When architect Bill Peterson and development partner Carol Swedlow bought this sixteen-foot-wide brownstone on East 14th Street in 2004, it had one tenant—a ground-floor check-cashing joint—and the upper stories had been vacant for decades. Their plan was to turn it into four condominium units, with a penthouse for Swedlow. Peterson was determined not to make the brownstone look, on the one hand, like a “shallow revival,” or, on the other, too drastically modern. Why couldn’t it have old qualities, but exploit new technology? “I started thinking of ways to reinterpret the building using high-performance versions of the original materials,” Peterson says.
The result: an 1869 brownstone, its guts torn out and replaced with thoroughly modern systems and surfaces; its décor a combination of updated Victoriana and punkish East Village nostalgia; and its second-floor brownstone façade a movable plane that slowly tilts inward to reveal a white-box living room, with a careful arrangement of modern furniture (Knoll, Mies van der Rohe) tweaked to reference the past (velvet, fringe). This is a house with surprises.
Peterson, who dresses preppily and attacks design problems with the alacrity of a scientist, imagined the brownstone tilting back and up like a garage door, updating the traditional parlor-level balcony into a 21st-century porch. Of course, the reality was somewhat trickier than the vision. The architect went to Stone Panels in Coppell, Texas, to source ultralight brownstone, which weighs three and a half pounds per square foot rather than 60. A thin veneer of real stone is bonded to a three-quarter-inch aluminum honeycomb, and the resulting blocks can be used like quarried rock. The hardware on the moving wall is custom, and McLaren Engineering Group, the firm Peterson eventually hired, also works for Cirque du Soleil. “These guys were like magicians,” he says.
His next innovation was on the street level, where he took inspiration from the rusticated bases of palazzi, rough-hewn stone that typically ends after the ground floor. He traced the pattern on a brownstone of the same vintage a few streets over, and rendered it into a computer drawing. Cherokee Porcelain Enamel, a Tennessee firm that also makes graffiti-proof signs for the MTA, cut the pattern out of sheets of iron and then baked it with a porcelain finish. The resulting screen offers privacy at ground level (it is a busy commercial block) and creates a dappled light on the interior.
Inside, Peterson and his team (Mark Castellani, Miki Sawayama, Miwa Tanaka, Hiromi Watatani, and contractor ABR Construction) thought up more mergers of past and present. The interiors are spare, with glass-finish concrete floors and white plaster walls, but include nods to Victoriana. The bedroom walls are upholstered, but with silvery acoustical blankets. John James Audubon’s 1840 Birds of America was mined for images: A bluebird, the official avian of New York State, appears as a decal on the bathroom sink. It’s just one more small surprise in a building that’s loaded with them.