East 14th Street



by Lucie Young

New York architect Bill Peterson’s Manhattan brownstone, has an armored base to protect it from the harsh urban environment on East 14th street and a first floor façade that flips up turning the living room into an outdoor space. ‘I love the playful notion of a period façade suddenly doing things you never anticipated,’ he says. Peterson lives in the first floor triplex of this narrow 1869 building. His décor is a mix of gritty industrial materials, a modern play on the building’s original Victorian aesthetic and a nod to the East Village’s punk heritage.

How does it feel sitting in your open air living room above 14th street?

For me, it’s like sitting at a sidewalk café. You are outside, but you have a certain amount of privacy. And when the trees are green, it’s like a tree house up there. People do stop and stare, take photographs and shout up.

How easy was it to create a retractable façade?

The front façade, although it looks like a traditional brownstone is a new ultra light material. It is  a veneer of stone that is only a quarter inch thick bonded onto an aluminium honeycomb. It weighs much less than traditional stonework. But I still needed someone who could engineer my idea so that it was safe. It is not just a 1,500 lb moving wall, the windows go up overhead and if they are not fixed in properly they can fall out. The whole thing was done by McLaren Engineering Group who create the incredible stage effects for Cirque du Soleil, and also for Madonna and U2’s concerts.

How much did it cost?

This one element was $200,000.

Your kitchen also has a moving wall?

On the back of the apartment there is  another mechanized door. It was a much cheaper aluminium garage door, the same kind used in restaurants and Chelsea art galleries. It opens up the whole kitchen dining area to the outside.

Why the heavily screened base to the building?

East 14th Street is one of the busiest streets in Manhattan. The perforated screen protects the base  like armor. You can’t even tell where the door is. It creates privacy, but it also lets in this beautiful dappled light into the ground floor. The screen is made of the same graffiti-proof material used for New York subway signs. It is porcelain baked onto iron.  The pattern was copied off the stone base of another 19th century stone building nearby.

How did you maximize this narrow space?

The building is just 16 feet wide, but inside it is 14 and a half feet wide because the old brick party walls are so thick. You can’t even hear the bar next door. I maximized my space by spreading my one bedroom apartment out over three floors. It is a good thing exposed brick wall is so appealing! I also gained a little extra space by extending the building backwards 7 feet.

You have a knack for using industrial materials decoratively?

Yes. The purple panels on the living room walls are raw sheet rock from a lumbar yard, they come in that color and they still have the stamps on. The grey quilted panel in the bedroom is an acoustical quilt. And the kitchen table is two orange metal saw horses and a solid core wooden door. The kitchen counter top is made of the same subway signage material used on the metal façade of the building. You can write on it with a marker and it just wipes off. And the outdoor chairs and table [hanging on the kitchen wall] are the same ones used by the New York Parks Department.

 You also included some period design ideas?

I’ve used ‘Victorian’ materials like velvet, lace, quilting and fringing but on modern objects; in the bedroom I’ve used blinds by the UK company Sweet Dreams Security. They look like Manhattan security gates but they are made of Nottingham lace. In the living room, I have a fringe lamp by Edward van Vliet and a velvet Knoll sofa that is an update of the quilted Victorian parlor furniture.

© 2011