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For many people, the quintessential Brooklyn row house is the Italianate brownstone. The name conjures up the streetscape of rows of identical houses stretching down a block, with their tall stoops, majestic entryways, long windows encased in heavy window lintels, and deep sills. There is a perfect symmetry to their uniformity, a pleasing rhythm and solidity to these blocks, especially when paired with ancient trees, flower boxes overflowing with trailing vines and flowers, and heavy black cast iron railings and fences. This, for many, is classic Brownstone Brooklyn.
The Italianate style flourished from 1840 until around 1870. This coincides with the rapid growth of most of what we call Brownstone Brooklyn, and fine examples of these houses are found most frequently in the older neighborhoods fanning out from Fulton Landing and Brooklyn Heights. They appear, in lesser numbers, in later neighborhoods such as Crown Heights North, where they represent some of the earliest row houses in that neighborhood. There are very few, if any, in Crown Heights South or Prospect Lefferts Gardens, as development in those neighborhoods took place after the style had fallen out of favor. The inspiration for the Italianate brownstone was the 15th century Italian city palazzo, a style with classical detail, elegance and gravitas deemed eminently suitable for conveying prosperity and social position in a limited space. At the same time, the New England sandstone known as brownstone was gaining in popularity as an elegant and rich building material, and by the late 1840’s through the 1850’s, almost all of the new residential architecture, as well as churches and commercial buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn were faced in this stone, praised for its unostentatious magnificence. The enduring popularity of this material is evidenced by that fact that we still call all row houses, whether brick, brownstone, limestone, or a combination thereof, brownstones.
What some people don’t realize is that brownstones are, in fact, brick houses faced with a six inch veneer of brownstone slab. The skill of the masons of the era was so great that these blocks of stone were joined together almost imperceptibly, so that the seams almost disappear on the flat surface, calling the observer’s attention to the elaborately carved doorways and windows. Unfortunately, in the building frenzy of the 1850’s and 60’s, builders often cut and laid the stone with the grain exposed, thinking no one would know the difference, or that it did not matter. As we all know now, improperly cut brownstone can scale and crumble and even fall off. The stone should always be cut and laid across the grain, so that water cannot enter the grain, freeze, expand and break the stone. Sadly, cutting corners in new construction is not a new concept. Those brownstones that show minimal damage and wear, after 150 years in the elements, were cut and laid correctly, those spalling, and in need of major resurfacing, were not.
The mid 1800’s were the Age of Brownstone, an age that defines the city to this day. The neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill are greatly defined by the Italianate brownstone. Like any architectural style, it borrowed and combined with other brownstone-clad styles also emerging at the same time, such as the Neo-Grec, and Second Empire. All of these mid-century styles flourished in the above neighborhoods, and spread to the growing areas of Bedford Stuyvesant, Prospect Heights, Park Slope and Crown Heights.
Next time: the importance of the streetscape in the Italianate style, and what are those creepy, mutant vegetal bracket things flanking the front door, anyway? You won’t have to wait until next week to find out. Walkabout will appear twice a week from now on.
Sorry – Flickr is not my friend, for some reason, and won’t upload my pix. I’m investigating, and will have all photos available for part 2.