by Suzanne Spellen (aka Montrose Morris)
Neo-Grec was a highly influential architectural style when it hit Brooklyn’s streets in the height of the brownstone era. Its simple lines and Greek influence was in many ways a reaction against the prevailing Italian-inspired architecture of the time.
A movement against Italianate style
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 — with all those florid acanthus leaves — was still the popular architectural look of the day for row houses and mansions alike. Inside, the decor was equally elaborate and ornamental, with heavily carved and upholstered furniture, lots of rugs, doodads, draperies, paintings, sculpture and objets d’art.
But in 1872, the pendulum of fashion was poised to swing the other way. This was the year that a book by British architect and social critic Charles Eastlake began to hit Brooklyn’s bookshelves.
Eastlake’s Hints on Household Tastes in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details was revolutionary. It embraced the Arts and Crafts ideal of simple furniture and decor made by hand. This was in direct opposition to the overblown excesses of the period, and many of his ideas and designs for unadorned furniture and furnishings resonated with readers and homeowners.
In America, Eastlake’s designs — which used simpler shapes and incised carved ornament — were picked up by manufacturers, and Eastlake furniture and the Eastlake style became an American phenomenon. Here in Brooklyn, we see Charles Eastlake’s unintentional influence in the row house building style known as Neo-Grec.
Neo-Grec brownstones vs. Italianate brownstones
Like the Italianate style, the Neo-Grec–style row house has a smooth brownstone front, with a pronounced deep cornice, heavy entryway and window details. But 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 that are geometric and precise.
The curved window and door frames of the Italianates were replaced by squared-off edges, and the large lintels replaced with equally large rectangular blocks. On the stoop steps, the large balusters ended in squared-off cast iron and stone newel posts, with incised ornament, and geometric detail.
In Brooklyn, Neo-Grec style is defined by its incised ornament
The most striking and signature aspect of Neo-Grec brownstone architecture is this 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 was no coincidence that this regulated and precise style appeared at a time when American society was becoming increasingly mechanized, with factories replacing farms as the dominant workplace. It is also no coincidence that this style became popular at the time of a great building boom.
Simple Neo-Grec style lends itself to mass production
Carving these relatively simple designs — as opposed to the much more elaborate Italianate forms — was much less expensive and could be done by cheaper, less-skilled stone workers. 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 decoration has an Egyptian or Mesopotamian look about it, especially in the shapes and themes of the brackets surrounding doorways.
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 upperclass people embarking on grand tours to exotic places all over the world had a great effect on society and the public taste.
Eastlake himself was horrified at how his reforms were translated in America, as the style eventually evolved into one just as complicated and overly ornate as the furniture it replaced. And it was definitely not handmade or lovingly crafted by skilled artisans. But the style and the name has endured.
Spotting Neo-Grec architecture on the streets of Brooklyn today
In our brownstones, we see the familiar incised floral and geometric Eastlake motifs on interior woodwork, on stone and wood mantelpieces, pier mirrors, door and window frames, and on 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, there are relatively few in Crown Heights North, although the ones there are quite fine.
The greatest concentration of Neo-Grec houses are in Bedford Stuyvesant, followed by Park Slope, from casual observation. In Bed Stuy and elsewhere, many of these were designed by architect Amzi Hill, the master of Neo-Grec.
[Photos by Suzanne Spellen]