An Ad Copywriter Edits His Manhattan Row House—and Finds a New Calling
Tom Givone reworked a rare 19th-century row house in upper Manhattan on his own, and found a new career along the way.
Back in 1998, Tom Givone was an advertising copywriter living in a tiny rent-controlled studio in New York’s West Village, dealing with a pain-in-the-neck landlord who was always trying to raise the rent. With the little bit of money he’d saved, he decided it was time to look for a place to buy. He ended up falling in love with a double row of 20 identical high-stooped wood houses, straight out of a Victorian fairy tale, on a cobblestone cul-de-sac called Sylvan Terrace. Located in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan, the houses—designed in 1882 by architect Gilbert Robinson Jr. to resemble an 18th-century mansion nearby—are anomalies in brick-and-concrete New York.
When the house Tom wanted fell through, he was crushed, but he decided to just start knocking on every door on the street. “There were four or five houses for sale,” he says. “Had I had any resources, I could have bought half the block.”
He finally found the perfect place—a 1,500-square-foot, three-story building that had recently been abandoned mid-renovation. “It had some electric and sheetrock,” Tom says. “It was like a Home Depot shell that looked like an active job site—paint had hardened over and mud was on the walls.” Tom bought the house, added a sink and an old stove to make it habitable, and started teaching himself how to patch it up. Every day after work, the homeowner-turned-contractor would begin a new project, ripping out sheetrock or uncovering 15-foot ceiling beams. Tom initially kept his day job in advertising, but by 2006 his career had morphed into something else: architectural design.
He had begun taking on other people’s renovations—everything from a Brooklyn brownstone to a farmhouse in Sullivan County (“Hope Floats,” May 2012)—while putting his own project on the back burner. His education was getting into these old structures and learning as he went. He spent his spare time sketching out lighting diagrams or picking out material samples. “I was the contractor, the designer, a one-man band,” he says. And as the projects became more conceptually ambitious and structurally complex, he became something more of a conductor, bringing in architects, engineers, and craftspeople to help execute his designs.
“It was like a Home Depot shell that looked like an active job site—paint had hardened over and mud was on the walls.” Tom Givone, designer and resident
Around 2015, he finally decided to turn his attention to completing his own house, which he’d lived in for almost 16 years. “I felt I had to get it done,” he said. Plus, the timing was right. “I had a good crew, I was finding interesting materials, and I was learning different building applications.”
He restored the interiors by combing fairs like the Brimfield flea market in Massachusetts for furniture and lighting, but mostly by salvaging building supplies from neighbors. Everything from hardware to hinges to little pieces of original flooring was scooped out of local dumpsters. He even found treasure buried in his walls: a pair of eight-foot-tall wood doors hidden in the sheetrock of the parlor level.
Tom also did much of the work himself and spent countless hours researching ways to enhance the design—applying marine epoxy mixed with sawdust and paint between the floorboards like grout, then sanding them to a glass-smooth finish; teaming with specialists to re-create true plaster medallions for the ceilings in the parlor spaces; and applying anodized aluminum–faced plywood sheets—typically used as cladding in high-end commercial work—for kitchen doors, cabinets, and staircase and baseboard trim.
Over the years, Tom has grown even more enchanted with his home and its charming architecture. But mostly he enjoys living in such an unusually quiet corner of Manhattan, on a street that time seems to have forgotten. “There is something powerful about this place, this block, and feeling this energy about this house that is very old and very new.”