How a black family is making forays into the largely white world of historic home improvement
Any owner who renovates a historic property knows that it is possible to discover one or two surprises behind the walls. Water damage, mold, and faulty wiring systems are not uncommon. But for black homeowners, surprises can be more than costly or dangerous. Sometimes these are painful reminders of generational trauma.
“For a lot of black people, we don’t want old homes because we don’t want the history behind them,” says Jamie Arty, owner of Long Island. “Were they slavers? Which side of the story were they on?
Jamie, 39, and her husband, Frantz, 41, a tech engineer, restore a circa 1834 mansion in Oyster Bay, NY When they purchased the stately colonial-style home in 2018, they dreaded its history. But they soon discovered that their new home once belonged to a prominent New York abolitionist and judge, William Townsend McCoun.
Several months after the renovation began, Jamie created a Facebook group to keep family and friends up to date. The group, Redo a mansion, has grown rapidly and now has over 25,000 members from all over the world. She also started a Instagram account (@making_over_a_mansion). In addition to documenting their restoration, the family publishes articles on the history of the house, including interesting finds and photos of famous 19th-century guests.
Jamie, a pre-pandemic event planner, also showcases the elaborate holiday decorations that adorn the mansion each season. In 2020, she creates a company around her fun and crazy decor.
“I had to make a left turn because nobody was partying anymore,” she says.
The Artys aren’t quite sure why their story resonates with so many people, but Jamie thinks one of the reasons is that she and Frantz are black in a voice-dominated home design world. white, especially when it comes to restoring older homes.
As black designer Leslie Antonoff, the Los Angeles-based lifestyle blogger behind Hautemommie and co-host of the upcoming HGTV series Divide and design, can identify themselves. She says barriers to homeownership are one of the main reasons black consumers often don’t undertake historic home renovations.
“If they can’t even own a house, they certainly can’t restore one,” she says. “It takes a lot of capital, and unfortunately most black people don’t have that.”
Antonoff sees the lack of generational wealth, not a lack of interest in design, as a key factor that excludes black families from the target population for most lifestyle and home improvement markets.
Antonoff will co-host Divide and design with her sister, designer Courtney Robinson of Materials and Methods Design. Robinson is also used to being a black woman in the white-dominated design and restoration market, and she recognizes that Jamie will face challenges as she strives to change the narrative.
Robinson doesn’t want that to deter Jamie, however. “Representation counts, and its entry into this space is therefore an open door to more blacks who love [design], “she said.” And present it, because there are more of them. They exist. “
This is why the family has been so public in bringing their home back from near destruction.
The Artys came across the mansion while looking for a home and made a wrong turn. They pulled into a driveway to look at their map and saw the dilapidated house with a guesthouse behind. Without going inside, they called the real estate agent listed on the sign and began negotiations to purchase the property, which at the time was completely uninhabitable.
The couple couldn’t get a mortgage on the property, so they paid $ 800,000 in cash for the house. “We did it blindly while the kids were screaming and crying,” says Jamie.
She wanted a repairman, but she was not prepared for the magnitude of this project. The house had been empty for several years; a fallen tree had left a gaping hole in the roof, and the interior was filled with collectibles and trash. Evidence of intruders – candles, Ouija boards, empty beer cans and cigarette butts – littered the space.
The couple, who then had small twins and a 4-year-old, renovated the guesthouse for 11 months in 2018, and they moved in with Frantz’s parents while they worked on the main house. In March 2020, they finally moved into two floors of the mansion, which were barely completed. Soon after, the pandemic struck and Frantz’s father died of COVID-19. The loss of the family made everything pale, but they used the time at home to make other renovations.
They tackled the kitchen first, transforming a dark, enclosed space into a light, airy expanse with classic white cabinets, light-up counters, and a marble backsplash. The fireclay kitchen sink features an embossed apron and bridge faucet, in keeping with the history of the house. The original kitchen fireplace, uncovered behind a wall, has been turned into a brick pizza oven.
The Artys have chosen bright colors for the other main rooms. The dining room is Sherwin-Williams’ Solaria, a sunny yellow. Part of the large room was originally an outdoor space, and the exposed siding showed that it had once been of a similar color. Choose a related colored felt, to the couple, like respecting the history of the house. The front lounge is Sherwin-Williams Open Air, a cool blue. Afrocentric art adorns the walls, and white paneling provides visual detail to bring the massive space together.
While their main living space is full, the Artys haven’t touched many rooms yet. This includes a few that they cannot safely enter because they are in poor condition or filled with centuries-old items. The rear staircase is in its original condition, with a brick ceiling and raw wood steps, a testament to the domestic staff needed to run such a large house.
Discovering the rich history of the house has been surprisingly rewarding. The family were thrilled by the story of McCoun, who lived in the house until his death in 1878. “He was so progressive. He was a judge, a lawyer. He helped a black soldier from Long Island who was supposed to be compensated for serving in the war but never received his due, ”says Jamie. “I’m now good friends with this soldier’s great-great-great-granddaughter… it’s complete.”
Described by the New York Historical Society as “a patron of the arts and a friend of many artists,” McCoun entertained a long list of celebrities in his household, including Charles Dickens and a young Theodore Roosevelt. Sophia Moore, a former slave, is buried a few steps from the judge on the Artys’ property. She was born in 1786 in Morristown, NJ. The inscription on her stone reads: “In memory of Sophia Moore, who died in 1851 at the age of 65. Born a slave in the state of New Jersey, she bought her freedom and was a faithful friend and servant of William Townsend McCoun’s family for 25 years. In the 1800s, cemeteries were separated; including Moore in the family plot was an important move. Jamie and Frantz work hard to highlight Moore’s role in the house as they restore the mansion.
Brent Leggs, executive director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, rejects the idea that black Americans have no role in historic preservation. “Black communities contribute to historic preservation in diverse and significant ways,” he says. “It’s just overlooked or not widely known.”
It’s fortuitous that the House of Artys has an uplifting history, but Leggs urges black families to consider the importance of restoration and preservation even when it doesn’t. Blacks can use the restoration to focus on the narrative, he says, rather than remaining tertiary figures in the white history that has occurred at these sites.
Historic sites contain what Leggs calls “cultural memory,” and he urges restorers to learn the lessons of preserving each site, even if what they learn is painful. “African Americans can reclaim spaces and historical narratives to create new forms of power and healing for themselves and their community. “