Bright purple, deep red, with bursts of blue and gold, the tenement building on the corner of Avenue B and East 4th Street is hard to miss. For the building’s owner, Antonio “Tony” Echeverri, making people stop and look at his masterpiece is a passion.
“Every mind is its own world. I like to see things that are different from my everyday surroundings. I don’t like plain brick,” he told the Voice.
The flamboyant colors, which Echeverri still mixes by hand when he has the facade of 246 East 4th Street repainted every five years, aren’t the only details that set his beloved building apart. From sculpted angels peeking off the upper-story windows to an ornate door complete with marbled molding, the building reveals more the longer you look at it. Passing through the archway of the front door, stamped pelicans and fish dot the staircase leading up to the apartments, inspired by a dream he once had.
“In my homeland, all of the houses are painted different colors, and they constantly attract and distract your vision,” Echeverri says in Spanish. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
Echeverri, 69, came to New York in the 1970s from Colombia, looking for a better life and a way of supporting his 13 brothers and sisters. Sending most of his earnings back home, he worked in a toy factory, for a textile manufacturer, and at a dry cleaner. He sold chicken wings and did some plumbing. At a diner in Queens he learned how to make five breakfasts in a single minute.
But Echeverri has always enjoyed working with his hands and creating unique spaces. After getting his start fixing friends’ houses back in Colombia, he began doing the same for neighbors in his adopted home on the Lower East Side. Soon he was maintaining five buildings.
In 1992 after saving up for nearly two decades, Echeverri discovered the property at 246 E 4th Street for sale through a friend in real estate. With several hundred violations, it was close to being condemned, requiring an enormous amount of work to make it livable.
Going apartment by apartment with a small team, he slowly transformed the building from a dilapidated mess into a home. The first apartment he finished was a one-bedroom he restored by hand and rented for $700 a month.
As Echeverri gave a reporter a tour of the building on a recent afternoon, it’s hard to imagine the building as it was when he found it: teeming with vermin, inhabited by drug dealers and on the verge of collapse.
“Now it’s a palace. It’s a paradise,” he said.
The care he has put into all aspects of the building resonates in the details. Each apartment has its unique touches, such as kitchen knobs adorned with tiny flowers, and he never stops making improvements to his work. Even the boiler room is pristine, painted in his signature vibrant colors.
“I do things with love,” he said. “I fix things with love because I love this building.”
His own small apartment on the ground floor embodies his eclectic style. Warm reds and greens color the walls where newspaper clippings, photos of his children, and inspirational posters fight for space.
In the basement, Echeverri’s workshop is a testament to his constant activity. Piled high with cans of paint, pigment, brushes and every kind of nail and screw imaginable, each inch of available wall space teems with tools and supplies.
Echeverri considers the building’s entrance as his crowning achievement. Topped with a statue of a bird, the ornate archway is lined with gold, red and light green touches, and decorated with stars and moons. Even the grates over the glass door are a little different, painted in a bright lilac. Tony mixed these colors and the cement himself as well, making the molds for the decorations out of light fixtures, bowls, planters and anything else he could find.
Facing the door, he built a decorative encasement for a tree on the sidewalk, complete with intricate plasterwork featuring palm trees and hearts. Mirroring the door in its reds and yellows, the shape of the structure extends into bulbous flourishes, looking like something Antoni Gaudí might have appreciated.
“I don’t know what he’s going for, but I like it. It stands out,” said Chris Deby, a neighborhood resident, as she pushed her child in a stroller toward Avenue C on a recent summer afternoon. “It’s nice to see some color,” she added.
“It gives me joy to see that people come by to admire the building, especially the door,” Echeverri says. “The door has stars, the sun and moons on it. We’re all part of the same universe, and the door is where I capture mine.”