Tour a Historic New York Town House Restored by Sandra Bullock

If Sandra Bullock weren’t an actor, she would be an architect. Granted, of course, that is a significant if for the Oscar winner, one of Tinseltown’s rare remaining ingots of box-office gold. “Since being an actress was not something I thought I would be allowed to do past a certain time, every penny I made I would invest into real estate,” recalls the Hollywood star, who has pursued that private passion for design far from the Hollywood spotlight, nursing properties back to life. “Each place is different and each place has its own history and memories layered into it.”

Of all those projects, “the big one,” as she describes it, has been a 19th-century town house in Manhattan, a property that required “so much needed restoration and love.” Attracted to its rear garden, original chimneypieces, and airy parlor level, Bullock purchased the residence more than 20 years ago. At the time, she recalls, her life was in flux. “I think taking on the brownstone restoration was me attempting to find my footing into adulthood.”

In renovation, as in any screen performance, Bullock delighted in the details—revealing wit, strength, and poise moment to moment. Here, those details included the missing chunks of ceiling medallions that had to be carved by hand, as well as the 19th-century fireplaces that were meticulously recreated. (One that had been removed by a past owner was even discovered at the home of a next-door neighbor.) Behind every piece of drywall, she recalls, there’d be “the story of what used to be.” 

To write the next chapter required the help of an expert team of artisans capable of putting the pieces back together. “That kind of craftsmanship used to be handed down from generation to generation,” she reflects, noting that the specialists she assembled represented not just 15 nationalities but a world of wisdom. “I am no fine artist, but I can walk into a building, and I can feel what the space wants to be. I just need to find the fine artists that can execute what’s in my head.”

More recently, Bullock has refreshed that vision with the help of AD100 duo Ariel Ashe and Reinaldo Leandro of Ashe Leandro, to whom she was introduced via a friend and whose work—she quickly realized—she had long admired. Working from afar on account of the pandemic, the kindred spirits initiated what was meant to be a kitchen remodel but which soon expanded into a total reimagining of the rooms. The wood floors were sanded to reveal the grain, the fireplaces honed, and the walls painted in Benjamin Moore’s SuperWhite. “We took the shine off everything,” recalls Ashe, who added Noguchi pendants throughout to cast their inimitable glow. To complement Bullock’s collection of antiques, the designers added custom pieces like the sofas that flank the parlor floor’s fireplace, creating a cozy conversation area. Nearby, an antique Flemish tapestry anchors a soaring wall. As for the kitchen, they installed stainless steel Bulthaup cabinetry inspired by Jasper Conran’s home. Other references included the early work of Rose Tarlow. The goal, notes Ashe, was for the interiors to “feel full but not cluttered.”

Collaborating remotely meant that the designers would often try out pieces in the space, sharing photos with Bullock via email and text. (That necessitated a lot of local shopping for quick swaps.) “This was all new territory for me since I had always been on-site for projects,” Bullock notes, adding, “now I had to give up some control, which I am not very good at.” In a sign of the times, the three have still never met face-to-face. “Ariel and Reinaldo are very, very patient,” says Bullock. “But what was quickly apparent was that they honor the integrity of a space.”

Bullock, who spent much of her childhood in Germany and Austria, credits her love of design to her father, who would buy and restore houses as the vocal studios where he taught opera. “I was his sidekick and loved being in the old homes,” she says, recalling the thrill of peeking under old floors, exploring dusty attics, and salvaging architectural artifacts. “I was that kid that skipped the ‘how to apply my makeup properly’ phase, but did learn where the wax ring goes when installing a toilet.” For her, the process of renovating a home is not unlike the process of making a movie. “They both require everyone working toward the same story.”

These days, the design stories that excite her most are ones otherwise overlooked. “I fall in love with the places that others scrunch their faces at,” says Bullock, who concedes, “My family thinks I’m nuts.” Finding narratives within the walls, scripting scenes room to room—the process never gets old. “Architecture was supposed to be the back-up plan, but thankfully times have changed and we are now allowed to have more than one ‘thing’ we do in life,” notes Bullock, grateful for the opportunities acting has afforded her. “I get to have two passions.”

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