Stephen Peters Ph.D. '84

Preserving architectural treasures
Writer: 
October 1, 2008
Stephen Peters Ph.D. '84

Diane Daniel

When Stephen Peters bought a 1907 fixer-upper in Durham, he had no experience working on houses.

"I'm just one of those people who thinks they can do anything," Peters says. "Anyway, old houses are imperfect to begin with."

Peters, a native of southeast Michigan, decided to stay in Durham after receiving his doctorate in sociology at Duke. "I like living downtown, being in an urban area, but Michigan was a traffic nightmare," he says. "It takes forever to get anywhere. Now I can walk and ride a bike, though I'm in my car far too often."

After graduating, Peters worked as a researcher for Southeastern Educational Improvement Laboratory, a program under the U.S. Department of Education. His fondness for old things surfaced when he and his then-wife bought a two-story house in what is now known as the Central Park section of Durham. The couple later restored another old house in Person County.

"We didn't do it to make money," he says. "We just liked old houses. We had one in the city and one way out in the country."

When federal funds dried up at work, Peters, having already moved to part-time consulting, decided in 1995 to go into the home-restoration business by opening an architectural antiques store. Since then, Stephen Peters Design Works has become one of the area's top restoration suppliers.

For building restorers and renovators, designers, and architects, a visit to Peters' 4,000-square-foot showroom and warehouse on Foster Street is a field day. They come here to hunt through a chaotic mix of stuff, from doorknobs from the late 1800s to the doors themselves, and from plumbing fixtures to their matching kitchen sinks and bathtubs. Frame windows, wooden flooring, and miscellaneous hardware are hot commodities as well.

"I deal well with the chaos," Peters says. "My habit is to have a lot of issues and problems and solve them and get things neat and tidy. Then they explode again, and I try to rein them in again."

Although he says he appreciates the fact that he is giving new life to old things that otherwise would end up in the landfill, his attraction to the business comes more from the design side. "Other people might be more interested in reusing and recycling, but my interest is more aesthetic. It's beautiful. It's cool-looking."

Early on, Peters found that he needed to expand his business,
and he now provides design and restoration services, as well as items for sale. "People think that in this business you get it for free, and you sell it for all this money," he says. "First of all, it's not free, but also, you might sit on something for years before you sell it. Turnover is way too slow. So I learned pretty fast that I couldn't make a living just buying and selling."

A booming downtown Durham has kept Peters plenty busy. Not only are homeowners restoring houses and converting warehouse space into lofts, but commercial owners are also plentiful for the first time.

One of his recent challenges was to restore some 500 double-hung windows in the Old Bull building, part of the American Tobacco complex. The building, which dates to 1874, is being converted into office space, loft apartments, and condominium units.

On a smaller project, Peters saved a tiny part of Duke's history while doing restoration work for Durham-based documentary filmmaker Cynthia Hill. During a university renovation project, the old doors in Kilgo Quad were scrapped, he says, and "a bunch of them went into her loft."