4 Simple Ways to Add Historical Touches to Your Rental Apartment

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My New York City apartment search, which took place during the spring of 2021, was filled with a whole lot of lust and an equal amount of heartbreak. First there was the elegant one-and-a-half bedroom with a beautiful fireplace mantel located in a storied building on the Upper West Side. Before I could even book a showing, a bidding war broke out, with the listing skyrocketing way beyond my price range (yes, all for a rental). I then fell in love with a historic unit in a Brooklyn brownstone, which was located on the parlor floor and oozed architectural character and charm galore. The only catch? The sole spot to place a bed was directly across from the front door and right beside a window. Even worse, the apartment’s only closet was located down a dimly lit flight of stairs—a feature that my nine-year-old self may have gleefully associated with Harry Potter, but my 29-year-old self most definitely did not.

By the time that I’d toured dozens of additional apartments and secured a well-priced, sunlit unit on the Upper East Side, I was genuinely happy with where I had landed. Yet beyond its black-and-white checkered kitchen flooring and living room built-ins, the space wasn’t exactly character-filled. But as an avid design enthusiast who will go to great lengths to at least fake a little bit of vintage charm, I wasn’t letting that stop me—I just knew I had a few projects to tackle. Here’s what I did in an effort to translate some of the swoon-y elements from the apartments I lost sleep over to my basic, railroad-style walk-up unit.

I brought my faux mantel with me—and ordered another one, too

I had purchased a couple of faux mantels for my prior rental unit in Washington, D.C., one of which I brought with me on the moving truck. It’s a stunning marble piece, sourced by my friend Molly of Mantel House DC, that I knew would look elegant in my bedroom, which happens to feature a wall that juts out slightly and gives the piece some extra oomph. I had also ordered another, pricier, marble mantel for my living room from Toronto–based Trumeau Stones. Although the piece required professional installation, it’s still renter-friendly—I’ll be able to have it removed and brought to wherever I decide to relocate next.

Many of my friends and Instagram followers assume that both of these mantels were original to my apartment unit, which of course was the goal. The one in the living room really helps anchor the space and fits perfectly against the open wall.

I hung oversized mirrors galore

I had always lusted over the perfectly positioned pier mirrors that grace many of the beautiful Brooklyn apartments I’d seen on Instagram and let so much light into a space. I took to secondhand sites—including Facebook Marketplace and eBay—to source the oversized mirrors that now hang in my living room and bedroom. My goal was to enhance visual interest in both of these spaces while creating the illusion of additional square footage, too.

When I spotted an oversized gilt mirror for sale on Long Island, I knew it would shine above the faux mantel in my bedroom. A couple of hours and a TaskRabbit pickup later, the piece was mine, and it was even more beautiful than the listing photos on Facebook Marketplace had indicated. I opted to hang it just a few inches above the top of my mantel in order to replicate the setup we see in many Parisian living rooms.

I added faux molding to bring Parisian charm to my bedroom

After living in my space for about six months, I still wasn’t feeling completely satisfied with the state of my bedroom. I hired a pro to coat the walls in Clare Paint’s Grayish, and then I had another idea—faux molding. I had always lusted over the picture-frame molding that had been present in many of the apartments that I’d toured and was aware that it could be added as a DIY, too, but part of me wanted to go in a different direction.

After spotting this gorgeous faux crown molding while browsing Amazon, I was sold. If you’re handy with a miter saw, you should be able to hang this molding yourself. I opted to hire another TaskRabbit just to ensure that the installation process would go ultra smoothly, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the results. Believe it or not, this molding is actually made of (gasp) styrofoam. It’s ultra lightweight, sticks to the wall with its corresponding adhesive, and can be painted, too. Again, when I shared photos of my space on Instagram, my followers couldn’t believe that this ornate trim wasn’t original to my apartment.

I scoured secondhand sites for elegant pieces

Many of the furniture pieces—and even a lot of the decorative accessories—in my apartment are items I’ve purchased from vintage stores, flea markets, and secondhand sites including Facebook Marketplace, eBay, and Etsy. Two of my favorite larger furniture pieces that add a vintage touch to my space are the burlwood armoire that is stationed in my bedroom and the small wooden desk that I keep in the living room. Both of these pieces show a bit of wear from their past lives, but there’s nothing wrong with some patina. Plus, secondhand pieces definitely help boost my (fictional) narrative of living in an apartment that features original molding and charm around every corner—I find that they appear more authentic in the space, almost as if they’ve been living there for years.

Even though investing in upgrades for a space that’s purely a rental isn’t something that will appeal to everyone, I’m pleased that I was able to incorporate some of the features I had previously only dreamt of into my little bachelorette pad. I still swoon over listings with authentic architectural details, don’t get me wrong, but for now, I’m happy with where a little bit of research and imagination has taken my apartment.

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