Historic Brownstones: The Red-Hot House Type Transforming Real Estate

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Faisal Nadeem

What Is A Brownstone?

Brownstone homes have a rich history and are admired for their unique styles and charm. These buildings are primarily located in New York City, Boston, Philadelphia, and other Northeastern areas. Constructed from dark, brown-colored sandstone quarried in New Jersey, Connecticut, and Maine, these row houses feature intricate ornamentation such as moldings and pediments. The stone is relatively soft and easy to carve, making these homes a prized piece of real estate. Residents appreciate the benefits of living in these historic homes, enjoying the community feel created by the stoop and steps leading to the front door, where people can chat with their neighbors.

In American culture, brownstones are architectural icons frequently seen in movies set in the Big Apple. Famous scenes include Holly Golightly singing “Moon River” from a window in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and Carrie Bradshaw navigating the stoop in “Sex and the City”. In Brooklyn, brownstones feature in films like “Moonstruck” and Spike Lee’s “Crooklyn”, with one notable brownstone selling for $1.7 million in 2013. Built as early as 1897, these townhouses are characterized by their brownish façade, which is a veneer over a brick wall, adding to their distinctive construction and historic allure.

 History of the Brownstone 

Brownstone buildings, especially the iconic town homes in New York City, have a rich history rooted in the 19th century. These structures, known for their distinctive sandstone facades, are primarily found in row houses that line the streets. The material used, Brownstone, was sourced from the Portland Brownstone Quarry in Connecticut. This quartz, feldspar, clays, iron oxides, calcite, and silica mixture gave the stone its unique qualities.

During the 19th century, Brownstone became a popular, easy, and affordable choice for construction, especially for single, middle-class families. The stone was cut and carved using steam-powered machines, then put on barges to be transported via the Connecticut river and Hudson River to New York City. Despite its appeal, Brownstone was also soft, close-grained, and liable to crack and crumble under severe weather and exposure. This unreliable nature meant many buildings needed to be restored over time. Yet, these beautiful, tall structures have mesmerized those who have walked by them, holding up a significant part of the city’s architectural history.

Five Types of Brownstone

Apostle Island Brownstone

The Apostle Island Brownstone from Wisconsin gained prominence in the 19th century. The quarry at the site was run by the Bass Island Brownstone Company. This brownstone was essential in the construction of the first Milwaukee County Courthouse. The Company sourced the durable brownstone from Apostle Island, making Wisconsin a notable place for quality stone.

Hummelstown Brownstone

Hummelstown Brownstone comes from a quarry located outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. This quarry is the largest provider of Brownstone on the east coast. Many government buildings in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, and Delaware are faced with Hummelstown Brownstone.

Portland Brownstone

Brownstone from Portland, Connecticut is famous for its rich history and distinctive look. Extracted from quarries along the Connecticut River, this material was used in many landmark buildings across the United States. You can find stunning examples in cities like Chicago, Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, New Haven, Hartford, Washington D.C., and Baltimore.

New Jersey Brownstone 

Brownstone is a type of sandstone that was popular in building homes in the 19th century. The Brownstone used in New York City and New Jersey came from quarries in the Passaic Formation located in northern New Jersey. This material was valued for its durability and aesthetic appeal, giving homes a distinctive look.

South Wales Brownstone 

Brownstone became popular in South Wales during the Devonian age. Growing up in South Wales, I admired the unique charm of brownstones from the Devonian age. Their history adds a special character to the neighborhood.

How Brownstones came to be 

Brownstone, which became popular in New York during the 1800s, was initially much cheaper compared to other materials like granite, marble, and limestone. These materials were often used to front brick rowhouses. The rise of Romanticism, an artistic and intellectual movement that celebrated nature, led to an increased demand for the natural look of brownstones. By the peak of this movement, nearly 78% of New York’s stone buildings were using brownstone in their construction.

During the Industrial Revolution, the feverish pace of building in the city, driven by romantic classicism, highlighted the essential and desirable connection to nature. Improved machinery made the production of brownstones safer, faster, and cheaper, which in turn boosted their availability. This made brownstones an affordable luxury for the middle class. However, over time, the Portland Quarry, the main source of brownstone, closed in 2012, leading to a scarcity of this genuine and original material. Today, authentic brownstones can only be found in select places like the upper west side, fort green, park slope, and carroll gardens.

what does brownstone look like

Brownstones are iconic elements of residential architecture, especially in places like West Village where you might picture Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City walking up the grand stoops. These townhomes and row houses are admired for their brick structures and stone facades. Often found on a bustling street, a brownstone’s front is an intricate display of design with a facade that features Italianate details.

Upon entering a brownstone, you are greeted by an expansive parlor that welcomes guests with its open layout. The parlor connects to a dining room and a foyer, often adorned with hand-carved details and tall windows that allow natural light to flood the space. The walls and doors are crafted with meticulous care, showcasing hardwood, antique tiles, and parquet flooring. Elements like crown molding, door frames, and mantelpieces further add to the home’s charm.

From a structural perspective, Brownstones have a brick structure as brownstone is too soft for the main construction. Jack Pontes, a renowned master craftsman and conservator from J.Pontes Inc., emphasizes that the stone is a veneer attached to the building with metal ties. This ensures the integrity and durability of these historical homes.

Brownstones also feature stoops, which are not only beautiful but also practical. Historically, stoops helped residents avoid horse manure on the streets. Today, these platforms and porches are perfect for relaxing with friends and neighbors. The entrance stairway often leads to a small veranda, making the space inviting and cozy.

Brownstone maintenance

Maintaining a brownstone is crucial for its longevity and pristine appearance. Regular upkeep, though sometimes costly, is essential. For example, flashing made of lead-coated copper helps protect lintels, ornamentation, and ledges from water damage and corrosion. Ensuring the roof is in good condition and addressed immediately if damaged is another key step. Inspected yearly, the roof must be free from leaks and other issues.

Cracks in the walls, windows, doors, and other structures need to be filled with high-quality polysulfide, butyl rubber, or acrylic latex caulk to prevent water from penetrating and weakening the structure. Gutters should be kept clean to avoid water damage. Each part of the building, from the cracks to the gutters, plays a role in preserving the integrity and beauty of a brownstone.

When considering a move to a maisonette apartment or investing in hurricane proof houses, it’s crucial to understand terms like R4 zoning and base flood elevation meaning. These factors can significantly impact property choices and maintenance requirements. Understanding the nuances of these regulations helps in making informed decisions and ensuring long-term satisfaction and security in your home.

Pros and cons of owning a brownstone

Pros

  • Brownstones offer numerous benefits. They are incredibly spacious, especially if you live in the entire unit. Even if you have just one unit, it often spans an entire floor or multiple floors, providing plenty of space. These buildings boast old New York charm with tall windows that bring in ample natural light, stoops, and a rich sense of history. The Italianate features are highly sought after, adding to their unique appeal.
  • Another bonus is having your landlord nearby. Many owners rent out their additional or unused units, meaning your landlord could live above or below you. This proximity is a pro when you need quick access to assistance, fostering a beneficial bond and relationship. Brownstones are typically located in tight-knit neighborhoods, which are desirable and often near restaurants, shopping, and entertainment.

Cons

  • Living in brownstones comes with several challenges. Due to their scarcity and high demand, landlords often place a premium on rent. These older buildings frequently require repairs, adding to the overall cost. As an owner or renter, you may have to deal with worn or cracked plumbing, older appliances, leaking roofs, and outdated insulation. Additionally, damaged flooring and old gutter systems can be common issues.
  • A significant drawback is the absence of an elevator in most units. If you live on the upper floors, you’ll need to take the stairs. The genuine charm of these structures often comes with outdated appliances and A/C units, unless they have been renovated. Despite their appeal, the high cost and maintenance needs make brownstones a challenging choice for some. The limited supply and unique nature of these buildings only increase their allure, but also the potential number of issues you’ll face.

Brownstone vs. Townhouse

When comparing a brownstone to a townhouse, it is important to understand the fundamental differences. A townhouse is a type of dwelling that typically features multiple units attached side-by-side, each on its own individual lot or parcel. These units share at least one common wall with an adjacent unit, forming a cohesive row of homes. Townhouses come in various styles and can sometimes be confused or lumped together with brownstones due to their similar living arrangements.

However, the main difference lies in the material and architectural details. Brownstones are a subset of townhouses but with façades made of the characteristic brown sandstone. They are typically lined in historical districts and offer a genuine charm that attracts real estate agents and buyers alike. When deciding whether to rent or own, it’s crucial to do thorough research and consult agents to make an architecturally correct choice based on your preferences and needs. Some people may conflate the terms, but a true brownstone stands out for its material and historical significance. Additionally, brownstones can include configurations like single-family homes, duplexes, and side-by-side apartments, making them unique in their versatility.

What makes a house a brownstone?

A brownstone is a type of building made from dark sandstone. This particular stone is primarily quarried from New Jersey, Connecticut, and Maine. What makes it unique is that the stone is relatively soft, making it easy to carve into intricate designs. This lends itself to ornate ornamentation, making these homes highly sought-after in the real estate market.

Are brownstones expensive?

Brownstones are iconic and highly sought after in many urban areas. They are especially common in New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. The demand for these historic homes is high, partly because the material they are made of is now hard to find, making them quite expensive in the Northeast.

Are brownstones only in New York?

Contrary to popular belief, brownstone isn’t exclusive to New York City. This type of stone, known as Connecticut River brownstone, was also widely used in Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, and Philadelphia. From personal experience walking through the historic neighborhoods of these cities, I’ve seen the charm and warmth that brownstone buildings bring, standing as proud landmarks of their time.

What does it mean to live in a brownstone?

Living in a brownstone means enjoying the charm of early 19th century architecture. These brick row houses feature unique sandstone facades that set them apart. Typically built for single, middle-class families, these houses offer a glimpse into the past while providing a comfortable home.