Brownstone Brooklyn: The Rise of Brownstone in New York
Editor’s note: This post has been updated, it originally ran in 2005. The original post can be viewed here.
Charles Lockwood was the author of the row house bible Bricks and Brownstone: The New York Row House 1783-1929 and is considered the foremost expert on historic brownstones. Brownstoner was fortunate enough to speak to Lockwood before his death in 2012.
Brownstoner: What is brownstone, and why did 19th century home builders choose brownstone for the facades of townhouses in Manhattan and Brooklyn? Isn’t the stone impractical due to flaking and crumbling?
Lockwood: Brownstone is a soft, fine-grained Triassic sandstone or freestone. When it is first cut, the stone is pink, but it soon weathers to an even, rich, chocolate brown due to the presence of hematite iron ore. Most of the brownstone used in 19th-century New York came from the Portland, Connecticut River area or near Little Falls, NJ, near the Passaic River. The stone was cut there, put on barges, transported to New York, and unloaded near one of the stone stores on the Hudson or East River.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when New York City Federal and Greek Revival style row houses were built with red brick facades, sandstone was often used for stairs, door panels, and lintels and window sills on smaller homes because it was cheaper than that common and preferred white marble or limestone.
However, by the late 1840s, brownstone became the most fashionable building material for row house facades. First, brownstone reflected the popularity of mid-19th century romantic classicism, which glorified picturesque nature. (Think of the Hudson River School’s idealized landscape paintings.) Brownstone mirrored the dark browns, grays, and greens of the romanticized landscape.
Second, because brownstone could be laid in long slabs with virtually invisible seams, it enhanced the coveted monumentality of the terraced house facade and the street scene. Brick-fronted row houses (with very distinct lines of white mortar between each brick) couldn’t achieve the same uniform visual effect.
Third, stone was considered a more worthy building material than brick or wood. In fact, mid-19th century row houses were known as brownstone fronts because they were actually brick houses with a street front with a 4 to 6 inch thick brownstone cladding or veneer.
After all, the industrial revolution played a crucial role. The invention of steam-powered machines enabled workers to cut and carve brownstone faster and cheaper than ever, making it affordable for middle-class homes, not just expensive townhouses.
The brownstone front was so popular for New York apartments from the 1840s to the 1890s that even now every row house in New York – even an early 19th-century red-brick federal building or a white limestone facade from the 1890s – is often referred to as brownstone.
Despite its popularity in the 19th century, brownstone was a problem practically from the start. The north side of City Hall was originally made of sandstone, not marble like the other sides because the city fathers didn’t expect New York to grow past City Hall, so they saved money with the cheaper sandstone. In the 1850s, however, one magazine complained that “the decay is visible in almost every part, and many of the stones are pitifully peeled and mutilated”.
Even the finest townhouses, where price was practically insignificant, had peeling and crumbling sandstones. “Several of the [brownstone] Fronts along 5th Avenue [near Madison Square], some of them less than 10 years old, already look terrible to the experienced eye of an honest stonemason ”, the manufacturer & builder explained in 1869.
Many 19th century New Yorkers blamed the brownstone problems on improperly cut stone in the quarries or too fast construction processes. When cutting and laying with the grain, sandstone crumbles and flakes because water seeps into the exposed pores of the thick sandstone blocks and when it freezes the stone expands and splits into large, thin slabs. (Imagine an upright deck of cards.) Had the stone been cut from the start and laid across the grain, the deterioration of most brownstone facades then and now would be minimal. (Imagine a deck of cards lying flat on a table.)
Some 19th century New Yorkers were so skeptical of the soft sandstone that they insisted that the grain or the cross direction didn’t matter in the long run. It doesn’t make a big difference whether the stone is laid parallel or perpendicular to the grain, explains the manufacturer and builder. In the former case, its destruction is faster. With the latter, rot soon appears in the lintels, columns, cornices and other protruding parts of the building.
Fortunately, brownstone turned out to be more durable than its critics claimed. However, like any building material, it needs to be looked after and repaired before serious deterioration sets in.
Half-timbered houses need to be painted regularly. Brick houses need to be re-grouting regularly Like any building material, brownstone requires regular care and attention.
Despite its drawbacks, brownstone is an integral part of some of the most beautiful apartment buildings ever built in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
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