“Brownstones occupy a unique place in the New York psyche, as one of the city’s most prototypical signposts, like yellow cabs and fast walkers, yet are able to stir aching desire and teeth-baring jealousy. Everybody wants one.”
So begins a fascinating New York Times article about the closing of the Portland Brownstone Quarries in Connecticut which is believed to be the source of most of the brownstone used throughout New York City. The Quarries were one of, if not the last, working quarries in the United States. They were deemed so significant they were designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2000. You can read the designation report here and view a Web series about the history of the quarries at Connecticut Public Broadcasting, here.
The architectural landscape of New York City is unique in many ways. One being that here the term “brownstone” has become synonymous with what was once the dominant housing form, the row house. To be clear, brownstone is the material that was used as the facing for a number of buildings throughout New York City. It is not a building style or form in and of itself.
Brownstone, a reddish-brown stone that is a type of sandstone, had been used in New York City long before it became fashionable to do so in the middle of the 19th century. Trinity Church’s St. Paul’s Chapel (1796) in Lower Manhattan, one of New York’s oldest and most endearing landmarks, was constructed using a combination of local stone and brownstone.
Originally used as an inexpensive substitute for more expensive marble and limestone, by the 1840’s brownstone became increasing popular as the façade material of choice for mansions and row houses for the upper class.
In his remarkable book, Bricks & Brownstones: The New York City Row House 1783-1929, architectural historian Charles Lockwood explains the popularity of brownstone this way: “The brownstone front was so popular for dwellings in New York for so many years that, even now, any row house in New York, even an early-nineteenth century, red-brick front Federal house or white-limestone front dwelling of the 1890s, still is popularly termed a ‘brownstone.’” In fact, if you do a Google image search for brownstone the results returned will be pictures of row houses, very few of which will actually have brownstone fronts.
Lockwood’s book helped to usher in the brownstone revival of the late 20th century and was the first book of its kind to place rowhouses in historical context and examine how their architectural features tell their story. GVSHP recently held a panel discussion about the continued impact of Bricks and Brownstones and the legacy of Charles Lockwood. Panelists included: architectural historian and author of The Row House Reborn, Andrew Dolkart; architectural historian and author of The Houses of Greenwich Village, Kevin Murphy; and real estate agent and author of the New York Social Diary’s weekly column “Big Old Houses,” John Foreman. The discussion was moderated by Patrick Ciccone, preservationist and Mr. Lockwood’s collaborator on a newly revised edition of the book.
If you were unable to attend this panel you’re in luck. We have made it available on GVSHP’s YouTube page. And you can view both parts below.