Modern living on the historic West Side
In 2007, husband and wife Yakov Kogan and Leah Brownlee decided to move Kogan’s company, Cleveland BioLabs—a developer of innovative cancer-treatment drugs—to Buffalo. Even for this can-do couple, relocating fifty-five employees and their families was a daunting task, but they felt proximity to the prestigious Roswell Park was worth the effort. Little did they know that creating their dream home in Western New York would turn out to be a major project as well.
The dining area, with its exposed brick wall, is adjacent to the spiral staircase. Their first winter in the house, Brownlee and Kogan hosted Thanksgiving dinner for twelve in their partially finished, yet very cozy, home.
Escorted by a real estate agent from Gurney, Becker & Bourne, the duo began their search in February, 2007. Brownlee—a former big-firm, big-city attorney who now works for a local start-up—found Orchard Park and the Delaware district attractive, but was drawn to cottages on the near West Side. When one became available on Summer Street’s charming dog-legged block just west of Richmond Avenue, they snapped it up. In Cleveland, the couple had “the American dream, a 3,000-square-foot suburban development house,” says Brownlee, twenty-nine, who used to commute from Cleveland to Chicago. “Now we live in this perfect little house, less than 1,500 square feet.”
Renovations began in August, while Brownlee was still working in Chicago and Kogan, who by all accounts is not particularly capable of visualizing home-design elements, was in the midst of relocating the company. The goal was a big one: Overhauling the neglected interior of the circa-1840, two-story-with-basement house with an eye toward both updating and making the most of the small living area. Outside, they determined to meet the historic and traditional exterior standards that are upheld by the rest of the well-tended block. With the help of residential architect John W. Wingfelder, these goals have been met.
In the kitchen, drawer storage seemed the best route to take in order to maximize space and keep the soapstone countertops clear. Small appliances are concealed by elegant cabinetry.
Wingfelder says that he appreciates the challenge of clients with strong ideas. “Many creative people mistakenly believe that full freedom yields the best results,” he maintains. “Letting go of your ego is more conducive to shaping innovation. Your outcomes are informed by real, existing forces, like the building, owner, budget, codes...having to deal with the impact of those, and your responses to them; that’s when the cool ideas come.”
Cool ideas—like a second-floor master suite—are what Brownlee, the planner in the family, wanted, and what Wingfelder was able to make happen. The designer found a serene, balanced feel for the upstairs suite by basing it on the ridge-line peak of the roof. Centering on that line, he created symmetrical access, from door to bedroom, and door to bathroom. “In all of our projects, we try to compare the space to an organism in nature,” said Wingfelder. A built-in desk makes the most of a tiny balcony that juts over the living space from the bedroom. It ingeniously spirals and narrows as it curves around the railing.
For practical reasons, the upstairs bathroom is actually two separate spaces: a water closet with a modern, streamlined, sculptural commode, and a double-sink area adjoining a pebble-floored walk-in shower. In the twin cabinets above the sink is a space-saving invention so simple as to be revolutionary: a specially designed nook for the electric toothbrush—complete with outlet. One of Brownlee’s ideas for the overall design was to use glass doors, and Wingfelder played around with them in the en suite bathroom for privacy and light. Using clear and frosted glass for the walk-in shower and his-and-hers sink area creates what feels like one whole space. Glass doors on the first floor provide additional continuity throughout the house.
Minimal living space mandated that Kogan and Brownlee be simple, but creative. That's the "office" hanging out over the living room.
Leah Brownlee sits in the balcony, just off the master bedroom suite. There, after ceding the downstairs bedroom to baby, a desk was custom-fit.
“Leah would constantly e-mail design ideas to us,” says Wingfelder. “We did our best to give it a coherent scheme, while trying to create a super-functional space.” Indeed, Brownlee wanted maximum storage and, even with no children (yet), as much living space as was possible to create.
Her planning was prescient: Mid-renovation, Kogan and Brownlee conceived a sooner-than-planned-for baby—“a mild surprise.” Riva Kogan’s February 2009 arrival caused some re-jiggering (the first floor guest room/office is now Riva’s room; one of the sliding doors now an erasable, magnetized chalkboard) in a process that was already circumstantially fragmented by other, not-quite-as-major, events.
An extension had to be scrapped because of zoning issues. The adjacent, derelict Jersey Street livery collapsed and almost landed on their property. A chimney in the middle of the living room presented a challenge. “When looking at historic structures, you want to figure out what was original,” Wingfelder says. “You decide what to respect, and what is stupid.” As it turned out, the chimney and beams, for structural reasons, needed to be respected; they stayed.
Above: An daybed converts to a toddler sleep-space.
Below: The bathroom cabinet, made to Brownlee's specifications, includes an ingenious nook (with outlet) for electric toothbrushes.
In the kitchen, Wingfelder ended up designing an island for the kitchen that encompassed the existing element, plus the building’s original beams. Top-hinged custom-made cabinets, LED light bulbs, a glass-fronted refrigerator you can write on, a half-sized dishwasher, and an espresso rig that slides out of sight after the morning’s caffeine needs have been met are just some elements that make up a kitchen filled with clever design and functionality.
The interior of the house now reflects a clean modernity. “We don’t like chairs in the shape of a hand, or ‘cheap Italian modern,’ ” says Kogan. “We like Danish and Swedish modern. We got a few pieces from [French design firm] Ligne Rosset when it was still reasonably priced. We also were able to get some things during Design Within Reach sales.”
The airy feel in the master bedroom is reinforced by the windows, the rooflines and Brownlee's commitment to her color scheme.
Admittedly, green materials were not always a top priority, and Brownlee chose low prices over local suppliers for some elements. After hours of research, she purchased high-end fixtures and appliances—Kohler, Jenn-Air, KitchenAid—through giant discounter Direct Buy. And the bamboo floors and cabinets throughout the house, while environmentally friendly, were cheaper to have shipped then to purchase locally.
“There is huge flexibility in deciding every detail—but more detail than I ever imagined,” Brownlee says. “For example, I thought we would just buy kitchen cabinets. But we would have lost a lot of storage space with standard cabinets. So John ended up designing almost everything, and it was made locally at Advantage Woodshop. I’m very happy with the results.”
Left: Baby Riva's multi-purpose shelves are made of bamboo, and her swing is suspended from steel beams on the ceiling.
Right: A kid's (and mom's) dream come true: magnetized sliding door with erasable chalkboard finish. Hung from that same hardware is a ladder to acess overhead storage.
Those results were completed in December 2009—more than two years after the completely unrealistic deadline of October 2007—when the final built-ins were installed, the steel spiral staircase retrofitted to protect the delightfully rambunctious Riva. Though an extension wasn’t possible, the couple did purchase another house two doors down to accommodate Kogan’s parents who emigrated from Russia—Kogan, 36, grew up in Izhevsk—and to help care for their grandchild.
“This is the first time in our lives we have a house fitted specifically to our taste,” Kogan says. “It’s an amazing feeling. When you do it this way, you know your house very well. It helped to unite our family. It also anchors us to the city; we don’t ever want to sell this house. In Buffalo, we have a wonderful life.”
Jana Eisenberg is a fan of Saarinen, Bertoia, Eames, and Noguchi designs. She lives with some licensed reproductions, some vintage pieces, and her husband, in a Buffalo high-rise.
Direct Buy (all appliances)
Mick Weedon, Contractor
The Advantage Woodshop LLC
Italian Marble & Granite
Pella Window & Door Store
Denler Sheet Metal
Twin City Glass