When Theresa Rebeck first saw her Brooklyn brownstone, it was falling apart. She took it as a challenge.
Where the Past Meets the Present in Park Slope
Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
It’s a lucky thing that the playwright Theresa Rebeck is so at home with drama. Otherwise, she would have had zero patience with the theatrics involved in wrangling the brownstone in Park Slope, Brooklyn, that her family has occupied for the past 18 years.
“Previously, a crazy man lived here,” said Ms. Rebeck, 61, who is also a screenwriter, television writer, director and novelist. Her credits include the plays “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” “Seminar” and “Seared,” an arts vs. commerce look at the Brooklyn food-scape that begins performances at MCC Theater on Oct. 3, as well as “NYPD Blue,” “Law and Order: Criminal Intent” and “Smash,” and the forthcoming thriller “355” starring Jessica Chastain.
“The house was falling down around the guy,” Ms. Rebeck continued. “He’d been taking it apart, piece by piece. You could stand on the bottom floor of the house and look all the way through to the top.”
An original poster of Sarah Bernhardt, the subject of Ms. Rebeck’s play “Bernhardt/Hamlet,” hangs in the front hall.Credit…Tony Cenicola/The New York Times
The first time she went inside to look around, she turned to her husband, Jess Lynn, a stage-manager-turned-stay-at-home-father, and made a slightly embarrassed admission: “You know, I kind of dig it.”
Mr. Lynn kind of dug it, too.
“And then I thought, ‘Well, maybe we’re crazy,’” Ms. Rebeck recalled. “But we both clearly married the right person.”
The couple made an offer. The owner accepted it, then reneged, accepted again, reneged again. Many, many (many) times.
“He’d get right up to agreeing, and then say, ‘Nah, I’m not going to sell,’” Ms. Rebeck said. “But he really loved my husband. This guy’s name was William, and he found out that my husband’s first name is William. And he found out that our son is named Cooper, and he was moving to Cooperstown.”
So it was, finally, that eccentricity turned to synchronicity, the necessary documents were signed and the check for $550,000 duly handed over.
Theresa Rebeck, 61
Occupation: playwright and screenwriter
I’m thinking gamboge: “My husband is very confident about my color sense. It is powerful, if I say so myself.”
Work on the four-story house — some restoration, some renovation and the addition of a solarium — gobbled up an additional $600,000. (To accentuate the positive, the previous owner did leave behind several fine pier mirrors and stacks of perfectly usable molding that he had scavenged around the neighborhood.)
The couple knew they had to replace all the wiring. They knew they had to replace all the pipes. They had not factored in the necessity of replacing some floor beams. They had not expected the project to take two years; they moved in at the end of 2001.
“If a job goes on too long, the workers start to think it’s their house,” Ms. Rebeck said. “We ended up ending it before they’d finished the hearthstones on the fireplaces.” (That particular loose end got tied up a few years ago.)
The couple’s division of labor was as follows: Mr. Lynn was in charge of the architecture of the spaces; Ms. Rebeck was in charge of what went into the spaces and what went on the walls.
“The place we had lived in before,” she said, “I never did anything. It was a white apartment. You know, at times you live in a white apartment. And now I was like, ‘We are putting color on every wall.’”
A lot of that color was supplied by Bradbury & Bradbury, a company that specializes in 19th- and 20th-century wallpaper. “Some older wallpaper has 15 shades inside it,” she said. “There’s a depth that a lot of contemporary choices don’t have.”
Ms. Rebeck has a Ph.D in Victorian melodrama. The décor reflects her interest in the era and her desire to stay true to the roots of the house, which was built in the 1870s. “This isn’t a spare, modern place,” she said, quite unnecessarily.
The sofas and chairs in the double parlor may be more padded, certainly more comfortable, than your average piece of authentic Victoriana. But the leaded-glass windows, the true-to-the-times abundance of knickknacks and the period-appropriate patterns on the fabrics — vines, tendrils, leaves — make everything seem utterly at home in this mid 19th-century setting.
The deeply personal garniture includes a Chinese sculpture, a gift from Mr. Lynn’s parents to the couple when they adopted their daughter, Cleo, now 17, and a pair of Don Quixote figures. “Don Quixote is such a giant figure in storytelling,” Ms. Rebeck said.
The house braids the past and present: contemporary images of landscapes by Dave Jordano, a photographer, hang on a wall covered in a vintage Bradbury & Bradbury offering; a salvaged 19th-century exterior door with a stained-glass window bought at an antique shop on Atlantic Avenue serves as the door to Ms. Rebeck’s computer-centered office.
The ground floor of the brownstone, which includes the kitchen, is mostly Mr. Lynn’s domain. But there on a table is one of Ms. Rebeck’s many dioramas. “I’ve never met one I didn’t like,” she said. “They’re like little stage sets.”
And over in the corner in a glass-topped tray is her collection of arrowheads. “Cool, right?” she said. “But they’re not as exciting as the dioramas.”
When Ms. Rebeck’s famous and fancy friends come visit and take the tour, their covetous reaction, more often than not, is something on the order of “I hate you.” Let it be said that Ms. Rebeck knows she has a treasure.
“I’m a person who gets to talk about gratitude,” she said. “It’s a privilege to live in this house.”
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