There are a few iconic things that automatically invoke that feeling of pride in New Yorkers. Pastrami sandwiches. The Empire State Building. Central Park. However, for those who have lived in New York, there is one type of dwelling that seems to belong to “dream home” status.
When you picture Manhattan or Brooklyn, you probably have a picturesque image in your mind: rows of stately brownstone buildings, immaculately maintained, standing proudly as a testament to New York heritage and wealth.
But what exactly is a brownstone, and why has it become such a New York icon?
Let’s find out!
During the early part of the 19th century, the economic boom in NYC gave many middle-class families the means to purchase a home in areas like Brooklyn and Manhattan. Brownstone, a reddish-brown stone, became the building material of choice because of its attractive hue and cheap price tag.
Brownstone was cheap because it was plentiful and easy to harvest. Quarries located in states such as Connecticut, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey allowed real estate developers to source the material, then ferry it by barge via the East and Hudson Rivers. The material was so popular that almost 80% of the buildings erected at the time used brownstone!
While brownstone used to be a cheap building material, the price tag skyrocketed due to a combination of changing housing trends, high demand for brownstone, and gentrification. Over time, brownstone homes become synonymous with status and wealth -- if you owned or lived in a brownstone home in NYC, you had money.
You might wonder how a brownstone is different from a townhouse, given that they are sometimes used interchangeably. A townhouse is a narrow building that is attached to other townhouses in a row, however, it does not have the defining feature of a brownstone.
While a brownstone home is also narrow and attached to other brownstones, it has a facade made from brownstone. The structural walls are always made from brick. This is because brownstone by itself is too soft to be used as the fundamental building material for any structure.
Brownstone homes typically have 3-4 floors and can have large bay windows. Most of the architectural features of a brownstone are inspired by Romantic Classicism, which emphasizes natural elements (hence, the adoration for the unique hue of brownstone).
There is one other feature that most, if not all, brownstones have: the stoop. You might notice that brownstones have large and spacious stoops, and there are two theories why these features became part of the architecture.
One theory goes that brownstone owners wanted to have a way to separate themselves from their household help. Only members of the family and their guests could use the stoops to enter the home. There was a smaller, more discrete entrance at the bottom of the stoop that was for the help/
The second theory (albeit a more graphic one) is that stoops were constructed as a way to separate the home from animal manure. Since horses were still widely used as transport during that time, the streets were dotted with piles of horse manure. When the rainy season came, the water would mix with the manure and seep into people’s homes. Stoops were a way to keep the filth out and the people inside clean.
While you can find brownstone homes peppered all throughout NYC’s four boroughs, the majority of them can be found in Brooklyn and Manhattan. They are a common sight in the Upper West Side, Park Slope, and Brooklyn Heights.
Interestingly enough, if you want to see brownstone homes that have been preserved in their original style, you can find them in neighborhoods such as Harlem, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Crown Heights. While the residents are well off, they didn’t have money for major renovations such as changing the facade.
Brownstones are so expensive these days because of three reasons. First, these homes are considered status symbols. If you could afford a brownstone, you’re probably not hurting financially. What’s more, brownstone homes are typically found in desirable neighborhoods.
Second, you will no longer find newly-constructed brownstone homes because of the scarcity of the material. In 2012, the Portland Brownstone Quarry closed for good. While there are other places where brownstone can be mined, those in the know say that the stuff from Portland is the best.
Finally, brownstone homes are made to be family homes which means that they are priced for bigger groups. If you’re lucky enough to find an apartment for rent in a brownstone, they are generally smaller units such as micro or studio units. However, there are also some owners that convert the lowest level for rent, which are typically the most coveted type of apartment in a brownstone.
Here are some of the pros and cons of living in a brownstone:
Since most brownstones are converted into rental units, it’s not uncommon for the property owner or landlord to live on the property. This means it’s easier for you to pay rent as well as bring up any issues with repairs or maintenance.
Since brownstones are seen as quintessentially New York, you’ll be living in a piece of the city’s history. What’s more, you’ll enjoy architectural features that you won’t usually find in other types of apartments such as the stoop and tall windows.
If you’re really lucky, you’ll be able to snag the bottom unit. The access to the outdoor spaces will make it seem like you’re living in a garden apartment!
As mentioned earlier, brownstones are in high demand. It’s very hard to find a listing, especially during peak apartment hunting season.
Given the high demand for brownstones and the innate charm that they have, expect to pay a premium on your rent. Since they are found in older buildings, you should also expect to pay higher costs for heating and cooling.
The brownstone’s classic charm has a flip side: you’ll generally find that these apartments don’t have modern amenities such as centralized heating or air conditioning.
Finally, brownstone buildings are typically walk-ups. If you get a unit on the upper floors, you’ll have to face the daily walk going up to your apartment.
So, is a brownstone apartment right for you? It depends. If you love their direct and unique link to New York’s history, don’t mind the possible lack of modern amenities, and can afford the rent, then yes. A brownstone is a great choice for you!