The Washington Post
Uncovering their home’s past
What one family learned when they began restoring their early 19th-century mansion
A Black family makes inroads in the largely White world of historic home renovation.
Any homeowner renovating a historic property knows there’s a possibility of discovering a surprise or two lurking behind the walls. Water damage, mildew, faulty wiring systems and more 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 in the process of 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 it now has more than 25,000 members from around the world. She started an Instagram account around the same time (@making_over_a_mansion). In addition to documenting their restoration work on the property, the family also posts about the home’s history, including interesting finds and photos of famous 19th-century guests. They are uncovering the past in more ways than one.
The couple, whose followers have grown to love more than just the house, also share updates on their family and lifestyle. Jamie, who was an event planner before the pandemic, 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 any
more,” she says.
The Artys are not entirely sure why their story resonates with so many people, but Jamie believes one of the main reasons is that she and Frantz are Black in a homedesign world dominated by White voices — particularly when it comes to restoring older homes.
As a Black designer, Leslie Antonoff, who is the Los Angelesbased lifestyle blogger behind Hautemommie and co-host of the upcoming HGTV series “Divide and Design,” can relate. She believes 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 as a key factor that’s edging Black families out of the target demographic for most lifestyle and renovation markets, not a lack of interest in design.
Antonoff will co-host “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 Whitedominated 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 is exactly 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 before the family found it; a fallen tree had left a gaping hole in the roof, and the interior was packed to the rafters with collectibles and garbage. 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 been restored and 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. “We will just modernize it a little bit,” Jamie says. “Make it a little bit brighter, a little bit more beautiful and up to date.” Choosing a similar color felt, to