This ugly house: skylights bring in sunlight, stairs make the house look bigger

Editor’s note: Welcome to the fourth edition of This Ugly House, a refreshing reader’s diary. We are excited to share the story of the practical renovation of a wooden frame house at Bed Stuy. Watch the first one here. The author also blogs at

The thing I’ve learned through a home renovation is that sometimes gut renovation has more advantages than just working with what’s already there. We weren’t planning on starting from scratch, but we took advantage of the situation by actually opening up the space – literally. There was a small alcove at the top of the stairs that, in accordance with the New York City Building Code, we were planning to keep. As we spotted ceiling beams throughout the upstairs space, we discovered that the beams above the stairs were in poor condition. Five joists had pulled away from the party wall’s edge joist and were hanging from the ceiling panels that stretched above them. At this point our roof was completely stripped down to the 130-year-old shingles that were covered in layers of asbestos. It figured because we needed to rebuild the roof membrane as part of our construction scope anyway, so why not take this opportunity to maximize the skylight? Add more while we’re at it?

The illuminator above the stairs was two feet by two feet. I expanded the opening size to 3 feet 6 inches by 7 feet using a new galvanized steel louver. Then we put it against the wall and designed the frame so that it would sit atop a well wall extending beyond the edge of my neighbor’s roof, to avoid any future leaks between our properties. This design forced us to remove enough of the five damaged beams above the tray to solve the connection issue. I’m really happy with the end result, and love the sunlight that goes down all over the house.

roof with sky

There was also a 2-by-2-foot skylight above the bathroom, which is in the center of the house. Since we reconfigured the bathroom we wanted to keep the light in, so we changed the opening location. We bought a new skylight because the old one was rusty and was sitting right on the roof – not to encoder.

Finally, we added a 5-by-5-foot skylight above the middle of the home’s upper front bedroom. I wanted to keep going, but my wife convinced me we had enough holes in our roof.

interior with skylight

I found a company in Harlem that made our skylights, and it turned out to be beautiful. They delivered them with perforated glass, so I took the opportunity to spray paint the tires with several coats of black. I used a high temperature enamel that has good adhesion to metal. We planned to get all the appliances, radiator, and metalwork in the house black, so painting the skylights carried the idea throughout.


Speaking of stairs, I might also share the new stairs and the railing we installed. When we bought the house, all the stairs were in poor condition. The basement level was crooked, all the steps creaked, and the balustrade from the first to the second floor was made of external ironwork. I highly doubt these ladders were original, so I had no problem replacing them. I wanted to rebuild the stairs in an antique style that would fit better in the house and remain consistent on all three floors.

I found a company in Oregon that carved out the main new post, which turned out to be the most expensive item in the drawer. The landing box, balustrades, and handrails were purchased off the shelf through local vendors. I came across a nice Victorian detail where someone mixed three styles of balusters together. I decided to give it a try and love the way they turned out. The success was spacing out and hiring a master carpenter to get everything just right. The overall size of the house seems much larger because of these two projects. I recommend not to be afraid of big progress!

Draw a staircase and a staircase in place

staircase and alcove

new post


entry with stair

[Photos by This Ugly House]

Related stories

Email [email protected] with more comments, questions or tips. Follow Brownstoner on Twitter and Instagram and like us on Facebook.

%d bloggers like this: