Marysia Woroniecka took a lot of persuading to move away from Manhattan. In fact, it probably never would have happened if it hadn’t been for her then-husband’s persistence, with a little help from none other than Spike Lee. It was the late 1990s and Marysia, who moved to New York from London in 1995, was running around town having a blast.
She had set up her own fashion consultancy firm and the newly married couple were renting a Manhattan loft with views of the Empire State Building – as she says, ‘living the dream’. And she would have continued like this quite happily, if her husband hadn’t insisted that they should buy somewhere, and lured her over the East River to check out his old neighbourhood of Fort Greene.
‘I’d grown up in Kensington, so I was very snooty about being the other side of the river, and didn’t want to ever feel like I was living in the suburbs,’ says Marysia. ‘But then we were living on this very commercial street at 27th and Broadway, surrounded by discount T-shirt and handbag stores, and it was so noisy and filthy.’
Marysia had heard a bit about the leafy suburb of Fort Greene, which had been gaining a reputation as a creative hub since artists started moving there in the 1980s. The film director Spike Lee had set up his film company there and, as Marysia recalls, ‘it was a very cool neighbourhood, with a lot of young creative people doing cool things. But really, nobody I knew lived in Brooklyn at that point – absolutely nobody’.
It was a trip to visit a friend-of-a-friend in the area that finally made her drop her preconceptions and fall in love with the quiet tree-lined streets of brownstones, built in the 1860s. She also realised that it was incredibly close to Manhattan – just a five-minute drive from the Manhattan Bridge – and as one half of an interracial couple, a place where they could feel at home – ‘the neighbourhood looked like ‘us’,’ she says.
It was also somewhere in which they could acquire a whole house, rather than just an apartment, and after several months of searching, they came across the perfect property – a four-storey townhouse on one of Fort Greene’s loveliest streets.
The living room
‘The lady we bought the house from had lived here for 40 years. She was 101!’ says Marysia. ‘What was fantastic was that, unlike many similar houses, which had been chopped up and lost their beautiful details, this one was pretty much intact.’
Walking in to what Americans call ‘the parlour floor’ (the hallway level), Marysia was bowled over by the light and height of the living room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, decorative parquet floor and two marble fireplaces, one in the front and one in the back. The house also retained its ceiling mouldings, original staircase and banisters, plus further fireplaces and original flooring throughout. ‘It was grand and lovely,’ says Marysia – and also crying out to be filled with art and antiques.
The couple moved in in February 2000. The house needed to be re-wired and, to their horror, they discovered that the two-storey extension at the back – which houses the kitchen and the basement flat’s living room – had been built without foundations, meaning a large portion of the budget was sunk into remedying that. They lived in their home in a makeshift state for a couple of years then, once the flat was let and they had a bit more income, they put in a new kitchen.
The dining room
For the decorating, Marysia chose white throughout. ‘I like the freshness of white,’ she says. ‘I love colour in my furnishings and art, but I’m not very brave about colour on the walls.’ Against the blank canvas of these enormous light spaces, she has built up a colourful, eclectic and enormously personal collection of antique furniture, mirrors and lamps, textiles from around the world, and art by artists working in New York or who she has met on her travels.
‘My ex-husband is an artist and through him I got to know artists working in the city,’ she says. ‘Over time I’ve developed a more informed eye and got more perspective and a bit more knowledge. I’d love to buy more, but not only can I not afford it, but I don’t actually have room on the walls!’ Her living room features work by New York artists Mickalene Thomas and Kara Walker, while in her bedroom, the space above the bed has been given to a diptych by Sidney Mang’ong’o.
A self-confessed ‘terrible hoarder’ Marysia has a tendency to hang on to every little thing. ‘When I pick something up, I get a strong sense of where I was when I got it and what I was thinking at the time.’ Above all, her mirrors are her most prized assets. ‘I would never part with them. The one over the main fireplace hung in my mother’s living room. Everything in the house, in fact, is super personal. They’re all things I’ve chosen for this house and, after nearly 20 years of living here, somehow feel a part of me.’