Brooklyn was growing by leaps and bounds in the 1870s. Most of our brownstone neighborhoods were well established by this time, and demand for homes was high.
The Italianate style was still the popular architectural style of the day for row houses and mansions alike. Elaborate and florid carved acanthus leaf ornament flanked the lintels and windows of these homes, often accompanied by heavy window and door frames, ledges, and cornices.
Inside the homes, the decor was equally florid and ornamental, with heavily carved and upholstered furniture, lots of rugs, doodads, draperies, paintings, sculpture and stuff.
Numerous innovations and inventions in mass production enabled factories to churn out relatively inexpensive items for the home, and much like recent periods in our own time, more was definitely more.
Around this time in England, architect and social critic Charles Eastlake had published his revolutionary book, Hints on Household Tastes in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details.
The book was a huge success in England, and was published in the U.S. in 1872. In it, Eastlake embraced the Arts and Crafts ideal of having furniture and decor made simply, and by hand.
This was in direct opposition to the overblown excesses of the period, on both continents, and many of his ideas and designs for simpler furniture and furnishings resonated with the public.
In America, his designs utilizing simpler shapes with incised carved ornament were picked up by manufacturers and Eastlake furniture, and the Eastlake style became an American phenomenon. We see Charles Eastlake’s unintentional influence in the row house building style known as Neo-Grec.
Like the Italianate style, with which it is often combined, the Neo-Grec style row house has a smooth brownstone front, with a pronounced deep cornice, heavy entryway and window details. Instead of the organic, curved, foliate and very feminine lines of Italianate ornament, Neo-Grec is very masculine in its severity, with angular incised lines and forms, geometric and precise.
The curved window and door frames were replaced by squared off edges, the large lintels replaced with equally large rectangular blocks. On the steep steps, the large balusters ended in squared off cast iron and stone newel posts, with incised ornament, and geometric detail.
The most striking and signature aspect of Neo-Grec brownstone architecture is the incised carved detail, appearing on window ledges, door frames, and most grandly and beautifully, on the flat surface of the brownstone building.
The two most popular styles were an incised flower and vine design known as the Eastlake Motif, and Neo-Grec Fluting, long lines of carved parallel lines, usually appearing on sills, door hoods and pilasters and brackets.
It is not coincidental that this regulated and precise style appears at a time when American society is increasingly becoming mechanized, and the factory has replaced the farm as the working place of more and more people.
It is also not coincidental that this style becomes popular at the time of a great building boom.
It was much less expensive to carve these relatively simple designs, as opposed to the much more elaborate Italianate forms, and a stone carver need not be as skilled, nor demand as much pay, always a consideration for builders since the dawn of time.
Mechanical planers and groove cutting routers of the time, along with the pneumatic drill, invented in 1871, made short work of the soft sandstone, allowing deep, but delicate and precise ornament that has lasted almost 150 years.
Some of the ornament has an Egyptian or Mesopotamian look about it, in the shapes and themes of the brackets surrounding doorways, especially.
Along with Eastlake’s movement, England and America were embarking on what is now called the Aesthetic Movement, a style of design, decor and lifestyle very highly influenced by exploration of the world outside of Europe.
Archeological discoveries in Egypt, the opening up of Japan and the Far East to Western trade, and more and more upper class people embarking on Grand Tours to exotic places all over the world had a great influence on society and in the public taste.
Eastlake himself was horrified at how his design was translated in America, as it eventually became as complicated and overly ornate as the furniture it replaced, and was definitely not handmade or lovingly crafted by skilled artisans. But the style and the name has endured.
In our brownstones, we see the familiar incised floral and geometric Eastlake motifs on interior woodwork, on marble and wooden mantelpieces, pier mirrors, door and window frames, and on the wooden newel posts and banisters.
Neo-Grec row houses appear in most of our brownstone neighborhoods. Numerous and excellent examples can be found in Brooklyn Heights, Fort Greene/Clinton Hill, Prospect Heights, Boerum Hill, Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens.
By contrast, we have relatively few in Crown Heights North, although the ones we have are quite fine. The greatest concentration of Neo-Grec houses are in Bedford Stuyvesant, followed by Park Slope, from my casual observation.
In Bedford Stuyvesant, and elsewhere, many of these were designed by architect Amzi Hill, the master of Neo-Grec.
Thursday’s column will continue with a look at Amzi Hill’s life and career, and more on the Neo-Grec style. Please check out the many photos on my Flickr page.
[Photos by Suzanne Spellen]