much of a room and it had only one small closet. In order to give it some architecture (and more storage), we built cupboards on either side of the windows. They mirror each other on both sides of the room so my husband and I each have two. I love that they look like they’ve been there forever. We also replaced all of the windows. It was actually quite difficult to find off-the-rack windows with narrow, elegant muntins and a thin wood profile around the panes to mimic the original ones. We finally did find some through Marvin and I have to say getting those proportions right made all the difference between a thoughtful renovation and a McMansion-looking nightmare.