The actress and her husband take a hands-on approach to creating the brownstone of their dreams. Keri Russell shows off her light-filled Brooklyn brownstone in the June issue of Elle Décor.
When Keri Russell first blurted out the three little words that a smitten Shane Deary wanted to hear, it wasn’t while embracing under a moonlit sky or walking hand in hand on a stretch of sandy beach. Panicked by the smell of gas in her recently purchased Manhattan co-op, a duplex wreck in a West Village brownstone, she dialed up Deary. “He appeared in ten seconds flat, single-handedly pulled the gigantic stove away from the wall, and saved me from shutting off the entire building’s gas supply,” Russell remembers.
Since he’d spared her the wrath of fellow co-op members, it’s no wonder the actress used the L-word after just six months of dating. She met Deary, a craftsman and contractor, through friends a few years after decamping to New York City from Los Angeles in 2002. “I moved with a mattress, a box of books, and my two cats,” says Russell, who had wrapped a successful four-year run as Felicity, on the eponymous television series.
The Superman moment wasn’t the first time Deary impressed the pixie performer with his resourcefulness. On one of their first dates, he concocted a Rube Goldbergesque contraption to bar her cats from climbing into the kitchen cupboards. “He used whatever he could find in the apartment—a rubber band, a paper clip, some string,” Russell recalls with a smile. Deary, for his part, was merely doing what comes naturally. As the son of one of the most respected contractors on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, he grew up in a house his father built. “I remember him shingling it into the night by the headlights of his truck,” Deary says. The apple, as the saying goes, doesn’t fall far from the tree. In high school, he and his brother helped build a farmhouse made almost entirely of reclaimed materials. “I have a hard time passing by a Dumpster or a yard sale,” he adds. Of his many treasures, the less-is-more Russell is slyly enthusiastic: “I tell him it will all look good in his basement studio.”
Marriage, a son, and a move to Brooklyn followed in short order for the couple. They considered a loft in Tribeca, but the allure of living in a whole house with a backyard captivated them both. Russell grew up in big-sky states—Colorado and Arizona—and Deary spent an island childhood almost entirely outdoors. He didn’t mind, either, that “you can take a sledgehammer to anything and no one can complain.”
After looking at more than two dozen houses, from the tumbledown to top-to-bottom renovations, they purchased an 1860s brownstone that needed a ton of work. “I can’t help myself,” says Deary, “but why buy someone else’s renovation if you’re going to redo it anyway?”
Easy to say for a guy whom Russell calls her MacGyver. Deary gutted the place to brick and studs himself, then moved walls to open it up, most notably in the master bath, where now no walls exist at all. The pumpkin-pine floor stayed, though he painstakingly pulled up, numbered, restored, and nailed back every plank. Four 40-foot Dumpsters later, he had turned a warren of suffocating rooms into a stunning, light-filled shell.
It was a collaboration from the beginning, with Russell sketching room layouts, choosing furnishings, and picking out fabrics while Deary took charge of materials—almost all of them cast off. The kitchen cabinetry is built entirely from a dismantled post-and-beam house, as are the bathroom vanities. Deary turned pieces of discarded pine into the handsome porthole mirror that hangs over the living room mantel. The ficus there grows out of a Donald Judd–inspired plank box that was once a desk. He dug joists out of a Dumpster and saw the perfect kitchen table, then unearthed the house’s old shutters in the basement and turned them into window casings. Beside their bed, a golden block of reclaimed pine flooring serves as a night table. After living out of a suitcase for years, Russell now hangs her clothes on sleek plumbing pipes Deary saved from a past renovation job.
Indeed, the young actress is so enamored of her husband’s talent that when it came time to fill the place with furniture, Russell made sure it didn’t speak louder than the rooms themselves. “With so much wood in the equation, it could have turned into a cliché of farmhouse chic,” she says, “so I stuck with a neutral palette, kept it spare, and worked in as many textures as I could without straying into girly territory.”
There’s no possibility of that—at least not in the backyard. Deary is building a Ping-Pong table just in time for summer, a project to which Russell smilingly responds, “It will look really great in your studio.”