The stoops and sidewalks of Brooklyn Heights on this November afternoon were napped with gold – drifts of maple, oak and willow leaves – appropriate dressing for the gold coast neighborhood that was the city’s first historic district. Its de facto caretaker, Robert Taffera, a mild-mannered contractor from Washington state, walked the fog-slick streets and pointed out his handiwork: nearly 40 houses that have been renovated by his company.
At an immaculate brownstone midblock, with rigorously landscaped window boxes, a wine cellar and a roof deck, he slipped off his shoes and padded through the soaring period parlor and modernist kitchen that is a signature of this millennium’s version of the Brooklyn townhouse.
Taffera showed how the plaster walls had been gently roughed up after new wiring had been laid in, and how rotted pine floors on a second floor had been replaced with antique planks harvested from another site and carefully gouged to match their 165-year-old mates in the hall.
Like many Taffera clients, the lawyer and publisher who live here prize 19th-century patina (or the illusion of it) as much as the complex, 21st-century systems and flourishes – elevators, central air, wine cellars – installed by Taffera and his crew.
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While the houses of brownstone Brooklyn have always been “romantic money pits,” said Ingrid Abramovitch, author of “Restoring a House in the City,” and require “major bucks to keep them standing and safe, much less beautify them,” the current wave of Brooklyn Heights settlers are focused on more than just preservation. They consider the energy efficiencies that come from passive house technology, for example, and they have the means to go wide and deep.
Digging down, building up
Among this cohort – the “anti-masters of the universe,” as Tom Scheerer, the interior designer of one Taffera-renovated house on Willow Street, described a financier client who favors Birkenstocks over Oxfords (and Brooklyn over Greenwich, Connecticut, or Park Avenue) – there is an interest in using more house than ever before. Residents dig down to create wine cellars and build up to fabricate roof decks. Now, as Taffera pointed out in a dizzying tour, a Taffera townhouse tends to have a view of Manhattan. Elevators are standard fare, not an easy flourish to shoehorn into a historic house.
None of this comes cheap. A Taffera renovation may require many millions of dollars, clients say, but it will come in on time and on budget, an approach that inverts the natural order of the contractor-client relationship, which can follow the path of some marriages: a delirious courtship, then a scorched-earth divorce.
“I know it’s weird: How can you be friends with your contractor?” said Joanne Witty, a longtime client and “lapsed lawyer,” as she called herself. “Nobody finishes a job liking their contractor.”
On this afternoon, Eric Taffera, Robert’s younger brother, was shooting texts back and forth with Amy Larocca, fashion director of New York magazine, who was giving him advice about preschools for his son. After the renovation of their Cobble Hill townhouse last year, she and her husband, Will Frears, a theater director, count themselves as part of a network of Taffera-linked families.
“I think we got in under the wire,” said Larocca, whose neighbor’s architect tried and failed to secure the Tafferas for her renovation. (Larocca ran into Robert on the street; he promised to reconsider.)
In the last year Robert Taffera has turned down 15 or so small projects and eight houses. Those with lots of money aren’t necessarily difficult, he said, and those with less aren’t by nature easygoing.
“Money isn’t what decides the job,” he said. “It’s the relationship we can have with them.”
Luke Fichthorn, an amiable financial manager with a townhouse on Willow Street (Taffera-renovated and now on a Taffera maintenance program), said: “They don’t take every job. I was shocked because they turned down a friend of mine. I saw him, and he was like, ‘Your guy turned me down.’”
“But it’s not like getting into kindergarten,” he added, somewhat unconvincingly.
On a weekday in the Heights, most of the passers-by seem to be Taffera employees, easily identified by their dark blue T-shirts emblazoned with a gold T (created by Michael Gericke, a partner at Pentagram Design and one of Taffera’s first clients).
Robert Taffera likes the esprit de corps that a uniform gives his crew but is still conflicted about putting his name on a job site, as other contractors do, with a branded billboard. There’s no swearing on a Taffera job. “Do it safe, do it well, be productive, have fun” are Robert Taffera’s core principals, he said. Maintaining a profanity-free site is a grace note that supports them.
Career since 1980s
The eldest of six children, Robert Taffera was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness in Shelton, Washington, a town of just under 10,000. In 1983, he arrived in Brooklyn Heights to volunteer for his church, working as a painter and scaffolder on its many Heights properties.
He has long since left the church (“It’s a fairly conservative religion,” he said, although he appreciates many of its values), but in those early days, like many Witnesses, he’d moonlight on weekends.
One of his first jobs was with Kathy Marshall and Brian McGorry, a banker and a lawyer, who were filled with renovation fever when they bought a house here in the late 1980s. Marshall recalled that Robert Taffera was a bit hesitant about the scope of the job, and so her husband said, “Why don’t you just do one good day’s work?”
Marshall continued: “We decided we’d start with demo; we all worked together, and my first memory of Robert is this skinny kid covered in brown debris. At the end of that day, my husband said, ‘OK, would you like to do another day?’”
That was nearly three decades – and three renovations for Marshall and McGorry – ago.
“Robert has exquisite taste and is an incredible problem-solver,” Marshall said, “and he ended up being our construction marriage counselor.”