View Full Version : Brownstone Architecture

February 23rd, 2008, 07:49 AM
the waves of new buildings going up throughout the city over the past few years got me to thinking about the early stages of the brownstone boom back in the 1800s. anyone on this board have an idea as to the architect(s) behind the original designs for brownstone architecture? obviously there was much variation on the basic theme over the late 1800s through early 1900s, but it would be interesting to see where the whole story started.

November 4th, 2009, 06:26 AM
Walkabout : The Italianate Style, part 1

Remsen St, near Clinton, Brooklyn Heights

South Portland between DeKalb and Lafayette, Fort Greene

Adelphi St, near De Kalb Ave, Fort Greene

Pacific Street, between Nostrand and NY Ave. Crown Heights North

State Street, between Nevins and Bond, Boerum Hill.

For many people, the quintessential Brooklyn row house is the Italianate brownstone. The name conjures up the streetscape of rows of identical houses stretching down a block, with their tall stoops, majestic entryways, long windows encased in heavy window lintels, and deep sills. There is a perfect symmetry to their uniformity, a pleasing rhythm and solidity to these blocks, especially when paired with ancient trees, flower boxes overflowing with trailing vines and flowers, and heavy black cast iron railings and fences. This, for many, is classic Brownstone Brooklyn.

The Italianate style flourished from 1840 until around 1870. This coincides with the rapid growth of most of what we call Brownstone Brooklyn, and fine examples of these houses are found most frequently in the older neighborhoods fanning out from Fulton Landing and Brooklyn Heights. They appear, in lesser numbers, in later neighborhoods such as Crown Heights North, where they represent some of the earliest row houses in that neighborhood. There are very few, if any, in Crown Heights South or Prospect Lefferts Gardens, as development in those neighborhoods took place after the style had fallen out of favor. The inspiration for the Italianate brownstone was the 15th century Italian city palazzo, a style with classical detail, elegance and gravitas deemed eminently suitable for conveying prosperity and social position in a limited space. At the same time, the New England sandstone known as brownstone was gaining in popularity as an elegant and rich building material, and by the late 1840’s through the 1850’s, almost all of the new residential architecture, as well as churches and commercial buildings in Manhattan and Brooklyn were faced in this stone, praised for its “unostentatious magnificence”. The enduring popularity of this material is evidenced by that fact that we still call all row houses, whether brick, brownstone, limestone, or a combination thereof, “brownstones”.

What some people don’t realize is that brownstones are, in fact, brick houses faced with a six inch veneer of brownstone slab. The skill of the masons of the era was so great that these blocks of stone were joined together almost imperceptibly, so that the seams almost disappear on the flat surface, calling the observer’s attention to the elaborately carved doorways and windows. Unfortunately, in the building frenzy of the 1850’s and 60’s, builders often cut and laid the stone with the grain exposed, thinking no one would know the difference, or that it did not matter. As we all know now, improperly cut brownstone can scale and crumble and even fall off. The stone should always be cut and laid across the grain, so that water cannot enter the grain, freeze, expand and break the stone. Sadly, cutting corners in new construction is not a new concept. Those brownstones that show minimal damage and wear, after 150 years in the elements, were cut and laid correctly, those spalling, and in need of major resurfacing, were not.

The mid 1800's were the Age of Brownstone, an age that defines the city to this day. The neighborhoods of Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens, Boerum Hill, Fort Greene, and Clinton Hill are greatly defined by the Italianate brownstone. Like any architectural style, it borrowed and combined with other brownstone-clad styles also emerging at the same time, such as the Neo-Grec, and Second Empire. All of these mid-century styles flourished in the above neighborhoods, and spread to the growing areas of Bedford Stuyvesant, Prospect Heights, Park Slope and Crown Heights.

Next time: the importance of the streetscape in the Italianate style, and what are those creepy, mutant vegetal bracket things flanking the front door, anyway? You won’t have to wait until next week to find out. Walkabout will appear twice a week from now on.


November 6th, 2009, 06:55 AM
Walkabout: Italianates, the Ornamental Imperative

Adelphi St, between DeKalb and Lafayette, Fort Greene.

Washington Park, near DeKalb Ave. Fort Greene.

Cornices on Grand Ave Italianates, Clinton Hill.

Remsen St. brackets. Brooklyn Heights.

Elaborate foliate bracket. Vanderbilt Ave, between Gates and Greene. Fort Greene.

A mid 19th century magazine, extolling the virtues of the Italianate brownstone, declared that, “the doorway is the most indispensable feature of the structure, and therefore calls loudly for adornment, and should generally be distinguished by more impressive decoration than any other feature”. Architects of the time must have been listening, and many went overboard, piling layers of ornament on the doorways of our buildings.

Perhaps even more than the other decorative elements, the doorways of the Italianate brownstone define the style. In the most expensive homes, the doorway is a porch at the top of the stairs, formed by large columns with ornate capitals, holding heavy door hoods that are either rounded, or classic triangular pediments, with heavy carved keystones above the doors.

These are flanked by enormous acanthus leaf brackets which face the street. Smaller acanthus brackets can often be found facing each other in the doorway, and for good measure, more acanthus brackets often frame the windows, and/or support the large window box shelves below the parlor floor windows. There are fine examples in Brooklyn Heights, as well as on Washington Park, in Fort Greene.

Most of the Italianates in Brooklyn do not have the columns, a feature for only the most expensive homes, but all have the acanthus brackets. Some of these brackets are beautiful in their expression of plant forms, and are in amazing condition. Some architects must have wanted to show off something different, and we can find fantastical combinations of leaves, flowers and decorative shapes. Some of these can be a bit disturbing at first glance, and to the modern eye, look like mutant plants run wild, or extruded foam, especially when the lines have been blurred by water damage, and badly painted over or “repaired”. The more creepily vegetal remind us that tastes certainly change over time, and that the desire to please a demanding public can often result in the overdone.

Like any architectural style, over the course of its popularity, the Italianate brownstone can be found in its pure form, as a gracious upper class dwelling, and its knock-offs, as details are simplified for more middle class houses, and again, simplified even more for smaller working class homes, and the acanthus bracket becomes a plain curved shape. As the years go by, similar styles emerge, and styles are mixed with wild abandon. The addition of a mansard roof, found often as a fifth floor, classifies these Italianates as Second Empire, named after the popularity of the mansard roof in the architecture of Napoleon II, in France. The addition of carved ornamental patterns incised into the brownstone, alongside familiar Italianate motifs, shows the influence of the Neo-Grec style, itself a popular style here in Brooklyn. The Anglo Italianate has a short stoop and an English basement. Because of their flat surfaces, Italianates and their cousins were easy prey for the “modernizing” of brownstones that took place in the 20th century. Cornices, window and door hoods, brackets, and even the graceful double doors have vanished on too many of our streets, leaving bare flat surfaces, “improved” by paint, stucco, brick and stone faces, and even vinyl siding. In many of our historic districts as well as unprotected areas, it is not uncommon to see the ornate stoops removed for ground floor entrances, and the tall parlor floor windows bricked in to hold standard window sizes, or doorways filled in to accommodate cheap factory doors. Fortunately, there are still surviving rows of intact Italianates in many neighborhoods, all of which remind us of why we love our brownstones. Long may they stand. Photo album on Flickr. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/31129802@N03/sets/72157622737281954/detail/)

Charles Lockwood's Bricks and Brownstone (http://www.amazon.com/Bricks-Brownstones-Classical-America-Architecture/dp/0847825221/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1257508067&sr=1-1) remains the bible for our brownstone heritage, and was the source of much of the historic and stylistic information. If you love this stuff, you must own this book.


November 13th, 2009, 07:20 AM
Walkabout: The Architects - Montrose Morris, Part 1

Montrose W. Morris, architect. (Wilhelmina Kelly, from her book, Bedford Stuyvesant)

http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/MMportrait_restrict_height_72.jpg (http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/2009/11/walkabout_the_a.php?gallery1829Pic=1#gallery-1829) http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/mmhouse_restrict_height_72.jpg (http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/2009/11/walkabout_the_a.php?gallery1829Pic=2#gallery-1829) http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/MMinterior_1_restrict_height_72.jpg (http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/2009/11/walkabout_the_a.php?gallery1829Pic=3#gallery-1829) http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/232_Hancock_restrict_width_72.jpg (http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/2009/11/walkabout_the_a.php?gallery1829Pic=4#gallery-1829) http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/KellyHouse_restrict_width_72.jpg (http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/2009/11/walkabout_the_a.php?gallery1829Pic=5#gallery-1829)

This biography is the first in an ongoing series featuring the best of Brownstone Brooklyn's architects.

The late 19th century was a time of big money, big growth, and big ambitions in a big city. Enter a family man, society swell, bon vivant, good singer, canny businessman, and damn good architect. Stanford White? No – Montrose W. Morris, of Bedford, Brooklyn, one of the finest architects to paint the canvas of our Brooklyn landscape.

Montrose Morris was born in Hempstead, Long Island on March 20, 1861. His family moved to Brooklyn, and he was educated in Brooklyn public schools, and at the Peekskill Academy. It was a common practice of the time for would-be architects to apprentice themselves to successful practitioners, and learn the craft. Morris studied under Manhattan architect Charles W. Clinton, who with his partner, Hamilton Russell, were responsible for some of NY’s most iconic buildings, including the 7th Regiment Armory, on Park Ave, the Apthorp and Graham Court Apartments, and the Moorish style Masonic Temple, now famous as the New York City (Dance) Center. In 1883, after seven years with the Clinton firm, Morris opened up his own office on Exchange Place, which he maintained until his death in 1917. Lower Manhattan was home to the headquarters and warehouses of the growing numbers of successful industrialists, wealthy merchants, and financial and legal wizards whose business he was courting. The Brooklyn Bridge had just been completed, and many of the clients he sought were making the move to the quiet suburbs of Clinton Hill, Bedford and St. Mark’s. To woo these clients, in a brilliant strategic move, Morris bought about half the block of Hancock Street, between Marcy and Thompkins Avenues in Bedford, and on a 20 foot lot, designed and built a home that became both his residence and his showroom. The houses he designed on Hancock Street are among his best, and the area contains the largest concentration of his work still standing.

Today, many people think that the large, ornate Queen Anne on the corner of Marcy and Hancock in Bed Stuy was the Morris family home. It is his design, but his home stood next door, sadly now an empty lot. His home burned down in the late 1960’s or early 70’s, in a massive fire that also greatly damaged the corner house. From descriptions and rare photographs, we know that the Morris home was a showpiece, indeed. Here Montrose utilizes a design concept that he would repeat in all of his row houses, and in the Hulburt Mansion in Park Slope; individual houses are joined by common design elements, such as a roof line, arches, dormers or other architectural features, so that the whole is greater than its individual parts. Morris’ own home at 234 Hancock, built in 1885, was joined to 232 on the corner, built three years later, and seem to be one continuous large house, with almost a cacophony of ornament and materials - bays, balconies, loggias, arched entryways, jutting dormers, turrets with high conical peaked roofs, stained glass windows in varying sizes and baronial chimneys. Inside, the Morris house featured the latest in stylish design. The Brooklyn Eagle positively gushed over the features in the house, the biggest thrill coming from the second story balcony that looked down on the dining room and library below, an extravagant use of space. All through the house, fine woodwork, stained glass and decorative features dazzled the almost twenty thousand people who the Eagle states passed through the doors when it opened as Morris’ model home.
“The box stoop and entrance hall opens to the reception hall, or library, which is two stories high, with dome ceiling, paneled walls and high wainscoting, with rafters in the dome all built with English oak. The center of the dome, twenty-five feet high, has elaborate stained glass and is lighted by electricity...Looking down from the second story balcony to the reception room there is a view of the parlor and dining room opening off the same, lighted by iron lamps suspended by chains and giving a picturesque effect.”A photograph of this room was printed in the Architectural Record in 1894, the only photograph of the interior of this amazing house. After showing the home as a model, the Morris family moved in. In the coming years the home was often used for entertaining clients and friends, and hosting meetings and socials for the many civic and social organizations Montrose and his wife belonged to. He went on to develop the other parcels of land on the block, houses mentioned often in this column. For John Kelly, an Irish immigrant who had made a fortune on a steam fitting invention, Morris designed a handsome Italian palazzo style brownstone mansion across the street at 247. His most famous group of attached houses lie next door to his, the red brick and terra cotta group at 236-244 Hancock, and the masterful Romanesque group of houses at 246-252 Hancock. Equally important were the group next to the Kelly house at 255 – 259 Hancock, and a couple of blocks away, the eclectic brick and terra cotta Romanesque Revival at 68 Macon St, which is notable for its second story balcony, and the magnificent ornamental details on the façade. A block away, a very sedate group was built at 198-204 Jefferson Ave. This body of work greatly contributes to the beauty of Bedford Stuyvesant. Astonishingly, none of these buildings are landmarked, although efforts are in progress on that regard right now. See all of these buildings on my Flickr page. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/31129802@N03/sets/72157622645161257/detail/)

Next time: Morris’s plans pay off and he hits the big time with huge commissions, and expands from Bedford throughout upper crust Brownstone Brooklyn.


November 13th, 2009, 07:30 AM
Walkabout: MW Morris- the Commissions Cometh

John Arbuckle House. 315 Clinton Avenue, Clinton Hill. 1888.

John Arbuckle House. 315 Clinton Avenue, Clinton Hill. 1888

285-289 Dekalb Avenue, Waverly and Clinton. Clinton Hill, 1889

Imperial Apartments, Pacific Street at Bedford. Crown Heights North. 1893

855-857 St. Marks Avenue. Crown Heights North. 1892

One of the many people who toured Montrose Morris’ model home on Hancock Street was developer Louis B. Seitz. In 1889, he commissioned Morris to build a new kind of building for the area, an upper class apartment building. Morris designed the Alhambra, arguably the best of his many apartment buildings. A terra cotta trimmed brick building taking up the entire block front of Nostrand Avenue, between Macon and Halsey, the Alhambra is classic Romanesque Revival Morris. Here, he echoes his group of houses on Hancock and goes even better, with loggias stretching across the upper stories, elaborate dormered towers, and terra cotta trim joining the disparate parts of the building. Inside, huge apartments offered the best of single family home living, with gracious appointments, and lavish detail. In spite of strikes by bricklayers, and other delays, the building was a huge success. Seitz was pleased to offer Morris two more upper class apartment building commissions in Bedford, all three buildings now protected as NYC landmarks, the Renaissance Apartments, also on Nostrand, and the “Dakota of Brooklyn”, the Imperial Apartments in nearby Grant’s Square, on Bedford and Pacific. (1893). He also designed the smaller Bedfordshire Apartments next door to the Imperial, in 1892.

His success in these ventures was paying off. Commissions were coming in right and left in the late 1880’s, through the 1990’s. More apartment buildings were designed, including the Roanoke (originally the San Carlo Hotel) in Fort Greene, the Arlington, on Montague St. in Brooklyn Heights, the Montrose, on State and Hoyt (demolished), and the Lenox and Montauk on St. Mark’s and Flatbush. Another major commission was the expansion of the St. George Hotel, also in Brooklyn Heights. Morris’s grand tower, festooned with flags, opened in 1890, and still stands today.

The innovative joining of several houses under one roofline at 246-252 Hancock St. inspired developer Joseph Fahys to commission two groups of houses in Clinton Hill. 285-289 and 282-290 DeKalb Avenue, near Waverly, carry the theme of the whole being greater than the parts, both groups appearing to be one large house, with the Montrose trademarks turrets, stained glass windows, Romanesque arches and mixed building materials, tied together with bands of carved Byzantine trim, repeated decorative half columns, and ornamented by cherubic and fantastical faces. A similar group appears at 855-57 St. Mark’s Avenue in what is now Crown Heights North, a double house, built for two members of the same family. The houses built in 1892 in limestone and brick, feature a tall turret with a bell shaped roof, second floor loggia, and common decorative elements joining the two. The house also has an elegant two story carriage house in the rear.

Montrose Morris’ most socially important commissions at this time were the huge mansions for the wealthy industrialists he had been courting from the beginning. One was for John Arbuckle, on Clinton Ave, one of Brooklyn’s most prestigious streets. Arbuckle was known as the “Coffee King”, and was enormously rich from the sale and distribution of his Yuban coffee, and the ships that carried it. In 1888, Morris designed a large semi-detached red brick and brownstone mansion at 315 Clinton Ave. It is a beautiful Romanesque Revival mansion with Renaissance detailing. The second story oriel is especially fine, and the attention paid to the side of the house is remarkable. A long porch once ran along the side of the house, but that is gone. The carriage house at 306-8 Waverly is probably a Morris design, and was the carriage house for the Arbuckle mansion. Morris also designed a mansion further north, at 181 Clinton, near Willoughby, for a Standard Oil executive, but that house was torn down, along with several others, during WWII, for the Willoughby Houses. Still standing, however, are his houses at 184-88 Clinton, built in 1892. See these buildings on my Flickr page (http://www.flickr.com/photos/31129802@N03/sets/72157622785401812/detail/).

Next week: the concluding chapters; Montrose Morris, developer and social lion, some disappointments, his Park Slope masterpieces, a change in architectural style, and his mark on Brooklyn.


November 15th, 2009, 11:06 AM
All absolutely gorgeous.

November 15th, 2009, 09:33 PM
So much beauty...all boroughs considered, NYC has as much beautiful architecture, and of as many styles, as any city in the world...bar none. It's endless.

I love Brooklyn. I used to live on South Portland mentioned above...amazing block. South Oxford on the next block is also amazing. I lived on several beautiful streets in Fort Green while I was a student, and I miss that neighborhood sometimes.

November 15th, 2009, 09:49 PM
All that was then, this more like what is now:


:( :mad:

November 15th, 2009, 10:47 PM
Hahah, I was just at a block with those the other day on Jackson St. There was a nicer looking new building across the street though.

November 16th, 2009, 11:20 PM
So much beauty...all boroughs considered, NYC has as much beautiful architecture, and of as many styles, as any city in the world...bar none. It's endless.

I agree, the problem is that the good stuff is always interrupted by garbage which waters down the entire streetscape. Ft. Greene is surrounded by trash; Atlantic Yards, public housing, the BQE, LIU, Atlantic Avenue.

Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights/Carroll Gardens are the only neighborhoods I've been to where you can walk for blocks and blocks without being accosted by something offensive.

What kind of architect would put this

a block a way from this.

To think Mr. Gourlay posted on this forum to defend that trash.

November 17th, 2009, 07:23 AM
Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights/Carroll Gardens are the only neighborhoods I've been to where you can walk for blocks and blocks without being accosted by something offensive.

Depends where you're walking in Park Slope. But I guess this depends on whether you're using the 1980s or 2000s definition of Park Slope.

Quite possibly more density of beauty in Crown Heights actually. It's an amazing place to stroll. But put your iPod away.

November 20th, 2009, 04:37 AM
This entry isn't really about brownstones anymore, but continuing with Montrose Morris...

Walkabout: Montrose Morris - Full Circle

Clarence W. Seamans Mansion. St. Marks Avenue, Crown Heights North. 1903. Stable can be seen at left rear. (Brooklyn Public Library, taken in 1905.)

17 Prospect Park West, Park Slope 1899

18 Prospect Park West, Park Slope. 1898

22 Prospect Park West. Park Slope. 1899

123 Eighth Avenue, at Carroll. Park Slope. 1894

This is the fourth in a series about Montrose Morris, one of Brooklyn finest architects working at the turn of the 20th century. Previous articles can be found here. (http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/arch_diary/)

Like most architects of the day, Montrose Morris embraced the new Classicism, as popularized by the Chicago Exposition of 1893. Gone were the dark brownstone and brick, and the free wheeling exuberance of the Romanesque Revival and Queen Anne styles. The light colored building materials, serious sturdiness and sheer impressiveness of Beaux Arts and neo-Classic architecture were a reflection of the age of robber barons and big money, and that’s what Morris’ clients in the late 1890’s and early 20th century wanted. In Park Slope, Morris took this new Classicism to heart, but tweaked it, and imbued some of these new commissions with the old Morris touch. The first of these new buildings, in 1894, was corner townhouse at 123 Eighth Ave, at Carroll St. The Classical details are especially fine on the front entrance and on the Carroll St. side of the building. On Prospect Park West, Classical details are combined with a Morris loggia at 17 PPW, while all of his PPW limestones have similar detailing in the stonework, Classical relief columns, arched entries and windows and pedimented dormers. As per usual, with Morris, many are in complementing pairs; 16, 17 PPW (1899), my favorites - 18, 19 PPW (1898), and a single, 22 PPW (1899). All of these houses have large windows facing the park, and all are examples of a restrained elegance in design.

In 1900, Montrose got a huge commission – the largest private house in Brooklyn, to date. Clarence W. Seamans was the head of Union Typewriter, at the beginning of the 20th century, the largest business machine company in the world. He was also a financier, sitting on the boards of Brooklyn’s Schermerhorn Bank and People’s Trust Bank. During the 1890’s he began buying up land in the fashionable St. Mark’s District, on St. Mark’s Avenue and directly behind this plot, on Bergen St. He held a competition to choose an architect for his new home, and chose the designs of Montrose Morris over the others.

Morris designed an enormous three story building with an attic, servant’s wing, porte cochere, and Bergen St. stable, all in the style of the Italian Renaissance, according to both the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the New York Times. When the house was finished in 1903, it cost over a million dollars, and was praised as the finest house in the city. Each room had a different theme, an Oriental room, an English dining room, etc, and all were done in the finest rare woods, marble and stone available, with solid silver hardware and fittings. Seamans and Morris spent two years combing the world for furniture, fabrics, artwork, and decorative items. The NY Times, on March 29, 1903, described every public room in the house, noting even that all of the closets had electricity, and were designed to have the lights go on when the doors were opened.

While the exterior design is more Neo-Renaissance than any other MM houses, he managed to include at least one loggia in the front, and we find that Morris has not abandoned the designs that first brought him fame and started his career, back at his house on Hancock St. Here’s what the Times had to say:
“A large reception room is situated in the center of the building, two stories in height. Opening off the reception room are a drawing room, a music room, an Oriental room, dining room, library and billiard room.”This is the same basic design Morris used in his own home, in the corner house on Hancock and Marcy, and for all we know, elsewhere as well. But here, money is no object, so as the Daily Eagle reports:
“There will be a grand staircase 10 feet wide leading right and left up to the gallery above. Another staircase will connect to the second story with the porte cochere by which guests can ascend to lay aside wraps before descending down the main staircase to the reception hall……On the third floor there will be a ballroom and art gallery, 35 feet by 60, with a high dome ceiling extending to the roof.”Oh, there were also two bowling alleys in the basement, sheathed in enameled brick, “a decided novelty”, the notes the Eagle. And there was to be an enameled brick tunnel connecting the house to the stable, which opened on to Bergen St, which was for the servants use, and for tradesmen’s deliveries.

The Seaman’s Mansion on St. Mark’s Avenue was to be Morris’ most expensive and finest work, especially the interiors. The estate was surrounded by the large, expensive homes of many of Brooklyn’s wealthiest elite, including the Strauss family of Abraham and Strauss. Clarence Seamans must have enjoyed his opulent home, but only for another twelve years, he died in 1915, at the age of 61. By the end of the 1920’s, early 1930’s, St. Mark’s Avenue’s was losing its cachet for the rich, and although the area remained an upper class enclave, one by one, the mansions and their large grounds were replaced by large apartment buildings, as a house that once housed under 20 people, including servants, was replaced by buildings housing hundreds. Brooklyn was growing, especially because of the recent arrival of the IRT subway line. The Seaman’s mansion was torn down in 1928, and was replaced by the Excelsior Apartments, a fine building in its own right, but it would have been great to have been able to see this exceptional home as a house museum. This grand building, costing over 1 million dollars at a time when the average home cost about $26K, filled with the finest woodwork and features, stood for a mere twenty-five years. Pictures for this article are on Flickr. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/31129802@N03/sets/72157622833931500/detail/)


January 20th, 2010, 07:32 AM
Walkabout: Brooklyn’s Architects-Frank Freeman

Herman Behr Mansion, close-up of terra-cotta dragon detail. Frank Freeman, architect.
Pierrepont and Henry, Brooklyn Heights. 1889.

Crescent Athletic Club, now St. Anne's School. Frank Freeman, architect.
Pierrepont and Clinton. Brooklyn Heights. 1906.
(Brooklyn Public Library)


Hotel Margaret, Columbia Heights and Orange St. Brooklyn Heights.
Frank Freeman, architect. (postcard has decorative horizontal glitter bands added to photo) 1888, burned down 1980.

Brooklyn Fire Headquarters, Jay St near Willoughby. Downtown Brooklyn.
Frank Freeman, architect. 1892.
(Brooklyn Public Library)
Brooklyn Savings Bank. Pierrepont and Clinton. Brooklyn Heights.
Frank Freeman, architect. 1894. (demolished)

Part of the fun in researching the architects and building styles of Brownstone Brooklyn is in piecing together an architect’s style by looking at the buildings he has designed. Many architects often found what they did well, and kept doing it, until that style fell out of favor, or they stopped designing. The best of them often kept with a specific style, but exercised great variety within that style, and then moved on as the markets changed. Unfortunately, some of the best of Brooklyn’s architects left behind great works, and next to no information about themselves. Frank Freeman, who the AIA Guide’s Norval White called “Brooklyn’s finest architect”, is one of those men.

We know he was born in 1861, in Ontario, Canada, and shows up in the Brooklyn directories as an architect at the age of 24, in 1885. His education and apprenticeship remains a mystery, but two years later, he begins a string of successful large projects that would do any architect proud today. He kept an office in both Manhattan and Brooklyn, but he lived in Brooklyn Heights, and was a parishioner of Trinity Episcopal Church. Most of his best known projects were in the Heights/Downtown/Fulton Landing area, although he designed buildings in Bushwick, Park Slope, and Riverside Drive, in Manhattan. In 1888, he designed one of Brooklyn’s largest and most beloved apartment hotels, the Hotel Margaret, on Columbia Heights and Orange St. Photographs show a towering large hotel with Romanesque Revival details, terra-cotta and pressed tin ornament and what looks like a ballroom or public rooms on the top floor, with what must have been stunning river views. Sadly, it burned down in an immense fire in 1980, and was replaced by a modern apartment building for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

His other great commission of 1888 is still standing, and is a favorite of Brooklyn architecture buffs- the wonderful Herman Behr Mansion, on the corner of Pierrepont and Henry. This house is a riotous combination of Romanesque Revival design, in brick, rough cut brownstone, terra-cotta and stained glass. The house we see today has been enlarged, and the canopy over the doorway is not original, but a recent cleaning emphasizes the whimsical menagerie of creatures cavorting over Freeman’s original façade. Look closely for dragons, lizards and lions in the most unexpected places, executed along with a staggering amount of terra-cotta trim, by anonymous masters of their craft. Speaking of cavorting, the Behr Mansion was perhaps most famous as a house of ill repute in the 1920’s, when the rear addition was added. Ironically, it later became home to the Franciscan Brothers of nearby St. Francis College, before being converted into apartments.

Like many of his contemporaries, such as Montrose Morris, the Parfitt Brothers and William Tubby, Freeman was a master of the Romanesque Revival style. His use of the characteristic soaring arches and massed shapes is best seen in his two most famous buildings still standing: the Brooklyn Fire Headquarters (1892) on Jay St, and the Eagle Warehouse and Storage Building on Old Fulton Street. (1893). After 1893’s World’s Columbia Exhibition, in Chicago, American architecture took a keen interest in the Classical tradition, with its light colored buildings with motifs and design elements influenced by traditional Greek and Roman architecture. Some architects, like Montrose Morris and Frank Freeman, adapted this style to their own repertoire, and from this period comes Freeman’s Crescent Athletic Club, (1906), on Pierrepont and Clinton, now St. Anne’s School, and the Brooklyn Union Gas Company Building, (1914), on Remsen St. between Court and Clinton, now St. Francis College, which installed the ecclesiastic stained glass panels on the ground floor.

Unfortunately, most of Frank Freeman’s other buildings which added so much to Brooklyn’s civic life have not survived. We no longer have the Thomas Jefferson Association Building, which stood at Boerum Place and Fulton St, the Germania Club, which had a large 1000 seat theatre, on Schermerhorn between Smith and Boerum, the Brooklyn Savings Bank, on Pierrepont and Clinton, the Bushwick Democratic Club on Bushwick and Hart, or the Guido Pleissner House, on Plaza St and Lincoln Place in Park Slope. In Manhattan, he was responsible for the now demolished Samuel Gamble Bayne House on Riverside Drive and 108th St, and opposite that, on the same intersection, the Henry F.S. Davis House, also replaced by apartment buildings.

Although appreciated and lauded by contemporary and modern architecture critics, Frank Freeman is not a household name, except among his many Brooklyn fans. He died in 1949, and days before the late architectural historian Alan Burnham could reach them, Freeman’s family threw out all of his records and papers. In 1995, Andrew Dolkart, one of today’s most important architectural historians, and chair of Columbia’s Historic Preservation Program in the School of Architecture, curated an exhibit of Frank Freeman’s work, a modest show of photos and text, in Brooklyn Heights. Had it not been for the admiration of Prof. Dolkart, and fellow architectural historians, such as Elliot Willensky and Norval White, of the AIA Guide to NY, and Francis Marrone, author of An Architectural Guildbook to Brooklyn, as well as the preservation efforts of the Landmarks Preservation Commission and concerned residents, we may not have been introduced to what remains of the work of one of Brooklyn’s best.

Check out historical and contemporary photos of Frank Freeman’s architectural works on Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/31129802@N03/sets/72157623115749021/detail/). Sources for this piece: F. Marrone’s Guildbook to Brooklyn, AIA Guide to NY, and the NY Times.


January 29th, 2010, 05:40 AM
Walkabout: Architecture - The Neo-Grec Style

Eastlake style incised ornament. Brownstone facade on MacDonough St, Bedford Stuyvesant.

Neo-Grec style brownstone. Halsey St, near Nostrand, Bedford Stuyvesant.

http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/Graphic1_restrict_height_72.jpg (http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/2010/01/walkabout_archi.php?gallery1995Pic=2#gallery-1995) http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/Bed%20Stuy_restrict_width_72.jpg (http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/2010/01/walkabout_archi.php?gallery1995Pic=3#gallery-1995) http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/Graphic2_restrict_height_72.jpg (http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/2010/01/walkabout_archi.php?gallery1995Pic=5#gallery-1995)
(click to enlarge)

Brooklyn was growing by leaps and bounds in the 1870’s. Most of our brownstone neighborhoods were well established by this time, and demand for homes was high. The Italianate style (http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/2009/11/walkabout_the_i.php) was still the popular architectural style of the day for rowhouses and mansions alike. Elaborate and florid carved acanthus leaf ornament (http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/2009/11/walkabout_itali.php) flanked the lintels and windows of these homes, often accompanied by heavy window and door frames, ledges, and cornices. Inside the homes, the décor was equally florid and ornamental, with heavily carved and upholstered furniture, lots of rugs, doodads, draperies, paintings, sculpture and stuff. Numerous innovations and inventions in mass production enabled factories to churn out relatively inexpensive items for the home, and much like recent periods in our own time, more was definitely more. Around this time in England, architect, and social critic, Charles Eastlake, had published his revolutionary book, Hints on Household Tastes in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details. The book was a huge success in England, and was published in the US in 1872. In it, Eastlake embraced the Arts and Crafts ideal of having furniture and décor made simply, and by hand. This was in direct opposition to the overblown excesses of the period, on both continents, and many of his ideas and designs for simpler furniture and furnishings resonated with the public. In America, his designs utilizing simpler shapes with incised carved ornament were picked up by manufacturers and Eastlake furniture, and the Eastlake style became an American phenomenon. We see Charles Eastlake’s unintentional influence in the rowhouse building style known as Neo-Grec.

Like the Italianate style, with which it is often combined, the Neo-Grec style rowhouse has a smooth brownstone front, with a pronounced deep cornice, heavy entryway and window details. 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, geometric and precise. The curved window and door frames were replaced by squared off edges, the large lintels replaced with equally large rectangular blocks. On the steep steps, the large balusters ended in squared off cast iron and stone newel posts, with incised ornament, and geometric detail. The most striking and signature aspect of Neo-Grec brownstone architecture is the 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 is not coincidental that this regulated and precise style appears at a time when American society is increasingly becoming mechanized, and the factory has replaced the farm as the working place of more and more people. It is also not coincidental that this style becomes popular at the time of a great building boom. It was much less expensive to carve these relatively simple designs, as opposed to the much more elaborate Italianate forms, and a stone carver need not be as skilled, nor demand as much pay, always a consideration for builders since the dawn of time. 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 ornament has an Egyptian or Mesopotamian look about it, in the shapes and themes of the brackets surrounding doorways, especially. Along with Eastlake’s movement, England and America were embarking on what is now called the “Aesthetic Movement”, a style of design, décor 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 upper class people embarking on Grand Tours to exotic places all over the world had a great influence on society and in the public taste. Eastlake himself was horrified at how his design was translated in America, as it eventually became as complicated and overly ornate as the furniture it replaced, and was definitely not handmade or lovingly crafted by skilled artisans, but the style and the name has endured. In our brownstones, we see the familiar incised floral and geometric Eastlake motifs on interior woodwork, on marble and wooden mantelpieces, pier mirrors, door and window frames, and on the wooden newel posts and banisters.

Neo-Grec rowhouses 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, we have relatively few in Crown Heights North, although the ones we have are quite fine. The greatest concentration of Neo-Grec houses are in Bedford Stuyvesant, followed by Park Slope, from my casual observation. In Bedford Stuyvesant, and elsewhere, many of these were designed by architect Amzi Hill, the master of Neo-Grec.

Thursday’s column will continue with a look at Amzi Hill’s life and career, and more on the Neo-Grec style. Please check out the many photos on my Flickr page. (http://www.flickr.com/photos/31129802@N03/sets/72157623286286770/detail/)


January 29th, 2010, 05:46 AM
Walkabout: Amzi and Henry Hill – Architects

118 Brooklyn Ave, at Bergen St. Crown Heights North. Henry B. Hill, architect. 1893.

Amzi Hill's house. 460 Macdonough Ave, Stuyvesant Heights. 1890's. Amzi Hill and Son.

Neo-Grec row. MacDonough Ave, between Throop and Tompkins Ave. Bedford Stuyvesant. Amzi Hill, architect. 1888.

Apartment building, 632 Throop Ave at MacDonough. Bedford Stuyvesant. Amzi Hill, architect. 1889.

Eclectic Queen Anne houses. MacDonough, between Lewis and Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant Heights. Amzi Hill and Son, architects. 1890's.

In 1890, the office for the architectural firm of Amzi Hill and Son was located at 1161 Fulton Street, near Franklin Avenue. Their phone number was 298 Bedford. If one were to call upon them, Amzi Hill and his son Henry were prepared to build you a very nice house. Father and son had talent, and between the two of them, they designed a large swath of homes in Bedford Stuyvesant, Crown Heights North, Clinton Hill and Park Slope during the second half of the 19th century.

Amzi Hill was born in 1833, in Putnam County, and by 1849 was registered as an architect in Manhattan. In 1860, he moved to Brooklyn, and practiced through 1892. Son Henry was born in Brooklyn and studied and apprenticed under his father. A business directory from the 1890’s calls Henry “one of the ablest and most proficient members of his professions in this city,” he went into partnership with his father in 1889, and practiced through at least 1902. Besides that, little is known about either one of them. We know Henry lived in Stuyvesant Heights, at 202 MacDonough Avenue, in a very modest apartment in a building of his design. The family home, where Amzi lived with his family, and died, in 1893, was a small three story house at 460 MacDonough St. Amzi appears in local 9th Ward politics in the Brooklyn Eagle supporting a candidate for local office, but that is it. Where their names show up over and over is in the records for the large number of row houses and apartment buildings they designed.

Amzi Hill is best remembered for his mastery of the Neo-Grec style (http://www.brownstoner.com/brownstoner/archives/2010/01/walkabout_archi.php), but his first houses in Crown Heights North, on Pacific St, are classic Italianate brownstones. Like any good architect, he, and later Henry, expanded on the limits of that style, and also went on to design in the Queen Anne style, as well as Romanesque Revival. Amzi also had a successful career in real estate and insurance, as well. They were well known for their care in designing the interiors of their homes and flats, and today, Amzi Hill and Son homes are treasured for their fine woodwork, parquet floors and other interior features.

Much of Hill’s early Italianate and Neo-Grec work is in Clinton Hill and Bed Stuy, with a few brownstone rows in Crown Heights North and Park Slope. His largest group in the latter neighborhood is 184-202 Berkeley Place, between 7th and 8th Aves, built in 1882-3. These are classic Amzi Hill Neo-Grecs, with V-front bays and subtle Neo-Grec detailing, very much like the group he did several years later on MacDonough Street, between Tompkins and Throop in Bed Stuy, and groups on Washington Ave and Cambridge Place in Clinton Hill. He is also responsible for the row houses currently in danger at 327-33 MacDonough, the fact that they are still standing a testament to good design and construction. He was superb in his execution of early apartment buildings, where his use of brick as decorative ornament, along with terra-cotta, stained glass and ironwork, are signatures. His finest may be the apartment building on the corner of Throop and MacDonough, built in 1889, where he designs the brick apartment building, as well as the Neo-Grec brownstone rowhouses that run on the adjacent block, intersecting with the side of the apt building. Where some architects may make no connection between two, Amzi builds the side façade of the apartment building to match the brownstone facades. It is a masterful and very subtle touch. He also designed the apartment building housing Peaches Restaurant on Lewis Ave, and several others in the area, and in nearby Crown Heights North. His brickwork on exterior chimney flues is unmistakable, and is a signature clue that Amzi was here.

We suspect that the addition of Henry Hill, and perhaps another nameless brother to the firm, is responsible for the complete change of direction in design for Amzi Hill and Son. Amzi had removed himself from most of the business concerns and died in 1893. By the 1990’s the popular style of architecture was now Queen Anne and Romanesque Revival. In the next fifteen years, Henry and the firm designed and built many of the homes in Bed Stuy on Macon St, in the Stuyvesant Heights historical district on MacDonough, and what is now called Stuyvesant Heights East, those blocks between Halsey and Decatur, between Stuyvesant and Patchen.

Most of them are groups of either three or four story homes, often with the same design groups repeating down one or both sides of a block. According to our own modern architect posting as“Amzi Hill”, MacDonough St, from beginning to end should be re-named Hill St, because either Amzi or Henry designed most of the blocks, some in their entirety. Henry’s style becomes easy to spot: two arched parlor floor windows separated by a wooden or stone half column, often with a carved stone exotic human or animal face, a signature checkerboard pattern somewhere on the façade, made by alternating the rough faces of the stone blocks, and often, a signature pressed metal or wooden dormer pediments with carved sunburst and swirl detail. He also uses this motif on a semi-detached mansionette on the corner of Brooklyn Ave and Bergen St, in Crown Heights North, the last house on a block that his father helped create by designing some of the areas first brownstones, twenty years before. Henry was also very fond of matching carved Byzantine leaf motifs on rough cut lintels, which create a very appealing unfinished, bursting from the stone look. He was also good enough so that one does not get tired of this look, and he was definitely not a one trick pony. He goes in many different directions, creating an eclectic array of Queen Anne styles, throughout the Stuyvesant Heights area, creating some of the most memorable houses in the area. Both Amzi and Henry should be in the pantheon of Brooklyn’s best, along with Montrose Morris, Frank Freeman, et al. Their buildings are a major contribution to the visual array that makes Brooklyn an interesting and architecturally rich city. My Flickr page (http://www.flickr.com/photos/31129802@N03/sets/72157623175095709/detail/) has many examples.

Many thanks to "Amzi Hill" for walking around BS, showing me all of the Hill houses NOT yet landmarked, and therefore undocumented. There are hundreds! He was an invaluable source of biographic information, as well. His work documenting these blocks will help the LPC move faster towards landmarking these important neighborhoods.


March 3rd, 2010, 05:18 AM
Walkabout: Aesthetically Speaking, Part I

Eastlake stye brownstone facade. MacDonough St, Bedford Stuyvesant. John Fraser, architect. 1888.

The Aesthetic Movement was one of the most important social movements of the late 19th century, yet most people are not aware of it at all. As far as our Brooklyn neighborhoods are concerned, we see the influences of the Movement everywhere, both on the exteriors and interiors of our period homes and buildings. The Aesthetic Movement, as discussed today, is mostly seen as a decorative or artistic phase of Victoriana. It was much more than that. Like many of the social and artistic trends of the time, the Movement started in England, and ran roughly from 1870-1900. If the Movement had a theme, it would have to be “Art for Art’s sake”. The British writers and poets of the time asserted that life should be beauty, lived sensuously without regard for societal mores. In the words of the Bradbury wallpaper website, they “celebrated the virtues of a vague, opium-laced artistic nirvana where all women were pale and wan, all men were unbearably poetic and sensitive, and all their surroundings were simply too utterly utter, i.e. beautiful beyond the ponderous weight of description.”

They started and cultivated the cult of beauty, which entrances our society still. Oscar Wilde was perhaps the most well known of the Aesthetic writers and artists, which also included Evelyn Waugh and A.E. Houseman, and Pre-Raphaelite artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Bourne-Jones, as well as James McNeill Whistler and Aubrey Beardsley.

As stated, one needs to live surrounded by beauty, in beautiful rooms, surrounded by beautiful things, and at this time the decorative arts rose to the forefront of a striving society, and have remained there ever since. The greatest influence of the Movement occurred when Japan opened up to Western trade in the mid 1800's, fueling a mania in both England and the US for Japanese designs, themes, and goods. The delicate and asymmetrical art of Japan was totally new to Western audiences hungry for something different, and the designers of the Aesthetic Movement quickly became fascinated with the shapes and motifs. Leaves and flowers, butterflies, birds, and other natural themes joined with the rectilinear shapes of Japanese furniture and architecture. Charles Eastlake was very influenced by Japanese culture and design, those designs reinterpreted in the American Eastlake furniture and interior woodwork, as well as exterior incised stonework of the Neo-Grec brownstones of Brooklyn.

On both sides of the Atlantic, Aesthetic Movement designers created products for bourgeoning middle and upper middle class homes. Transfer ware china with floral, animal and Japanese themes, silver-plate and sterling cutlery and hollowware serving pieces with delicate tracery graced the homes of consumers. Wallpaper in “Japanned” patterns was in vogue, bringing colors and patterns not seen before into the home. In furniture, Japanese-style ebonized and lacquered pieces, sometimes gilded, were popular, as was marquetry and painted surfaces. It was an age of amazing surface design.

The Aesthetic Movement was the precursor of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which, in America, was highly influenced by Japan, especially on the West Coast. But before the simplicity of that movement come the excesses of the former. If art is beauty, then surely more is more, especially in the home. The relative simplicity of the Aesthetic Movement soon ushered in the robber baron style of excessive excess. Many Brooklynites had more money to spend, and built and decorated accordingly. We’ll look at how the Aesthetic Movement has shaped parts of Brooklyn on Thursday. Please check the Flickr page (http://www.flickr.com/photos/31129802@N03/sets/72157623413817545/detail/) for examples of interior and exterior styles.


October 1st, 2010, 08:29 AM
Building of the Day: 94-102 Prospect Park West


Address: 94-102 Prospect Park West, between 5th and 6th St.
Name: Apartment buildings
Neighborhood: Park Slope
Year Built: 1899
Architectural Style: Neo-Italian Renaissance
Architects: Unknown, for developer Charles Hart
Landmarked: Yes

Why chosen: When I think of gracious rowhouse apartment living in Park Slope, this group of five buildings always comes to mind. (House numbers 95-97 omitted from the sequence.) I guess it's because I really like all of the details that went into this very handsome group; the undulating bays, the very pleasing way your eye moves across the group as a whole, taking in the detailed ornament, and then rising to the oval windows, and then those beautiful loggias with the ballustraded porches curved by the roofs of the bays and then accented by the columns. The style and date of these buildings would generally lend itself to limestone, not brownstone, but I like how the darker stone really accents all of the carved ornament, and contrasts with plants and trees.

Whoever designed these was quite good, and he got it just right. These buildings were never single family homes, they were designed to be apartment buildings in a rowhouse style configuration, and even though it would be tough, I'd want a top floor apartment. Besides legs of steel, I'd have an amazing view of the park, and watching nature's path through the seasons from this vista would be heaven. I only wish all of the stoops and original doorways were still intact, like 102's.



January 14th, 2011, 08:40 PM
Covetable Carriage Houses

http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5282/5350573761_c5b8e425a2.jpg (http://www.flickr.com/photos/35026669@N05/5350573761/)

MY POST THE OTHER DAY about a mews alley (http://casacara.wordpress.com/2011/01/06/mews-ing-about-cobble-hill/) in Cobble Hill re-opened my eyes to the 19th century carriage houses that still exist in Brooklyn — not in great abundance, which makes those that remain all the more special.

The yellow one, top, on Sidney Place in Brooklyn Heights, probably belonged to some wealthy individual who lived in one of the oversized brownstones on the block.
There’s a concentration of large carriage houses along Vanderbilt Avenue in Clinton Hill, below, a major thoroughfare now as it was in the 1870s or ’80s, when these were most likely built. I’m guessing the larger ones on Vanderbilt were the equivalent of commercial garages or bus depots.
http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5249/5351172768_9caa21a12d.jpg (http://www.flickr.com/photos/35026669@N05/5351172768/)

http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5088/5351187382_88ae30e150.jpg (http://www.flickr.com/photos/35026669@N05/5351187382/)

http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5001/5350573077_096ae25262.jpg (http://www.flickr.com/photos/35026669@N05/5350573077/)

Off Atlantic Avenue in Boerum Hill, on Nevins and Bond Streets, there are a few carriage houses of simple design, of a piece with the pre-Civil War brickfront row houses there.

http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5043/5350558747_1cc03755f4.jpg (http://www.flickr.com/photos/35026669@N05/5350558747/)

Here’s one of my longtime favorites, below. It’s on Pacific Street between Court and Clinton Streets in Cobble Hill. There are half a dozen carriage houses/garages on that same block, right off Atlantic Avenue, a busy omnibus route in the 19th century.

http://farm6.static.flickr.com/5125/5352159489_461859b439.jpg (http://www.flickr.com/photos/35026669@N05/5352159489/)


April 3rd, 2012, 08:55 AM
Building of the Day: 376-432 Vanderbilt Avenue

http://cdn.brownstoner.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/376-432-Vandy-1.jpg (http://www.brownstoner.com/blog/2012/04/building-of-the-day-376-432-vanderbilt-avenue/?stream=true#)

Name: Rowhouses
Address: 376-432 Vanderbilt Avenue
Cross Streets: Gates and Greene Avenues
Neighborhood: Fort Greene
Year Built: between 1872-1879
Architectural Style: Italianate, and Italianate/Neo-Grec
Architect and Builder: Thomas B. Jackson
Landmarked: Yes, part of Fort Greene HD (1978)

The story: In honor of Charles Lockwood, who passed away this weekend, today’s BOTD is an entire block of brownstones, the kind of buildings that Mr. Lockwood introduced to us all, in his book Bricks and Brownstone: the New York Row House, 1783-1929. These are the kinds of buildings that cause everyone everywhere, to refer to all rowhouses as “brownstones”: the Italianate row house. This particular group is very well preserved, and showcases all the best of what this kind of housing represents. We know who built them, too, which is often pretty rare, especially in the earlier speculative housing of our borough, for which records can be pretty spare, to say the least.

Architect and builder Thomas B. Jackson designed and built this entire side of the street, with the exception of the corner houses. That is close to 60 houses, all built to house the growing number of comfortable middle class people who were pouring into Fort Greene in the decade after the Civil War. Merchants, skilled craftsmen, like jewelers and watchmakers, book dealers, lawyers, tailors and widows with income, all bought these houses and made this neighborhood home.

The houses themselves were built in groups, and as you walk down the street, especially if you are on the eastern side, you can see the slight differences in height, ornamentation, and other small details. Some houses are pure Italianate, others a hybrid of Italianate, and the later style Neo-Grec, which was gaining popularity towards the end of the 1870’s.

As Charles Lockwood tells us in his book, these rowhouses were not built to be seen individually, but as a unified row. The eye is drawn down the block, most ideally at an angle, drawn to the symmetry of tall stoops, doorways, windows frames, and cornices, all the way down the block, as if to a distant horizon. It really is quite beautiful, and Brooklyn’s brownstone blocks are among the finest examples of this kind of architecture to be found in the city. This block of Vanderbilt is among the finest block of Italianates in Brooklyn.

At a time when rowhouses were seen as nothing more than potential tear-downs, or at best, student or low income housing that was not really desirable to anyone with means; the brownstone movement was building, proving “them” wrong. Charles Lockwood’s book was a validation of that movement, a scholarly tome providing historic backup to what old house lovers had been saying all along. Perhaps we would have gotten there without his expertise, or his writing, and someone else probably would have come along with a similar book sooner or later. But it was his moment, way back in 1972, and his book, that would have a prominent place in many a brownstoner’s bookshelf. Those bookshelves could even be in some of these fine houses on Vanderbilt Avenue, great examples of what you can do with a pile of brick and brownstone. Thank you, Charles Lockwood! GMAP (http://maps.google.com/maps?q=400+Vanderbilt+Avenue,+Brooklyn,+New+York,+ NY&hl=en&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=35.357014,86.572266&oq=400+Vanderbilt+Avenue,+Brooklyn&hnear=400+Vanderbilt+Ave,+Brooklyn,+Kings,+New+Yor k+11238&t=m&z=16)

http://cdn.brownstoner.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/376-432-Vandy-2.jpg (http://cdn.brownstoner.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/376-432-Vandy-2.jpg)

http://cdn.brownstoner.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/376-432-Vandy-3.jpg (http://cdn.brownstoner.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/376-432-Vandy-3.jpg)

http://cdn.brownstoner.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/376-432-Vandy-4.jpg (http://cdn.brownstoner.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/376-432-Vandy-4.jpg)


October 23rd, 2012, 07:29 AM
Bidding Farewell to a City’s Precious Stone


Christopher Capozziello for The New York Times
Mike Meehan, the owner of Portland Brownstone Quarries.

Brownstones on Berkeley Place in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

Brownstones occupy a unique place in the New York City 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.

Thousands of these structures are crammed into the five boroughs, like sideways stacks of very expensive pancakes. As it turns out, most of them are not only cast from the same mold, but were also made from the same stone, a brown sandstone quarried in Portland, Conn.
After being mined on and off for centuries, the Portland Brownstone Quarries (http://www.brownstonequarry.com/), the very last of a kind, closed down this year, and by the end of this month, the quarry’s final scraps of inventory should be gone.

Preservationists are bemoaning the end of an era, or at least of the chance for a perfect match for the city’s ubiquitous stone. And as Portland’s diamond-studded saws have slowed to their final rest, some stone fabricators have begun to — lovingly, respectfully — hoard the stuff.

“We’re all scrambling to grab that stone,” said George Heckel of Pasvalco (http://www.pasvalco.com/), stone fabricators in New Jersey. “If you’re thinking about achieving the look and feel of a New York City brownstone, you’re not going to get that anymore.”

Not everyone, however, is sad to say goodbye to this particular building block. That’s because the stone, the object of so many New Yorkers’ obsessions, is considered to be rather mediocre.
“I remember some quote saying it was the worst stone ever quarried,” said Timothy Lynch, the executive director of the Buildings Department’s forensic unit. “It’s like New York City is covered in cold chocolate.”
That old-time brownstone hater was likely to be Edith Wharton, who called it the “most hideous” stone ever quarried.

Today, architectural conservators and historians say that most of the city’s “brownstone” facades have been replaced with brown cement-based masonry.

Brownstone began appearing in New York City buildings in a significant way during the first half of the 19th century, and it quickly became the stone of choice for row house developers.

(Brownstones are actually brick houses built with a stone facing.) Stone from Portland’s quarries came out of the ground near the Connecticut River, so it was easy to get it to New York City — as well as to other cities up and down the East Coast — and was relatively soft, which made it easy to carve.

Unfortunately that softness, along with corner-cutting by developers and the extremes of New York City’s weather, made the stone liable to crumble, crack and flake.

“By the late 19th century, people were already complaining about this,” said Andrew S. Dolkart, director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University (http://www.arch.columbia.edu/programs/historic-preservation).

The stone fell out of fashion, and by the 1940s, the Portland quarries, flooded by the Connecticut River in a major storm, were shuttered. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that Mike Meehan, a geologist with a background in coal exploration, reopened the ground at the edge of the quarry, slicing chunks of brownstone off a wall about 20 feet high and 650 feet long.

But most of the area is still filled with water, and Mr. Meehan’s closest neighbor is a recreational water park, where zip lines crisscross an old brownstone quarry.

“We’re up here breaking stones and there are people over there yelling, ‘Yay!’ ” Mr. Meehan said. “It’s a pleasant diversion at lunchtime.”

Brownstone, which is really just a brown sandstone, is still quarried in a few spots around the world — including Britain, China and Utah — but stone fabricators and materials experts say that there is really nothing quite like the stone that comes from Portland. Much of Mr. Meehan’s stone has been used in historic buildings and restoration projects, including Cooper Union, as well as lavish private homes.

“I’m telling you, he was our hero,” said Michael Devonshire, an architectural conservator and materials expert at Jan Hird Pokorny Associates, a New York architecture firm that specializes in preservation.

No matter where it’s from, however, brownstone is no longer cheap. Jim Durham, the president of Quarra Stone Company in Madison, Wis., recently bought a dozen truckloads of stone from Mr. Meehan, the last of his large blocks. Mr. Durham estimated Portland Stone to be two or three times the price of Indiana limestone, the “vanilla ice cream” of stone, he said. So cast stone (generally cement based) or stucco substitutions (cement again) are common alternatives.

After nearly 20 years at the quarry, Mr. Meehan said his company had extracted what it could from the quarry without making significant investments to get more. The land, which he leases, has been put up for sale. At 63, he said, he is ready to move on.

But there is one more person who plans to hoard some of Mr. Meehan’s remaining little slabs: Mr. Meehan.

“I’m going to keep working the stuff for my retirement,” he said. “Bird baths, benches, things like that.”

Mr. Meehan has no intention of selling what he makes, he said. He just wants to carve away with his circular saw for fun. If his neighbors get upset about the noise, he added: “I’ll make each one of them a bird bath. And then how could they complain?”


November 9th, 2012, 11:14 PM
The Brownstone Revisionists


Rafael Vinoly Architects; Marilynn K.Yee/The New York Times
Left, a rendering shows East 64th Street with No. 162 razed and replaced by a fritted glass structure
with a bowed facade by Rafael Viñoly. Right, No. 162 as it looks today.

Left to right: Marilynn K. Yee/The New York Times; Rendering by Baxt Ingui Architects and Perspective Arts
Among the suggestions for modernizing a town house at 338 West 15th Street is to extend the back of the building,
left, as shown in the architect's rendering, right, which also adds a glass-walled penthouse.

WHEN Charles Lockwood’s now-classic book “Bricks and Brownstones” was published in the early ‘70s, there was only one thing to do with an old New York town house — restore it to within an inch of its pristine 19th-century glory. The brownstone revival movement had started a few years earlier, and in Manhattan and growing swaths of Brooklyn, the talk on the street was of marble stoops, brass doorknobs, wide-plank pine floors and original wainscoting — the fancier the better.

Impeccably restored town houses still set the tone today for most brownstone neighborhoods. But it’s increasingly common to find vintage town houses sheathed in glass, aluminum and other relentlessly contemporary materials. Especially in Brooklyn, rear facades are being opened up — “blown out” is the term architects use — to provide large doses of light and air. Many of these reworkings take the form of sweeping glass rear walls, designed to transform spaces that for all their charm are typically small and dark. Some changes boggle the imagination: Preservationists still talk about owners who sought to install a lobster tank atop a newly acquired town house.

Although the neighbors aren’t always thrilled about such developments, they don’t automatically storm the barricades in protest. Some even engage in cordial conversations with their neighbors and the architects, the goal being to end up with a design that makes everyone happy.

This is what happened on East 64th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues, a stretch of town houses edged by trees and graceful bishop’s-crook lampposts. Though not protected by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the block has its share of bay windows, decorative pediments and Juliet balconies. The ornate homes will soon be joined by a second Modernist facade.

No. 164, a five-story building owned by Anthony Faillace, the founder of a hedge fund, sits behind a boxy natural granite facade punctured by oversize maroon steel-framed windows, designed by Michael Rubin Architects. Next door at No. 162, a 19th-century town house will be razed and replaced by a six-story structure featuring a bowed facade of fritted blueish-gray glass. The architect is Rafael Viñoly, whose high-profile creations pepper the globe. The owner, Eduardo Eurnekian, a prominent Argentine businessman, plans to use the building for offices and residential space.

In Mr. Viñoly’s opinion, the new building will be a good neighbor, even if it initially turns some heads. “The facade being replaced is undistinguished,” he said. “And imitating an architectural vocabulary simply because it’s there isn’t an appropriate response nowadays.”

And Kenneth Laub, a commercial real estate broker who created and for many years led the block association, couldn’t be more pleased.

“Both Mr. Eurnekian and Mr. Viñoly consulted with us about the design,” said Mr. Laub, whose 8,000-square-foot town house across the street, complete with atrium, portable frescoes and eight working marble fireplaces, is on the market with Halstead for nearly $28 million. “Originally Rafael proposed a facade with dark brown metal louvers, which to be honest we weren’t crazy about. But we talked, and I suggested some ideas, and he was very cooperative. What they ended up with is much softer and nicer.”

Mr. Laub realizes that the story could have ended quite differently. “But both men say they love what this street has become and they want to get along with their neighbors,” he said. “Name a street as beautiful as this. And if Viñoly’s building is impressive and brings greater credence to the street, we’re happy.”

Ask architects and urban historians why infatuation with the look of the traditional 19th-century town house, a beloved feature of so many New York neighborhoods, seems to be waning in some quarters, and the answers are many and varied.

To start with, the city’s vintage town houses aren’t getting any younger.

“When the brownstone revival movement started, the effort was to restore buildings,” said Brendan Coburn, a Brooklyn architect who so radically transformed his Carroll Gardens row house that everything behind the red-brick facade is brand-new. “But in the past 40 years these houses have aged a lot. Many have fallen apart. They need major electrical and mechanical work.” If the innards of a building are being redone and a facade is crumbling, he said, an owner might choose to redo the entire look.

Also at work are shifting aesthetics that include a greater respect for Modernism. “Tastes change, and part of that change is generational,” said David Hecht, a Brooklyn architect who retrofitted his town house in Clinton Hill. “Contemporary sensibility is more casual, more informal, more flowing. And because town houses are inherently flexible, they can accommodate these changes. It’s part of the continuum of the history, not a departure but the next turn of the wheel.”

Many town-house owners have already updated their interiors; to rethink the facades may simply be the inevitable next step.

Yet another issue has to do with the fact that New Yorkers now worry less about losing precious period buildings because so many town houses are protected by their inclusion in historic districts.
“When landmarking first began nearly 50 years ago, New York was a very different city,” said Thomas Mellins, an architectural historian and independent curator. “There was a widespread fear that everything would be lost. But today many important buildings and neighborhoods are landmarked. So we have more freedom to discover such elements as contrast and surprise. And we’re realizing that Modernism isn’t necessarily a bad neighbor. In fact, it can be a good neighbor.

“There’s a difference between protecting a neighborhood and stifling it,” Mr. Mellins said. “The city doesn’t need to be a Merchant-Ivory stage set to preserve its past.”

As a growing number of people choose to stay in the city and to move to row-house neighborhoods, a wider variety of taste is evident. Mr. Coburn pointed to the strip of 14 ornament-free town houses on State Street in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, described by the designers, Rogers Marvel Architects, as “a respectful dialogue between old and new.”

“Half the neighborhood hates them,” Mr. Coburn said, “and the other half loves them.” He counts himself among the fans.

As evolving attitudes along East 64th Street show, even ardent devotees of traditional town houses can change with the times. Dexter Guerrieri, the president of Vandenberg, the Townhouse Experts, admits to a deep fondness for the crystal doorknobs and brass-accented window sashes in his Brooklyn Heights brownstone. During the renovation of a Greek Revival town house on West 15th Street that he has put on the market for nearly $6 million, Mr. Guerrieri was thrilled to discover original knotty pine wide-plank floor boards beneath the parquet.

Still, he knows that a growing number of town-house buyers, especially in a happening neighborhood like West Chelsea, crave a contemporary aesthetic. So he has prepared detailed architectural drawings for the house on 15th Street that suggest ways a new owner could retrofit the building for a new century. Proposals include a glass wall running up the rear facade overlooking the south-facing garden, topped by a glass-walled penthouse that in Mr. Guerrieri’s opinion “gives the feel of an artist’s loft.” Because the block falls outside the historic district, the landmarks commission would not have to sign off on such changes.

A new look has already come to the brownstone in the West 90s where Alexander Southwell, a lawyer, grew up and now lives with his family. An extension that jutted from the rear wall was torn out and replaced by a sweep of windows. Because the front door is glass and there is no interior door, passers-by can peer in and see slivers of a new double-height living area and an ethereal-looking floating staircase designed by Kinlin Rutherfurd Architects.

Mr. Southwell, who is 41, has warm memories of the house as it looked when he was a child there in the 1970s. “But the changes are terrific,” he said. “For example, thanks to the reconfiguration, we have a mudroom. With three young children, that’s very welcome.”

In Brooklyn’s brownstone neighborhoods, with their profusion of rear gardens, the battle between tradition and modernityoften plays out in backyards, with owners substituting glass walls or metal projections for traditional back facades.
Sometimes this works well, as with the brick row house on Huntington Street in Carroll Gardens that Timm and Kelly Chiusano bought in 2008 for about $800,000. “The place had been abandoned for about 15 years and was an utter wreck,” said Mr. Chiusano, who works in sales and marketing at ESPN. “There was no water, no electricity. Basically, we bought a shell of a house.”
As part of a gut renovation, the Chiusanos’ architect, Mr. Coburn, rebuilt the rear wall to feature a huge double-height window. Changes inside included putting the kitchen and living and dining rooms on the garden floor with easy access to the backyard to accommodate the couple’s two potbellied pigs, because, as Mr. Chiusano explained, “Pigs don’t do stairs.”

“Some of the neighbors weren’t thrilled about all the construction,” he said. “But we didn’t get any push-back about the new look.”

Not every rear-yard transformation goes so smoothly. Landmarks commission staff members can cite multiple locations — on Warren Street and Cheever Place in Cobble Hill, for example, and on Clinton Avenue in Clinton Hill — whose neighbors showed up in full force to rail against rear-yard additions at commission hearings.

The commission is paying increasing attention to such changes, and over the last few years has more carefully scrutinized the potential impact of proposed additions on historic buildings and the central green space within the block — the “doughnut,” as some preservationists describe it. A year ago, the commission issued amended rules for staff-level approval of rear-yard additions to reflect this approach. The regulations deal with matters like the size and height of an addition, whether it is visible from the street, whether it would eliminate a rear yard and whether it echoes the scale and character of the house and others on the block.
“In historic districts, the commission always regulated the entire lot,” said Sarah Carroll, the director of preservation at the agency. “But in the last decade we’ve been seeing more applications for rear-facade changes, particularly in Brooklyn, where there hadn’t been as many changes in the rear yards as in the past. And so we’ve been focusing more on the interiors of blocks.”

For neighbors who suddenly find their rear windows facing a stridently contemporary vista, the issue can be huge. Roy Sloane, the president of the Cobble Hill Association and a member of the community board for 30 years, has witnessed their unhappiness firsthand.

“Many people are concerned about the loss of privacy in the doughnut,” Mr. Sloane said, “and almost all extensions are problematic for neighbors, especially large decks or glass walls. People aren’t happy about giving up privacy, and they always oppose such changes if they’re aware of them in time.”

Mr. Sloane is no foe of contemporary design. “Don’t misunderstand me,” he said. “I like Modernist architecture. Can Modernism be integrated into traditional design? Yes, if it’s timeless. But if your intent is to call attention to your house, if you want to treat your house as an experiment, that’s a different story.”

He also worries that if historic districts are transformed too greatly, much will be lost. He wonders if a generation of children will grow up thinking that glass walls and metal trim were part and parcel of the traditional Victorian row house. “I’m in favor of dynamic change in the city,” Mr. Sloane said. “Not everything should be landmarked. But the tiny areas that remain should be preserved. We don’t need Mies van der Rohe everywhere.”

Whatever the explanations for the profusion of retrofitted town houses, one thing seems likely: What at first looked stark and shocking may one day melt into the background, as has been the case with two buildings that seemed aggressively out of place when they arrived.

One is at 18 West 11th Street, where a Greek Revival building was destroyed by a bomb in 1970. Eight years later Hugh Hardy designed an aggressively Modernist brick structure for the site, with an angular facade that jutted out toward the street. The house was recently put on the market by Corcoran for $10.9 million.

And in 1980, at the end of a row of stately brownstones on Columbia Heights in Brooklyn Heights, the developer Bruce Eichner built a distinctly contemporary town house for himself on a prime site with a harbor view.

Both newcomers are now part of the landscape, and maybe understandably. “The glass wall or the extension that at first seemed to stick out, may in time fit in,” Mr. Mellins said.