On clear, warm nights, Steve Burns likes to sleep on the patch of sod in the courtyard in the middle of his new house in Williamsburg. The rowdy beer-and-video-game mecca Barcade and the roaring traffic of the BQE are steps away, but Burns is happily ensconced in his own private Walden at the center of this 2,000-square-foot converted garage.
“I probably shouldn’t live in New York,” says Burns, the original Steve on the nineties children’s-TV smash Blue’s Clues, now a 37-year-old musician, voice-over actor, and practitioner of “weird theater.” “Please don’t make me sound like a crazy hermit, but I don’t like crowds or noise.” He grew up in a modest bi-level in rural Pennsylvania. Cows from the neighboring farm often escaped and came to visit. “When I was a kid, my mom used to run the vacuum cleaner, and the noise would bother me so much that I would run into the woods to calm down,” he says. “I feel like that vacuum cleaner has been on since I moved to New York City.”
Nor did “burgeoning curmudgeon” Burns really want to live among the “hiplings” in Williamsburg: “I’ve always felt like there was this horrible cloud of effort that hangs over Bedford Avenue.” But this is where he found a lot he could afford, and then an article on cool conversions led him to Eric Liftin at Mesh Architectures, known for incorporating materials from old buildings into new ones. To build a second story while adhering to zoning regulations that required him to maintain the same net square footage, Liftin cut a courtyard out of the middle. The glass walls on either side open like accordions. It’s a playhouse for grown-ups—a motherboard controls everything from the heat to the projection TV through Burns’s iPhone, and on a recent rainy morning, Burns could be found happily burning pizza boxes in the wood-burning stove. “I’m trying to elevate the man-child thing to an art,” he says.
Still, he’d be happy to find a “Mrs. Steve,” and recently, Burns had a family sleepover. He took the courtyard, his two older sisters and their husbands got the bedrooms, his 16-year-old nephew enjoyed a tent on the rear roof deck, and a friend was on the deck out front. “We were like the Smurfs in their village,” he says. “I could see everyone waving to everyone in the morning. It felt like, ‘Okay, it’s consecrated. It’s a home.’ ”
LEFT: Burns is thinking of planting corn in the courtyard next year.
RIGHT: Burns’s bedroom. The whole lot was originally occupied by a garage, and architect Eric Liftin turned its old wooden roof beams into long planks that cover some of the house’s walls.