In 2019, the New York-based architect Jess Hinshaw called her mother, Kathy Lewis, who was then living in Tampa, Fla., with a proposal: The house beside Hinshaw’s — like her own, one of a row of 19th-century brownstones on a tree-lined street in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn — was for sale. Was Lewis, who had recently retired from pediatric medicine, interested in moving in next door?
“I said, ‘Well, there are a lot of things here in Florida,’” recalls Lewis, 70. For one, there were her friends. Moreover, were Hinshaw, 35, and her brother, the photojournalist Bryan Thomas, 39, who also lives in Brooklyn, really sure they’d like her being so nearby? “They both said, ‘We really want you to come,’” says Lewis. “So I said, ‘I can always visit my friends.’”
Her new home, however, needed a lot of work. A long-ago basement fire had damaged the joists, water had ravaged much of the ground floor and the staircase was missing half of its balusters. But Hinshaw, who founded the architecture and interiors firm Shapeless Studio with her fellow architect Andrea Fisk, 35, in 2017, was more than up to the task. She and Fisk specialize in historic renovations that prioritize sustainability and collaboration with local makers. Plus, they had recently finished reimagining Hinshaw’s own home — which she bought in 2016 with her husband, the filmmaker and photographer Hagan Hinshaw, 36 (the couple have two young children, Etta, 2, and Hayes, 7 months) — and Lewis’s house was effectively its twin.
The two 2,400-square-foot properties were built simultaneously in 1884 and with the same original layouts, each one anchored by an expansive parlor on the second floor. While renovating Hinshaw’s home, Fisk says, “You could see where there had once been openings in between the buildings so that the workers could run in between.” Both houses had been parceled into apartments and fallen into disrepair since then: None of the plumbing in Hinshaw’s worked, and she recalls an icy draft caused by a parlor window that was twelve inches too small for its frame. Yet where many would have been daunted by such dilapidation, Hinshaw saw potential. “Hagan and I looked at a few newly renovated homes in Bed-Stuy, a lot of which developers had done, and it kind of broke our hearts,” she says. “It’s antithetical to everything Andrea and I do. We love the history of homes, and we always want to find ways to pay homage to a home and also modernize it.” By the time they got to Lewis’s house, their secondary goal was to maintain the two buildings’ sense of interconnectedness while also overlaying them with the personalities of their new inhabitants. Like two family members, the buildings would, ideally, complement each other but function as independent entities.
Hinshaw and Fisk embarked on the renovation of Lewis’s house in 2018 and completed it during the pandemic. To restore some of the home’s 19th-century charm, they painstakingly reconstituted the moldings that had once framed many of Lewis’s windows and doorways. Hinshaw, who says she brings an “obsessive” streak to her work at Shapeless Studios, spent countless hours at the New York-based salvage mecca Demolition Depot, sifting through remnants of trim from other homes built during the same era and piecing together replicas of the floral accents originally found in both buildings. And as they had in Hinshaw’s house, Hinshaw and Fisk removed the home’s damaged parquet flooring and refinished the original wood floorboards underneath.
Where Hinshaw and Fisk deviated from the original design of either house, they stillgestured toward a room’s onetime purpose or layout. Craving the benefits of an open floor plan area for cooking (while keeping an eye on children), Hinshaw elected to remove most of the wall separating her kitchen — previously a bathroom — from the dining room on the parlor floor, shaping a small remnant of the wall into an archway with a filleted edge that demarcates the room’s previous boundary. They did the same with Lewis’s kitchen — previously part of a bedroom — though they made her arch slightly wider and more pronounced.
As with any project, Hinshaw was careful to keep her client’s needs in mind. Given her mother’s love of hosting, Hinshaw wanted to create a space that was both practical for entertaining and felt connected to the sunny state where Lewis spent much of her life. She added a powder room, decorated with Belgian terra-cotta tiles from the California brand Clé, on Lewis’s parlor floor, a convenience that saves guestsa trip upstairs. And while the Hinshaws had positioned their main suite at the northern side of their house, Lewis requested that her room face south, so that it overlooked the street and received as much sun as possible each morning. Walls painted the same green-tinged gray as the powder room allow the room’s bright accents — including an Akari light sculpture by Isamu Noguchi and a painting of wildflowers by the folk artist John Cornbread Anderson — maximum impact.
In the adjoining bathroom, two new skylights and light limestone — used in the baseboard, floor and a custom vanity — conjure a Florida beach, while a free-standing, pill-shaped tub indulges Lewis’s love of baths. Downstairs in the living room, a mustard velvet sofa from the Danish furniture maker Paustian sets a similarly cheery mood. And in the open kitchen and dining area, cupboards and china cabinetry by the Brooklyn-based carpenter James Harmon painted a warm light gray (Benjamin Moore’s London Fog) play off the floor’s pair of white marble fireplaces.
Hinshaw and her husband have, for their part, “gotten moodier” in their aesthetic since first moving in, she says, leaning into “the inherent shadows that come in a townhouse.” Inspired by the living room’s original slate fireplace, the couple embraced dark colors, choosing to stain much of their kitchen cabinetry — ultraminimalist, and also by Harmon — black. Upstairs, in their bedroom, a large, atmospheric photo by Hinshaw’s brother, of a horse grazing the emerald pastures of Iceland, hangs on the dark green (Narragansett Green from Benjamin Moore) walls. “I’ve surrounded myself with people who are amazing at color because I think that is my weakness,” says Hinshaw, crediting Fisk with helping shape her home’s striking palette.
Butnowhere are the two houses’ respective aesthetics and functions more distinct than on their ground floors. While Hinshaw’s was designed as an independent apartment and currently serves as Shapeless Studio’s headquarters, she envisioned Lewis’s with leisure in mind, installing a large Ping-Pong table in the front room (“I come from a very competitive family,” says Hinshaw), as well as two mahogany chairs carved and passed down by relatives. A hallway, lined on one side by a marble bar, connects the space to what Lewis calls the family room in the back, where recessed white oak shelves — more of Harmon’s handiwork — display her extensive library.
Yet the family room’s main attraction is perhaps its view: just beyond a bi-folding door that runs the length of the back wall is Lewis’s and Hinshaw’s leafy shared garden, a space where the two homes literally connect and where the two families can, Hinshaw says, enjoy “different settings.” She recruited the New York-based landscape designer Cara White to create an area that would combine both 950-square-foot yards. After removing the chain-link fence that separated the two gardens — a few remnants of which areembedded in the trunk of an imposing red oak tree that grows on the property line — she divided the space into quadrants, building a play area and a firepit on Hinshaw’s side and a weather-hardy dinner table and in-ground hot tub on Lewis’s. The hot tub is another callback to Lewis’s life in Florida, as is much of the yard’s diverse shrubbery — including ferns, hostas, anemones and brightly fruiting callicarpas — whose colors emulate the tropical landscapes she’d grown used to.
This scrupulous attention to detail and to her mother’s tastes and needs was, for Hinshaw, a gesture of gratitude. “I think the reason I like residential architecture is because of the home my mom created for me growing up,” she says. “I just wanted her to have a place she loved and felt at home in.”
According to Lewis, she succeeded. Moving into a house shaped by such tenderness, she says, “felt like a gift.”