Is Your Townhouse Too Big?

Brooklyn Brownstone

Earlier this week the Observer ran a story about a Manhattan couple who realized that their five-story townhouse was too big for them. Art dealer Otto Naumann told the Observer: “I realized I hadn’t been up to my library in six months. My wife pointed out that neither of us had been to the parlor in the last three.” The addition of an elevator only made things worse as they were able to skip some floors entirely.

It’s a very un-New York problem. Few people have the luxury of complaining about too much space. But it got us thinking about how we use the space in these homes. Brownstones, even the wider ones, are vertical in nature, and, as the article points out, people often avoid going up and down stairs when they can. Said an architect in the story: “We have a client in Carroll Gardens who is very concerned with how many footsteps it will take to go from the garden to the top level. It’s constant topic of conversation—how can we make it more efficient? But it’s not a hospital. It’s a house.”  Does anyone else have this problem—any rooms you haven’t seen in a month or two?

Photo by Chris Shiflett

48 Comment

  • “more efficient” here’s an idea: purchase a smaller home. what a vapid fool.

  • DH, I was going to post the same exact thing.

    Heaping virtual piles of cyber scorn on physically fit people who worry about how many footsteps it will take to go from the garden to the top floor.


  • We *only* have a three story house [with slightly <3,000 sq. ft.], but there's just the two of us. We mainly use just five rooms–our bedroom, the back parlor (where our TV and most comfortable seating is located) the kitchen (eat-in, with another TV and CD player) and the dining room (not as a dining room, but the computer is there, as well as a sofa). Also the original maid's room, off the kitchen, which functions as a combination laundry room and darkroom.

    We haven't actually sat in the front parlor for years; the middle parlor mainly serves as a passageway to the staircase (although I occasionally read there since we bought a comfortable antique platform rocker a couple of years ago), the back bedroom hasn't been used since our son left home and, of the two small hall bedrooms, one serves as my workroom for spotting, matting, and framing prints and the other has never been used (except for storage). I've got so much crap on my cellar work bench that I can't actually use it.

    BUT, too much space? NEVER. One of the greatest luxuries of owning a house is the ability to waste space!!

    Of course the Observer article is about people who *only* use three floors of their five story Manhattan townhouse–rather more rarified than us ORDINARY brownstoners.

  • mm, I agree – what kind of person worries about that stuff? One of the best things of going up and down the stairs is that it keeps you fit. My wife’s mum said that her grandmother’s health started to spiral downward when she sold her house and moved into a single floored apartment. I do about 25 floors a day up and down, and the only room that I haven’t used in the past few months is the guest bedroom (although I’ve been in it to change sheets.) – having a guest bedroom is a real NYC luxury!

  • Not only good for fitness regimen, it’s great to be able to waft from one room to another when you need a break – different rooms have different ‘feels’ about them. More is best!!

  • Boy, Jim, but you are a pot-stirrer!

    Point out the pretentious Manhattan elites who don’t appreciate what space they have – unlike we Brooklynites – and then watch the comments pour in.

    I suppose that the fridge comparison is true on one level. But there are different functions for ginormous size refrigerators. Some are for homes and others for restaurants. Some are for bigger homes and some for smaller – some for people with bigger bank accounts and some with bigger debts.

    Unlike many of us, these people have large wallets and so can afford to worry about these things as important particulars. Let them focus on what is important to them. For me, I never worry about this. Like MM I cherish the space and visit all parts of my house regularly – even my cellar. :)

    • Oh, I visit my cellar alright–to get tools, or bring other stuff up and down, to check occasionally on my furnace, and service it a couple of times a year, etc. I just can’t find my workbench under all the crap I’ve piled on it :-)

  • To the couple with the 5 story under utilzed house.
    My husband and kid and I can move into the two floors you’re not using and you’ll never know we’re there.

  • I guess the “journalists” at the Observer have very little to write about.

  • Certainly true, ET.

    Sometimes I go for months not being in one of my other homes.

  • “Is Your Townhouse Too Big?”

    It’s not the size of the Townhouse, but the commotion about the notion.

  • Funny topic although I have heard complaints from brownstone owners on my block that their houses are too big. Things are worse in the suburbs where many older houses were built for families with eight to ten children. Pre-pill residential architecture.
    Empty nesters can always downsize, or take in the needy like Expert and his raggedy clan. Or they can just go their winter houses in Crested Butte or the Bahamas to take their minds off the problem.

  • Minard, Expert is a she. Not a lady, obviously, but just female.

  • LOL, we’ve been discussing place settings over there >>>>> for the past few days with all the silver services for auction this week at Sotheby’s and Christie’s

  • Seems like a stupid slant on a legitimate architectural issue….height vs width

  • Perhaps the solution to these poor rich peoples’ problem is to eat them. they should be ashamed to say such things in a public forum considering how 99% of New Yorkers live.

  • “considering how 99% of New Yorkers live.”

    99%???? Really??? Exaggerate much??

  • ZZzzz. Everyone here posting has ‘first world problems’. Ever complain your fridge or closet were too full? Somewhere someone poorer is thinking we’re rich gluttonous pigs. Just makes us feel less guilty to bitch about those with more, even though we’re probably 1%ers (of the world)

  • Our house is four stories (plus a basement)… I know, I know but I don’t think of myself as a one-percenter. We just bought at the right time in a neighborhood that many people turned their noses up at (and still do on this very blog!).
    When showing someone the house for the first time I almost always find myself saying that Murphy’s Law applies—whenever you forget something, it’s always three floors away. And I always add that I hope my worst problem in life is that my house is too big.
    The only time we’ve ever had a problem with the stairs was when my wife broke her foot. And it does complicate matters when our elderly parents visit… but if you love the house you deal with the realities of brownstone living. Why anyone who is counting the steps would want a brownstone is beyond me.
    As far as rooms we don’t use, we close off our second (parlor) floor for the winter. We close the pocket doors, and shut the heating vents. Saves us a lot of money and gets more warm air upstairs to the bedrooms. We might have dinner once or twice in the formal dining room but otherwise we don’t use the second floor from mid-Dec until maybe April. I’m well aware how annoying this must sound to the space-deprived…

  • More and more when I see what *journalists* are writing about, and what Brownstoner is reposting, I think about the fact that there are real stories out there. Real stories that aren’t being covered. How lazy have *reporters* become? Do they ever leave their offices?

  • I agree with the comments about how ridiculous this is. BUT, at same time, having bought a brownstone (a narrow, 3 story one) I did actually think a lot about size when buying. Our budget prevented us from being able to buy a really big house but we did have to think about things like size vs. neighborhood (i.e. more space in less desirable hood) and also living in whole house vs. having a rental (which impacted budget/size). In the end, we really like having a relatively “small” house (approx 2000 sf) since we like that we really do use every single part of it and also have lower energy/maintenance costs. And it did sometimes feel like we had a “Goldilocks” problem during our search since while we didn’t want too small, we also actively did not want too big – and while our budget eliminated most “too big” houses, some in further flung hoods and/or worse shape were contenders. Really, NYC space is so tight that having a house at all feels like a huge luxury, even a smallish one – since 2000 ft is still a lot in NYC. I think people who dream about a lot of space don’t always think about upkeep costs!

  • When I do any repair work, 50% of the labor is humping those stairs. Anytime I would begin something on the 3rd floor, or the roof, I would remember a part or tool that was somewhere in the cellar–guaranteed.

  • On, they would call being featured in this article a “vba.” As in, “I can’t believe we only have a month to choose between Brearley Spence,” or, “WWYD? DH says we have to use the Montauk house this summer, but I wanted the children to go to camp in the city.”

  • I find this to be a refreshing change of pace. A lot of townhomes are now owned by new owners who certainly fill them with kids, offices, extended family, etc. But you do have a segment of the population that are NOT super wealthy but have owned these buildings for a long time and with their kids growing up and moving on they find a surfeit of space. This is not a bad thing. It is no grosser than a very well to do family owning a 40,000 sq ft. mansion in the Hamptons or multiple addy’s around the world. I am sure when Donald Trump owned Mar a Lago he was faced with the same abundance of riches. I think the only reason the Observer made it a big deal is that Townhomes throughout the 5 boroughs (yes, folks seem to think NYC is only made up of the island of Manhattan) are owned by the rich, poor and in-between. I am part of a 3 person family and we have a 4 story and live on 3 floors. I only go to my top floor when my kid wants to play Skylanders on his Wii with me or if I just want to escape to a quite space. It certainly does not get the attention of my parlor floor or the bedrooms or bathroom But then again with this weather neither does my garden and I am sure no one at the Observer would want to write about that.

  • Every time an article like this gets published, god kills a kitten.

  • “Perhaps I’ll use this spare floor to store all of my extra monocles and top hats. Errm… Yes.”

    • a lot of the brownstones purchased over the last few years are single fmaily use or single fam + a garden rental. THat still means you need to go up and down 3 floors. I hate to think of something worse than living with young kids over 3 floors in a brownstone. Thats a daily nightmare not to mention bumping the strollers up and down the front stoop. there is life beyond brownstones… its called apartment buildings!

      –nucky thompson