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NYC Brownstone History: How the Brownstone Became a City Classic

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NYC Brownstone History: How the Brownstone Became a City Classic

For New York City dwellers, few things evoke the dream of upward mobility quite like the brownstone townhouse. Rich chocolate-brown homes of stately design, these townhouses sit several feet above the street, atop staircases bordered by regal banisters. Elegant carvings adorn their doorway trims, acanthus leaf brackets that show plants or flowers, nature run amok. They are often very expensive, or occasionally just regular-expensive. But how did the brownstone become the favorite building material of well-off New Yorkers? Here’s a bit of NYC brownstone history for you.

Where NYC Brownstone Came From
Let’s start with a common misconception: only a small part of a brownstone townhouse or rowhouse is built of actual brownstone.

What most people call a “brownstone” is actually a townhouse built with brick, with an added veneer of brownstone. As a building material, brownstone is unreliable: it’s soft, close-grained, liable to crack and crumble. Brownstone homes give off an idea of permanence even though they’re anything but.

Brownstone is a kind of a sandstone, specifically one that dates back to the Triassic-Jurassic period. When first cut, the stone is actually pink, but deepens into its classic brown hue once it’s been exposed to the air. Like many works of art, brownstone facades often need to be restored after years of weathering and exposure.

Believe it or not, the majority of New York City’s brownstone came from the same place: the Portland Brownstone Quarry, formerly located in Portland, Connecticut. In the 19th century, when brownstone first caught on as a choice building material, the stone was cut in Connecticut, placed on barges, and hauled over to the city, where it was unloaded in stone storage yards along the Hudson and East Rivers.

Why Brownstone Became Popular in NYC
So how did we get here?

By the mid-19th century, when some of the first rowhouses were being built, Americans were pretty obsessed with the ideals of Romantic Classicism, specifically the artistic movement’s adoration of nature. The Industrial Revolution had by then ushered in a widespread streamlining of production — many new buildings were built, and fast. Romantic Classicism was a response to the pace of urbanization, a reminder that nature was not only necessary, but desirable.

Brownstone was the happy marriage of these two worlds. Steam-powered machines let laborers cut and shape brownstone faster and more cheaply than ever before, making it affordable — and its organic hues recalled the beauty and power of the wild.

For middle-class townhouse and rowhouse owners who wanted a taste of luxury, brownstone was the way to go. For little money — far less than what it might cost with limestone, granite, or marble — a homeowner could have a six-inch brownstone façade built, complete with a stoop, a rising staircase, and whatever lovely carved accoutrements they desired.

How Brownstones Came to Symbolize Wealth in NYC
So, if brownstone became popular in part because it was cheap and easy to work with, how did the material grow to symbolize wealth? And where’d those price tags come from?

This is an easy one: scarcity breeds interest.

After 300 years of use, the Portland Brownstone Quarry closed down for good in 2012. And though there are other places around the world where brownstone is quarried, experts say that there’s nothing quite like the stone that came from Portland.

But it’s not just the material that’s become scarce — it’s the style itself. There are only so many parts of New York City with genuine brownstones — the Upper West Side, Fort Greene, Park Slope, and Carroll Gardens to name a few. Since the building of new brownstones is a near impossibility given the dearth of materials, demand has exceeded supply.

Don’t Like Brownstones? Read This
If you’re in the seeming minority of New Yorkers who don’t care for brownstone homes, here are two factoids for your arsenal:

Edith Wharton, brilliant literary dame and master of the NYC upper-class takedown, lived in brownstones all her life and hated the ordinariness of the material, and the way rowhouses repeated themselves ad nauseam down every block. Indeed, Wharton said that brownstone made New York “hide-bound in its deadly uniformity of mean ugliness.”

And the kicker: the reason brownstones were built with stoops wasn’t for people-watching or sun-bathing. It was to avoid the sea of animal waste that was the 18th century New York City street. Those elegant stairs were just a way to rise above the muck.
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Comments

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Bjresh

Well, BIb, I really can't argue that!!

Bibliophile

No! It isn't fine @Bjresh. I know how it makes me feel, sick at my stomach. That isn't fine. There are most likely Jigidi members who have tested positive. The are quarantined at home. They try to
find a form of escape on Jigidi, and what do they come across,
a Jigidi member who names themselves @Covid. My stomach dropped when I saw this comment made on one of my jigsaw puzzles.

No! It isn't fine. It should be reported.

People are dying, alone, frightened, their loved ones cannot be with them. It is a sick person who names themselves this horrible life threatening @Covid19 disease. This person is doing it for shock
value. Bib

Bjresh

Bib, his name is fine, minimizes the fear! Or hers !

Artola

Thanks for the information. Very interesting. I always wondered how those steps/stoops came about.

Bibliophile

Thanks for the comment, gives me the shivers, you are making
this so real, please change your name!
Why in the hell would you use this as your profile name? Do you
have a death wish,

Bjresh

Bib, LOL I wouldn't even make it in the front door!!! What's the old saying....if wishes were horses then beggars would ride.

Bibliophile

Schlepping up and down stairs is a fact of life for most brownstone dwellers — one that many embrace as part of their daily fitness routine. But some townhouse owners, especially those with five stories or more, are increasingly adding elevators during a renovation to help lighten their load.

Residential elevators aren’t cheap. A typical residential elevator in a brownstone runs about $200,000, including structural work and the elevator itself. The most common type of elevator in townhouses runs on a cable along a guide rail with a motor in an upstairs attic or closet.

In order to squeeze an elevator into a townhouse, a 5.5 by 7.5 foot hole must be cut in every floor, and then reinforced. Two more structural supports — either steel or wood — must be run from the bottom to the top of the shaft. Lots of work. Lots of $.

Barbara,
If I lived in a brownstone that had no elevator, I would never see
the top three floors, I guess I could put one of those chair lifts
on each floor, would be cheaper than installing an elevator.
Bib

Bjresh

They are indeed gorgeous but if there were no elevators, I wouldn't even look inside!!
Love them as pictures, though, Thanks Bibfriend *❤️*

Thank you - I love learning!

BirdNana

Another beauty, regardless of the thoughts of muck.

Very very interesting! Thank you.

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