The Wall Vanishes

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.

Exterior, before. Photo: Courtesy of Stan Wan

Living room, before. Photo: Courtesy of Bill Peterson

Living Room
A pair of buffers keeps the outside and inside environments separate. The first, a 42-inch-high railing of ultraclear glass, acts as a safety barrier. The second, an “air curtain wall system” that shoots air from the ceiling at high velocity, creates a thermal barrier and bug screen. Photo: David Sundberg/Esto

Living Room
The garage-door-like façade has sensors on the sides and bottom”it will stop moving if it encounters an obstacle. It’s activated by keying a control panel hidden in the closet. To go from opened to closed, or vice versa, takes only a few minutes. The triplex’s interiors reference both the Victorians and the velvet-suited punks of the neighborhood’s past. Peterson upholstered the Knoll couch in Brunschwig & Fils purple mohair velvet. The chairs are vintage bentwood Thonet and the coffee table is by Mies van der Rohe. The fringe lamp is made by Dutch company Moooi, known for cleverly updating past lapses in taste. Photo: David Sundberg/Esto

Bedroom, before. Photo: Courtesy of Bill Peterson

Peterson went wild with the quilted theme, decorating with padded acoustical blankets on the walls and a vintage quilt on the bed. A Marcel Wanders for Moooi cube sits at the foot of the bed in place of a traditional crocheted coverlet. On the walls are framed T-shirts worn by bartenders at Fillmore East and Max’s Kansas City, once nearby haunts. The red phone adds a playful shot of color. To open up the second-floor bedroom to sunlight, the builder first had to break through layers of old brick and stucco. Photo: David Sundberg/Esto

The dining area at the back of the ground floor can also switch from indoor to outdoor spaces on command. Peterson found an off-the-shelf garage door to install here. The counters are porcelain enamel, the same material used on the building’s lower front façade. Peterson fashioned a farmhouse table out of a wood door and orange metal sawhorses. The chairs on the wall are the same as those in Bryant Park, and can be easily taken down and set up in the yard. The stovetop is Viking; and the faucet is an Arne Jacobsen design for Vola. The overhead lamp is a reissue of a Jean Prouvé design (sold at Design Within Reach). Yard
For ease of maintenance, Peterson chose to carpet the small backyard in artificial turf. The stairs lead down to the cellar, which gets some daylight. The concrete cabana at the back of the yard provides shaded seating, along with privacy for the wide-open kitchen.

The Wall Vanishes