TOWN Real Estate History: Brooklyn Brownstones

Though an abundance of brownstone buildings are found in the Upper West Side, Harlem, Greenwich Village and other areas of New York City, it is those of the Brooklyn variety that, perhaps because of the borough’s huge real estate boom, have become the most talked about in recent years. The neighborhoods of Park Slope, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, Prospect Park, Brooklyn Heights, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Sunset Park, and Bay Ridge are all home to a large number of brownstones and have fast become some of the most desirable neighborhoods in the city, in part because of their rich architectural history.

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Brownstone is a type of sandstone that originated in the Earth’s Triassic-Jurassic period, which means some of the material actually predates the dinosaurs. There are five different types of brownstone that exist throughout the world, though four of the five kinds lie within the landmass of the United States. Two types of brownstone have been unearthed in tri-state-area quarries: New Jersey brownstone, found in the northern portion of the state, and Portland brownstone, named after a Connecticut town located near many quarries. It was those quarries in New York’s two neighboring states that supplied city builders with the relatively cheap inexpensive, compared to, granite, marble and limestone.

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Between the mid-1800s and early 20th century developers would use the material to construct homes for large swaths of the city’s growing middle-class population. Prior to that era, most buildings in New York were either made of wood or brick, but the economic prosperity that persisted throughout the mid-1800s helped compel much of the middle-class to search for building material a bit more sophisticated.

New York
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The term “brownstone” is frequently used in reference to a townhouse or row houses, even if the material was not actually used in the building’s façade. Along with its price and local abundance, city developers of the 19th century were also attracted to the ease with which brownstone could be shaped to meet desired specifications in brackets, enframements, moldings, architraves and other popular architectural devices of the time. City architects also went through a romantic period at the time. The best brownstone masons had the ability to cut and assemble the blocks of a façade so carefully that they appear to be a single mass of stone. Designers began favoring earthy, darker tones in their buildings, and brownstone fit the bill. Various types of brownstone buildings include Greek Revival, which tend to feature brownstone from roof to base; Italianate, which are comparatively more ornate and decorative; and Federal, with less elaborate designs.

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Another typical architectural detail of New York City brownstones is the presence of steep stairs, or a “high stoop,” connecting the entrance to the street level, often resulting in the presence of a garden level and a parlor level—technically the second floor, though it includes the front door. This staircase design was perceived as hygienic back then because the streets were rather dirty and animal waste was ever-present.

Since their first appearance in the Brooklyn landscape, brownstones have been revered. In fact, in 1965, in a move to halt Robert Moses from leveling the area in order to build what would become the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, the brownstone-laden Brooklyn Heights area became the first-ever landmarked neighborhood in the history of New York City.

Like much of the city, residents of these Brooklyn brownstone neighborhoods experienced tough financial times through the better part of the 1970s and 1980s. However, the revival of a more high-minded homebuyer’s appreciation of the brownstone over the last 20 years has led to higher property values, and quite a few walking tours too.