Any homeowner renovating a historic property knows there’s a possibility of discovering a surprise or two behind the walls. Water damage, mildew, and faulty wiring systems are not uncommon. But for Black homeowners, the surprises may be more than expensive or hazardous. Sometimes, they’re painful reminders of generational trauma.
"For a lot of Black people, we don't want old homes, because we don't want the history that comes with them," says Jamie Arty, a Long Island homeowner. "Were they enslavers? What side of history were they on?"
Jamie, 39, and her husband, Frantz, 41, a tech engineer, are restoring a circa 1834 mansion in Oyster Bay, N.Y. When they purchased the stately Colonial-style house in 2018, they were apprehensive about its history. But they soon discovered that their new home had once been owned by a prominent New York abolitionist and judge, William Townsend McCoun.
Several months into the renovation, Jamie created a Facebook group to keep family and friends updated. The group, Making Over a Mansion, quickly grew and now has more than 25,000 members from around the world. She also started an Instagram account (@making_over_a_mansion). In addition to documenting their restoration, the family posts about the home’s history, including interesting finds and photos of famous 19th century guests.
Jamie, an event planner before the pandemic, also showcases the elaborate holiday decorations that adorn the mansion each season. In 2020, she created a business around her fun, over-the-top decor.
"I had to make a left turn, since no one was throwing parties anymore," she says.
The Artys are not entirely sure why their story resonates with so many people, but Jamie believes one reason is that she and Frantz are Black in a home-design world dominated by white voices — particularly when it comes to restoring older homes.
As a Black designer, Leslie Antonoff, the Los Angeles-based lifestyle blogger behind Hautemommie and cohost of the upcoming HGTV series Divide and Design, can relate. She says barriers to homeownership are one of the main reasons Black consumers don’t often undertake historic home renovation.
"If they can't even own a home, they definitely can't restore one," she says. "It takes a lot of capital, and unfortunately, most Black people don't have that."
Antonoff sees the lack of generational wealth, not a lack of interest in design, as a key factor that’s edging Black families out of the target demographic for most lifestyle and renovation markets.
Antonoff will cohost Divide and Design with her sister, designer Courtney Robinson of Materials and Methods Design. Robinson also is familiar with being a Black woman in the white-dominated design and restoration market, and she acknowledges that Jamie will encounter challenges as she works to change the narrative.
Robinson doesn’t want that to deter Jamie, though. “Representation matters, and so her entering into this space is her opening up the door for more Black people who are into [design],” she says. “And showcase it, because there are more. They exist.”
That’s why the family has been so public about bringing their home back from near destruction.
The Artys stumbled upon the mansion when they were house hunting and made a wrong turn. They pulled into a driveway to look at their map and saw the dilapidated house with a guesthouse behind it. Without going inside, they called the real estate agent listed on the sign out front and began negotiations to purchase the property, which, at the time, was entirely unlivable.
The couple were unable to obtain a mortgage on the property, so they paid $800,000 cash for the house. "We just did it blindly while the kids were screaming and crying," Jamie says.
She wanted a fixer-upper, but she wasn’t prepared for the scope of this project. The house had stood empty for several years; a fallen tree had left a gaping hole in the roof, and the interior was packed with collectibles and trash. Evidence of trespassers — candles, Ouija boards, empty beer cans and cigarette butts — littered the space.
The couple, who then had twin toddlers and a 4-year-old, renovated the guesthouse over 11 months in 2018, and they moved in with Frantz’s parents while they worked on the main house. In March 2020, they finally moved into two floors of the mansion, which were marginally completed. Shortly after, the pandemic struck, and Frantz’s father died of COVID-19. The family’s loss cast a pallor over everything, but they used the time at home to complete more renovations.
They tackled the kitchen first, turning a dark, enclosed space into a bright, airy expanse with classic white cabinetry, light counters, and a marble backsplash. The fireclay kitchen sink features an embossed apron front and bridge faucet, in keeping with the home’s history. The original kitchen fireplace, discovered enclosed behind a wall, has repurposed into a brick pizza oven.
The Artys chose bright colors for the other main rooms. The dining room is Sherwin-Williams’s Solaria, a sunny yellow. A portion of the expansive room was originally an outdoor space, and uncovered siding showed that it had once been a similar color. Choosing a related color felt, to the couple, like paying respect to the home’s history. The front living room is Sherwin-Williams’s Open Air, a cool blue. Afrocentric art adorns the walls, and white wainscoting provides visual detail to draw together the massive space.
Although their main living space is complete, the Artys haven’t yet touched many of the rooms. This includes a few they can’t safely enter because they’re in disrepair or filled with century-old items. The back staircase is in its original state, with a domed brick ceiling and rough wooden treads, a testament to the domestic staff required to run such a large home.
Unearthing the house’s rich history has been unexpectedly rewarding. The family has been enraptured by the story of McCoun, who lived in the house until his death in 1878. “He was so progressive. He was a judge, a lawyer. He helped a Black soldier from Long Island who was supposed to be compensated for serving in war but never received his due,” Jamie says. “I am now good friends with the great-great-great-granddaughter of that soldier … That is full circle.”
Described by the New York Historical Society as “a patron of the arts and a friend of many artists,” McCoun entertained a lengthy list of celebrities in his home, including Charles Dickens and a young Theodore Roosevelt. Sophia Moore, a former enslaved woman, is buried mere feet from the judge on the Artys’ property. She was born in 1786 in Morristown, N.J. The inscription on her stone reads: “In Memory of Sophia Moore, died 1851, aged 65 years. Born a slave in the State of New Jersey, bought her freedom and for 25 years was a faithful friend and servant to the family of William Townsend McCoun.” In the 1800s, cemeteries were segregated; to include Moore in the family plot was a significant gesture. Jamie and Frantz work hard to highlight Moore’s role in the household as they restore the mansion.
Brent Leggs, executive director of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, rejects the notion that Black Americans don’t have a role in historic preservation. “Black communities contribute to historic preservation in diverse and meaningful ways,” he says. “It’s just overlooked or isn’t widely known.”
It’s serendipitous that the Artys’ house has an uplifting history, but Leggs urges Black families to consider the importance of restoration and preservation even when that’s not the case. Black people can use restoration to center themselves in the narrative, he says, rather than remain tertiary figures to the white history that occurred at these sites.
Historic sites contain what Leggs calls “cultural memory,” and he urges restorers to learn from the preservation of each site — even if what they learn is painful. “African Americans can reclaim historic spaces and narratives to create new forms of power and healing for themselves and their community.”