Manhattan Brownstone Hides a Surprise

On the south side of a block of East 14th Street, between Second and Third Avenues in Manhattan’s East Village, sits an unassuming brownstone renovated by Bill Peterson in 2004. The job’s exterior conveys very little about what’s happening inside, but this tour will reveal that plenty is happening, much of it in unanticipated ways. I was fortunate enough to fulfill Peterson recently and get a guided tour of the three-story garden residence (first and second floors with partial basement) at the building’s base. Here’s a look at the construction, inside and outside.

at a Glance
Location: New York City
1,975 square feet
That’s interesting:
There is kinetic architecture where it is least expected.

Sitting between a virtually replicate brownstone and a neoclassical building with a bowed facade, Peterson’s renovation is immediately notable for what it lacks: retail. The architect was faced with a retail area occupied by a check-cashing store when he bought the building (he was equally developer and architect on the job). He switched the first floor to residential, shielding it by a baked porcelain screen in a darker brown than the rock over.

Inside the three-story device’s foyer, it is clear that the facade display is porous. Peterson really took a rustication pattern from a brownstone a few blocks away, drew it into his computer-aided design (CAD) software then handed the design to a fabricator to cut the panels. The more subtle pattern over the horizontal framing came about from lifting a brownstone veneer onto a lightweight honeycomb backing; more with this particular detail afterwards.

In the opposite end of the ground floor sits the kitchen this view down the hallway to the front part of the home indicates the screened facade in the distance. Whereas the street facade is, appropriately, brown, much of the interior is white, finely detailed in a minimalist manner. The brick party wall is a nice touch which gives more texture. As well, the brick wall exhibits a number of the preceding structure, through pockets for timber joists remnants which are still visible.

Peterson tried to continue the porcelain palette in the various spaces, but given the weight of the material, ended up using mostly medium-density fiberboard (MDF) with a lacquer finish.

Porcelain is used for the kitchen island counter, which has both a sink and a Viking stove; the latter has a retractable range hood which vents down and over to a duct which extends to the peak of the six-story construction.

I particularly like the hinged light fixture which lets it be positioned over the staircase or the table.

The backyard is outdoor area recovered from the removal of the store. Peterson managed to incorporate that square footage to the peak of the construction for additional units. The garden-level apartment looks out to a artificial turf surface in lieu of grass. The glass wall is really a retractable garage door having an integral pass-through for access to the backyard.

The faux grass is placed over a subsurface of gravel and drainpipes, allowing for good drainage. This south-facing elevation gets the most sun, hence a cutout with entry to the cellar bedroom; this brings light to the underground space.

Upstairs are brick party wall and a narrow hallway, like downstairs. Here we’re awaiting the back of the home and the master bedroom. A full-height panel seen in this picture — shuts off the bedroom from the front part of the home.

Porcelain is used in the master bathroom, the two such as the sink backsplashes and also the tub surround. MDF is used for the medicine cabinets, because the ceramic was too hefty for the doorways. Decals on the backsplashes are temporary, but Peterson developed permanent ones which may be employed with the material.

The master bedroom on the second floor rewards from the south-facing back of the building. The area is decorated with a mixture of furnishings which plays off the historical brownstone and the East Village’s more recent past as the center of New York punk music. The first is evident in the 19th-century parlor mirror and quilt of the same interval; the headboard is habit, picking up on the old quilt. The second is found in the framed T-shirt, an original from the Fillmore East, where many punk bands got their start in the 1970s.

The curtains bridge (the more recent) old and new: The Sweet Dreams Security curtain appears like a normal metallic safety shutter but is still a top design that was shown as part of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Safe” series in 2005 and 2006. That pattern is echoed in the first Bauhaus accordion wall lamps on either side of the mattress.

On the front of the next floor is the living room, which, like the master bedroom, plays with the area’s history, most overtly in the photograph of Patti Smith on the wall. Other furnishings include first Le Corbusier chairs, a Moooi tassle lamp and a couch upholstered in purple. The cutouts on the wall imply that something is starting to happen here.

When you turn to look at the windows, there are more hints that something is happening here: The vents in the ceiling, the gaps at the top and bottom of the wall … is that a glass railing in front of the wall?

Aha! The whole front facade of the second-floor living area is really a retractable wall! If you open a panel, then insert a key and then hit a button, then the whole front pulls inside in 2 minutes flat. The living area is currently open to the road, a huge perspective that turns the distance into a massive patio. If noise, temperature and bugs are a issue, the vents on the ceiling turned into high-velocity blowers.

The glass railing held back a few feet from the facade ensures security and generates an area where water may drain.

Peterson created numerous headaches for themself in going for a retractable facade — code requirements, engineering feats, providing room for a 1,500-pound counterweight! — but he persevered and produced a distinctive area that brings the town inside.

Back out, the impact of the retractable facade on the road is incontrovertible. Peterson managed to make it happen by applying a thin veneer of brownstone to a lightweight honeycomb backing, just like the upper layer of the ground floor, as mentioned earlier in this narrative.

Traditional brownstone would have left the wall too thick to raise and bring inside the space. With the assortment of different claddings — brownstone, brownstone veneer, ceramic — the facade requires on a striated appearance, yet without giving the pleasures which happen at the push of a button.

Book to Know: Contemporary New York Architecture

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