Few things sums up beautiful settings of quintessential New York City like its eloquent and highly prized brownstone row houses. Structures the streets with uniform facades in chocolate and russet hues, these beautiful homes are the esteemed centerpieces of many of our area’s protected historic streets, especially in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Jersey City.
1. Not all “brownstones” are brownstones.
There’s a tendency among New Yorkers to refer to all historic row house residences as brownstones. True brownstone homes, however, are constructed with a layer of brownstone a few inches thick adhered to brick underneath. Other historic townhouses in New York are clad in a range of non-brownstone materials including bare brick, wood, limestone, granite and terra cotta.
2. True brownstone, once plentiful in our area, is now rare.
Brownstone is a type of sandstone that was abundant and readily available to builders hoping to stay abreast of the city’s 19th century population boom. Much of the brownstone used in New York City was shipped in from New Jersey and Connecticut, especially from Portland, Connecticut where the last quarry closed down in 2012. It’s estimated that 80 percent of the brownstone used in New York City homes came from Portland.
3. Today’s highly-prized brownstones were once looked down upon.
According to the New-York Historical Society, because brownstone was a cheaper façade alternative to materials like granite or limestone, it was considered less appealing prior to its heyday in the mid-19th century. While Edith Wharton once called it the “most hideous stone every quarried,” the eventual popularity of the stone is credited to the Victorians and Romantics who were said to like its dark and moody tones.
4. Restorations are time consuming and expensive.
While brownstone’s soft texture made it easy to cut and carve, it also leaves it vulnerable to erosion and susceptible to poor attempts at restoration with paint or stucco. A historically accurate brownstone restoration involves painstakingly removing the damaged outer layer of stone, adding thick layers of cement, then covering with a brownstone coating that’s been meticulously color and texture matched to the original. Any carvings or details are then carefully restored by hand. It’s no surprise that the careful restoration of an entire brownstone can cost more than half a million dollars.
5. Brooklyn isn’t the only game in town.
While Brooklyn is known for its vast swaths of brownstones — hence the term “Brownstone Brooklyn” — there are brownstone homes across the city and beyond. The Upper West and Upper East sides and Harlem neighborhoods are lined with brownstones, as are the historic sections of Long Island City, Queens, and Mott Haven in the Bronx. Across the Hudson River, one can find stunning examples of brownstone architecture in Hoboken and Jersey City, and Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago also boast a number of brownstone homes.
6. You can now play where our brownstone was once quarried.
Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park in Portland, Connecticut, is a fantastic setting filled with rope swings, zip lines, swimming and wakeboarding on the site of an old brownstone quarry just 100 miles from Midtown Manhattan.