In the East Concord Street back alley where prostitutes once congregated nightly, there's now a small grove of bamboo. The vacant corner lots and rusty fences are gone, and Daniel Sugarman's relatives no longer ask him why he tossed his money at a decaying 1860 s brownstone in a hardscrabble neighborhood rather than spend it in a nicely scrubbedsuburb.
These changes are a relief to the South End architect, but for Sugarman, the most important transformation has taken place inside his brownstone. After 10 years of living in a dark duplex, he designed his dream home: A modern, minimal, somewhat industrial space with maple floors, a full wall of windows, and gallery-like walls where his art collection can be displayed.
There was, however, a trade-off for this luxury. Sugarman, who bought the entire brownstone in 1993 for $208,000, couldn't afford to renovate both floors of his 1,500-square-foot duplex. So he chopped his living space in half, created another apartment in his building, and confined himself to 750 square feet on the first floor.
"My original goal was to own the building, live in it until the value went up, and then sell it and buy something in a nicer part of the city," he says. "Ten years later, I came to realize that this was as nice as anywhere in the city. I realize there's no sense in moving."
The increased value of the building helped him finance the extensive project. Instead of a series of small, dark rooms, Sugarman made the space feel larger by altering the layout into just two rooms. The large front room encompasses the living and kitchen areas, with the bedroom situated at the back. Instead of a wall to separate the living space from the bedroom, Sugarman designed a series of maple cabinets. The cabinets don't touch the walls, so light can travel around them.
"Nothing touches a wall," he says, pointing to gaps on either side of the cabinets. "I wanted these little bits of space everywhere. I created a lot of visual tricks, and that's one of my tricks for making the space appear larger."
What had irked Sugarman most about the old duplex was the lack of light. When he shrunk the space in half, he wanted to ensure that there would be a source of light to make it appear larger, not smaller. He removed the entire back wall of the bedroom and replaced the bricks and tiny windows with a full wall of industrial windows. Bright morning sun now floods the bedroom, reflects off of the whitewashed bricks, and gives the bricks the appearance of being illuminated.
"I couldn't alter the front of the building because this is a historic property," he says. "I wanted as much light to come through as possible, so we took out the brick and added a massive steel beam to the back to support four stories of brick. When I told my father I was doing this, he asked 'Why on earth would you put a wall of glass facing a brick alley?' I'm definitely not looking for the view, I'm looking for the light."
The window wall continues into the bathroom, where a translucent glass wall behind the shower allows light to continue through to the kitchen. The only drawback is that a showering silhouette can clearly be seen by anyone who is cooking or eating.
"Women who stay over don't like it at all," he says. "My male friends don't seem to care that much."
Instead of installing recessed lighting, he cut horizontal and vertical troughs into the ceiling to accommodate strips of light. Where there were small gaps of space on the wall , he added bookshelves. The makeover was recently deemed a success by basic cable. Last month, producers from HGTV filmed his apartment based on Sugarman's smart use of limited space.
There is no dining room table; all eating takes place at the over size island in the kitchen. Sugarman says he decided to under-furnish the apartment to make it appear larger than it actually is. But the biggest challenge to giving the space its sleek, modern appearance came after the renovation was complete.
"I have to admit that this apartment is a little bit hard to maintain," he says. "It's not the kind of apartment where you can have junk hanging around. That's always the issue with modernism. But I find this look to be very tranquil. I love the experience of walking through my somewhat gritty neighborhood, coming in the door, and entering into this oasis."