Ode to a Brownstone

Uniform brownstone facades
Uniform brownstone facades

The character of New York’s many residential streets is defined by the perfect rhythm and uniformity of adjacent houses lined up in rows right next to one another and forming a solid street facade. Combining Yankee practicality with the romantic old-world feel, the brownstones are the soul of 19th century New York.

Built all over the city for upper-middle-class families, these single-family houses had to be practical and affordable. Since New York City has always been about real estate, the use of every inch of livable space produced the idea of row houses built right next to one another. To make the houses affordable, it was very important to use inexpensive materials, ruling out marble and limestone. Since brick was cheap and practical it became the material of choice. However, what good old brick had in practicality, it lacked in appearance. Local pinkish stone quarried in Connecticut and New Jersey that changed color to brown, called brownstone, provided the natural solution. It was used to cover the facades of brick houses ideally suited for a dignified family dwelling. Since the aesthetics of mid-19th century New York were inspired by the Romantic Movement, the feel was better expressed by dark colors conjuring images of romantic old looking homes darkened by age and history.

Italianate-style decoration
Italianate-style door decoration

Even though rowhouse and brownstone are often used interchangeably, they are not the same thing. Brownstones are almost always rowhouses by virtue of being adjacent to one another. However, the rowhouses can be built from various materials and are not always brownstones.

 

Brownstones first appeared in New York City in the 1830s and remained popular until the beginning of the 20th century. The architectural style of choice for a brownstone was the Italianate, inspired by the Renaissance-era Italian palazzo. Italianate-style brownstones featured heavy double doors distinguished by elaborate decorations, large projecting cornices, tall arched windows, and a stoop – its most distinctive feature. The word stoop originates from the word “stoep,” a Dutch word for “stair,” and signifies brownstone stairs which lead to the main entrance on the parlor level, always on the second floor. When we romanticize the past we tend to drop the unpleasantries and imagine beautiful people ascending stairs in order to enter light-filled parlors through heavy double-doors.

But the reality which dictated that fashion of entering the house was far less romantic. Since the transportation of the era was mostly carried out by horses, the streets were solidly covered with horse manure. In light of this fact, it was vitally important that the entrance to the house be elevated above the street level.

A stoop - brownstone entrance
A stoop – brownstone entrance

One woman who grew up in one of the brownstones and famously loathed them was Edith Wharton, a famous writer and the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. She was born into a wealthy old New York family, the Joneses. In fact, the expression “Keeping Up with the Joneses” refers to her family. In her novels, she gave vivid descriptions of the lives of wealthy brownstone dwellers and expressed her unapologetic dislike for the structures, considering the uniformness and the brown color oppressively boring and unimaginative.

Nevertheless, brownstones have certainly passed the test of time, becoming an integral part of New York City’s eclectic streetscape with their soothing rhythmic uniformness and old-fashioned charm.

Brownstone facade
Brownstone facade – large projecting cornices, tall arched windows, and heavy double doors

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