Editor’s note: An updated version of this post can be viewed here.
We are thrilled to announce that Charles Lockwood, the foremost expert on historic brownstones, will be starting a Q&A column on Brownstoner. Called the “Consumate Authority” on brownstones by The New Yorker, the consultant, lecturer and author (of Bricks and Brownstones) will answer one or two reader questions a month. We encourage you to a submit specific question (along with relevant photos) about the history and architecture of your townhouse. Please email us with the subject LOCKWOOD Q&A. Please understand that we will only be able to answer a very limited number of submissions and that Mr. Lockwood cannot recommend specific service professionals.
Q: What is brownstone, and why did nineteenth-century builders select brownstone for townhouse facades in Manhattan and Brooklyn? Isn’t the stone impractical due to scaling and crumbling?
A: Brownstone is a soft, close-grained triassic sandstone or freestone. When first cut, the stone is pink, but it soon weathers to an even, rich, chocolate brown because of the presence of hematite iron ore. Most of the brownstone used in nineteenth-century New York came from the Portland, CT area on Connecticut River or near Little Falls, NJ near the Passaic River. The stone was cut there, put on barges, carried to New York, and unloaded near one of the building stone storage yards along the Hudson or East Rivers.
During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when New York row houses were built in the Federal and Greek Revival styles with red brick facades, brownstone was often used for stoops, doorway trim, and window lintels and sills on smaller houses, because it was cheaper than the customaryâ€”and preferredâ€”white marble or limestone. (Continued Below).
By the late 1840s, however, brownstone became the most fashionable building material for row house facades. First, brownstone reflected the mid-nineteenth-century popularity of Romantic Classicism, which glorified picturesque Nature. (Think of the idealized landscape paintings of the Hudson River School.) Brownstone echoed the dark browns, grays, and greens of the romanticized landscape.
Second, because brownstone could be laid in long sheets with virtually invisible seems, it enhanced the much-desired monumentality of the row house front and streetscape. Brick-front row houses (with very obvious white mortar lines between each brick) could not achieve the same unified visual effect.
Third, stone was considered a more dignified building material than brick or wood. In fact, mid-nineteenth-century row houses were known as brownstone-fronts, because they were actually brick houses whose street front had a four-to-six-inch-thick brownstone facing or veneer.
Finally, the Industrial Revolution played a vital role. The invention of steam-powered machinery enabled workers to trim and carve brownstone more quickly and cheaply than ever before, making it affordable for middle class residences, not just expensive townhouses.
The brownstone front was so popular for dwellings in New York from the 1840s to the 1890s that, even now, any row house in New Yorkâ€”even an early nineteenth century-century red brick-front Federal house or white limestone-front dwelling of the 1890sâ€”is often termed a brownstone.
For all its popularity in the nineteenth century, brownstone was a problem virtually from the start. The north side of the City Hall was originally brownstone, 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. By the 1850s, however, one magazine complained that decay is visible in almost every part, and many of the stones are miserably peeled and mutilated.
Even the finest townhousesâ€”where cost was virtually no objectâ€”had flaking and crumbling brownstone. Several of the [brownstone] fronts along Fifth Avenue [near Madison Square], some of them less than ten years old, already look frightful to the experienced eye of an honest stonecutter, declared the Manufacturer & Builder in 1869.
Many nineteenth-century New Yorkers blamed the brownstone problems on improperly cut stone in the quarries, or overly quick construction procedures. When cut and laid with the grain, brownstone crumbles and scales, because water seeps into the exposed pores of the thick brownstone blocks and, upon freezing, expands and splits the stone into large, thin sheets. (Think of a deck of cards standing upright.) Had the stone been cut and laid across the grain in the first place, the deterioration of most brownstone fronts, then and now, would be minimal. (Envision a deck of cards laid flat on a table.)
Some nineteenth-century New Yorkers were so skeptical about the soft brownstone that they insisted with the grain or across the grain didn’t matter over the long-term. It makes no very great difference whether the stone is laid parallel or perpendicular to its grain, declared the Manufacturer & Builder. In the former case, its destruction is more rapid. In the latter, rottenness soon appears in the lintels, columns, cornices, and other projecting portions of the edifice.
Fortunately, brownstone turned out to be more durable than its detractors insisted. Like any building material, however, it must be maintained and repaired before serious decay sets in.
Frame houses have to be painted regularly. Brick-front houses must be re-pointed periodically. Brownstone, like any building material, also requires regular care and attention.
Despite its drawbacks, brownstone is a key component of some of the finest housing ever built in Manhattan and Brooklyn.