Stoops are so New York. Some parts of the world have verandahs, loggias, terraces, atrium, and porches, but we have the stoop.
As in many things New York, we can thank the Dutch for the stoop, both the concept and the name, which originated from the word stoep. Flooding is a constant threat for homes in the Netherlands, and the Dutch brought the idea of a raised parlor floor over a high basement with them to the New World.
The first row houses in what we now call the Federal Style, built in Manhattan and Brooklyn, utilized small stoops of only a few steps up. Flooding was no longer a major concern, but the stoop gave the architect a reason for a more elaborate entryway, and stoops were immediately and universally embraced in our row house design ever since.
We can see these early examples in the oldest part of Brooklyn Heights, as well as in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. The stoop had practical applications, as well.
Most New York streets did not have service alleyways, like Philadelphia and Baltimore, so the stoop allowed a service entrance to be built underneath the main stairway, to allow servants and deliveries to enter the house and kitchen.
Another more decorative element of the stoop was the addition of handsome wrought iron railings, adding to the curb appeal of the houses. Many rowhouses from the early 1800’s have incredibly ornate and intricate examples of expert ironmongery, which adds to the overall appeal of the house.
And believe it or not, stoop sitting on warm evenings was a popular pastime even in the early 1800’s.
One Englishman wrote in the early 1820s, “It is customary to sit out of doors on the steps that ornament the entrances of the houses. On these occasions, friends assemble in the most agreeable and unceremonious manner. All sorts of cooling beverages and excellent confectionery are handed round and the greatest good humour and gaiety prevail.”
As styles changed, so did the stoops. Beginning with the Greek Revival style, stoops started to get taller, as the parlor floor was raised, allowing the basement floor to emerge from its half buried status, with taller windows, and less stairs down to the entrance.
By the 1850’s, when the Italianate style of brownstone dominated the architectural landscape, the stoop reached some of its greatest heights, with some buildings sporting quite a journey upwards on steep steps.
On the practical side, this was due to the higher ceilings on the garden level, but the taller stoop also went well with the overall design philosophy of the day.
The Italianate rows were designed and built to be appreciated as a whole; all of the buildings were part of an long row stretching majestically down the street, best viewed obliquely, from an angle.
From this viewpoint, the stoop, the highly ornamented and deeply shadowed doorways and windows in all their ordered splendor were in their glory. These taller stoops were wider and deeper than earlier houses, and were perfect frames for the elaborate and beautiful heavy cast iron hand railings and balusters now popular.
Because people eventually want change, the Anglo-Italianate style also developed during the same time period, between the 1840’s and 1860’s. Based on English terrace houses, these homes did not have tall stoops at all, but instead were the first English basement style houses, where one entered on the ground level with only one or two stairs up, and there was no service floor below.
Guests would enter into a vestibule, and then proceed upstairs to the parlor level. The kitchen and service area was behind the vestibule. This style didn’t really catch on until it reappeared much later in the century, and on into the early 20th century.
The styles that follow, the Second Empire style, basically the Italianate with a mansard roof, and the Neo-Grec style, with its incised ornament, all had wide stairs and high stoops, some higher than others, depending on expense and manner of housing.
The Neo-Grec style introduced its signature heavy, thick cast iron balustrades and newel posts, the largest ones so far, with its signature etched patterns worked into the posts, and thick sculptural balustrades, some also angular and carved, others plain and rounded.
In the 1880’s, everything, including the stoop, changed. Long rows of identical houses were out, seen as old fashioned and boring.
The architects of the Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne styles of rowhouses were all about individuality, with many designs and shapes in a group, and with houses often built to look random and individualistic.
For the stoop, that meant no longer were they of a uniform height and shape. Architects began to design dog-leg stoops which started in one direction, and turned, creating a landing before going on to the doorway.
Sometimes the entrance to the stairs started on the left, while next door could start on the right, with a straight stoop next to that. The stoop was no longer just a means to get to the door, but a vital part of the design of the entire facade.
Many of these stoops were masonry and stone, and relied on much smaller pieces of ironwork, if any at all. During these heady days of design abandon, the stoop could be tall, short, straight, angled with a landing, or gone altogether.
By the 1890’s and into the twentieth century, and the end of the brownstone era, a new aesthetic had taken over. Brownstone was passe, the favored materials were now light colored limestone and brick.
The White City Movement, born of the 1893 Chicago World Exhibition, gave rise to the Renaissance Revival, Beaux Arts, and Neo-Colonial styles of rowhouses.
The Renaissance Revival homes seemed to be a throwback to the identical rowhouses of an earlier time, but yet…not. The materials were uniform, and the basic shapes often similar, but these houses often had differences within the groups, making them similar, but not identical.
But in terms of their stoops, all of the houses in that group usually had the same stair configuration.
This could be the tall straight stoop, the angled stoop with the landing, the rediscovered English basement house with a short stoop, or a new stoop, the terraced stoop with a couple of steps leading to a wide porch, often stretching completely down the row of houses.
This was a favorite of architect Axel Hedman, who used this in Park Slope, Prospect Lefferts Gardens, and Crown Heights North and South. Combined with deep yards perfect for gardens, this terraced step proved to be quite elegant and popular.
Other Renaissance and Beaux Arts homes also went back to the lower stoop, creating elegant and very upscale entrances at more or less ground level. But again, there was no standard, and an architect could choose what worked for the developer or his individual clients.
By early 20th century, the Colonial Revival style was in vogue, and most of these houses had gone full circle, back to the low stoops of their stylistic ancestors, the Federal row house.
In spite of the many changes over the years one thing has not changed, however. Stoop sitting, no matter what height of stoop you may have, remains as popular a Brooklyn pastime as ever. More photos on Flickr.
[Photos by Suzanne Spellen]