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STORIES IN STONE
Travels Through Urban Geology
By DAVID B. WILLIAMS
Walker & Company
Copyright © 2009 David B. Williams
All right reserved.
Chapter One "The Most Hideous Stone Ever Quarried"—New York Brownstone
In some thirty years every noble cliff will be a pier, and the whole island will be densely desecrated by buildings of brick, with portentous facades of brown-stone, or brown-stonn, as the Gothamites have it. —Edgar Allan Poe, Doings of Gotham, May 14, 1844
Little I ask; my wants are few; I only wish a hut of stone, (A very plain brown stone will do,) That I may call my own;—And close at hand is such a one, In yonder street that fronts the sun. —Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Contentment," 1858
If America in the late 1800s was the land where the streets were paved with gold, in Brooklyn and Manhattan the streets were lined with chocolate: chocolate stores, churches, and mansions. But above all, row houses, better known as brownstones. They stretched for block upon block, mile after mile, wearying the eye, as one detractor sneered. In 1880 78 percent of the stone structures in Manhattan had a front of brownstone; in Brooklyn, 96 percent. Brownstones housed the poor, the growing middle class, and the titans of the Gilded Age, such as William Astor II, J. P. Morgan, and Jay Gould.
The brown sandstone (hence brown-stone and later brownstone) that faced most of the row houses gave the architecture its name. The stone served no structural purpose; it was the aluminum siding of the day, a four-inch-thick curtain, attached by mortar to the brick load-bearing walls that supported the wood-frame building. Originally a substitute for more expensive marble and first used for decorative work such as lintels, steps, and quoins, brownstone became the most popular building stone in New York by the 1850s and so synonymous with row houses that any row house, whether clad in brick, limestone, or marble, was called a brownstone.
Typically built on a one-hundred-foot-deep lot, brownstone row houses ranged from twelve to twenty-five feet wide and were three to six stories high. A below-grade servants' entrance led to the basement, where the domestics cooked and the family ate. Homeowners, or in many cases tenants, entered via a steeply staired stoop, an architectural feature brought by the original Dutch settlers who had required a rise to get above their flat homeland's perennial flooding. In America the stoop, nee stoep, helped people rise above street odors generated by the horse-powered transport system. Later the stoop became a favored place for sitting, hanging out, gossiping, and that venerable Brooklyn pastime, stoopball.
The stoop led to the building's formal entrance, often the finest architectural feature of a brownstone. Many entrances had arched openings, a prominent keystone, and an elaborate fanlight. Others were squared off with a detailed console or hood molding. Columns bracketed many doorways and could be Ionic, Doric, Corinthian, or strange combinations thereof. Tall, arched double doors opened into a vestibule or long hallway and led to the first-floor parlor. Oddly, the parlor may have been the least-used part of the home. Society dictated an entertainment space, but most middle-class people rarely used it. Bedrooms and sitting rooms were on the upper floors. Servants lived in the garret. A cornice, often of iron pounded, sanded, and painted to resemble stone, topped the structure.
Long and narrow, particularly in later years when land prices forced developers to squeeze houses to nearly claustrophobic widths, brownstones would not win a modern-day design competition. Windows illuminated only the front and back rooms; middle rooms were gloomy caverns. Long flights of steep, poorly lit stairs connected the floors, providing a practical way to meet one's daily exercise needs, although one nineteenth-century critic wrote that this progenitor of the Stairmaster led to "fruitless and health-destroying labor."
And yet, to have a brownstone-fronted home was to live the good life in Manhattan and Brooklyn, as well as Boston, Hartford, and Philadelphia. Whether rich or poor, immigrant or Knickerbocker, every level of society aspired to live in a brownstone, called by one writer an "almost proverbial synonym for all that is elegant and desirable." So elegant and desirable was brownstone that the world's richest man, William H. Vanderbilt, who inherited ninety million dollars in 1877, disregarded his architects' preferred construction material, white limestone, and built between 1879 and 1882 a pair of brownstone mansions on Fifth Avenue. Designed by the firm Trench and Snook, the twin estates cost two million dollars and reportedly required an around-the-clock crew of six hundred to seven hundred workers to build.
Despite Vanderbilt's multimillion-dollar stamp of approval, brownstone did not fare well with critics. They thought the stone cold and unattractive. Brownstone was only a veneer, they sneered, a pretense. Plus, it didn't carve well, didn't age well, and made buildings look bloated. In the words of Edith Wharton, the city was "cursed with its universal chocolate-coloured coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried."
The critics were partially correct. Water and ice can penetrate and weaken the stone's sandy layers, which peel off the building like sunburned skin. But the stone does not deserve all of the blame: Brownstone failed because builders used poor quality stone or laid it incorrectly. Properly placed brownstone blocks in 150-year-old buildings show little or no degradation.
Its reputation weakened by the critics' complaints, brownstone suffered a decisive blow to its popularity at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, commonly called the White City. Daniel Burnham's array of snow white, classical buildings returned marble and limestone to their former place of supremacy in the building world. White was in and brown was out. Brownstone would not become popular again for another hundred years.
I first fell in love with brownstone in 1996. Marjorie and I had recently moved to Boston so she could attend graduate school. During my regular walks to get away from our dreary apartment, I wandered among town houses made of brownstone in the Brahmin bastion of Beacon Hill. The brownstones were distinctive, exhibiting warmth and character. I liked that I could see geologic features such as bedding and erosion, and during those occasional sunsets when the light bounced off low clouds, the stones seemed to be lit from within.
Several months after moving to Boston, I chanced upon what would become one of my favorite brownstone buildings. Built in 1766, Harvard Hall sits on the western edge of the Harvard campus. It is a stately Georgian structure with simple lines, arched windows, and a two-story portico. Although primarily brick, Harvard Hall sits on a base of brownstone, with brownstone stairs that gently rise on either side of the main door.
I distinctly remember walking up to the stairs to look at the stone work, which had been laid incorrectly and had begun to succumb to weathering. Making sure that no one was looking, I stroked the crumbling stone. Sand grains accumulated in my hand. They immediately transported me back to my beloved Utah.
Although I had looked at brownstones for months, it wasn't until the sand grains of Harvard Hall nested in my hand that I made the connection: What I had known as red rock in Utah, easterners called brownstone. Both are sandstone colored by iron, which in an oxygen-rich environment rusts and coats individual sand grains like the skin of an apple. I learned later that my favorite Utah rock layer, the Wingate Sandstone, and Harvard Hall's brownstone were deposited at the same time, during the waning days of Pangaea, and that both contain dinosaur tracks, possibly from the same species. I finally felt like I was making a connection to Boston.
A decade later I headed to the heart of brownstone country, New York City. Specifically, I went to Brooklyn, because many of the brownstone row houses and most of the great brownstone mansions in Manhattan were gone. Some neighborhoods, such as Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, and Harlem, still have chocolate row houses, but these isolated pockets cannot compare with the street upon street of brownstone-fronted buildings found throughout Brooklyn.
I stayed in a Brooklyn brownstone with a childhood pal and her family. It was a classic five-story row house, with one apartment on each floor. My friends lived on the top floor, so I got to experience the fruitless and health-destroying labor of stair climbing.
The morning of my first day in Brooklyn, my friend Megan and I strolled through the Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, and Brooklyn Heights neighborhoods. Walking through canyon after canyon of sandstone felt like returning to Utah, except I saw a lot more people and I could buy good pizza. Some buildings had smooth, precisely cut rock; others had rusticated blocks; and a few had stippled stones. Moss and lichen covered many of the low walls that fronted patio spaces next to stoops. A few walls had a black patina similar to the desert varnish that coats Utah's cliffs.
A fractured brownstone pile next to a stoop vividly reminded me of a cliff of rock slowly decaying and crumbling. I grabbed one piece and put it in my backpack. I took dozens of photos of buildings where wind and water had smoothed elaborate window and door details to shapeless blobs. On one building, erosion had so weakened the rock that the front door console had fallen off, revealing the brick and wood structure underneath.
Across the street from Fort Greene Park, on South Portland Avenue, was a classic stretch of row houses, their repetitious and receding lines of stoop, doorway, and window looking like an art student's first attempt at perspective drawing. Despite the uniformity of the buildings, they formed a balanced and elegant beauty, further enhanced by the block's tall London plane trees and bluestone sidewalks.
One of the chief complaints of nineteenth-century detractors was the tedium of brownstones. Junius Henri Browne, a critic wearied by brownstone, wrote in 1869, "One longs [for] ... some change in the style and aspects of the sombre-seeming houses, whose occupants, one fancies from the exterior, look, think, dress and act alike." Perhaps in Browne's day and in the subsequent decades, regularity doomed the buildings, but now this same consistency stands out as a coveted feature. Time Out New York recently named South Portland Avenue the best block in New York, citing its unbroken row of brownstone town houses.
South Portland was a wonderful block, but it also showcased a disturbing trend. Many of the buildings no longer had brownstone facing. Instead, stucco covered them. This process of putting stucco over stone began in the 1960s. In neighborhoods where brownstones were run down and unsafe, a few pioneers recognized the beauty and history of the buildings, which were cheap and available even if bankers wouldn't extend credit. Buyers had to move fast because city agencies had started to demolish brownstones. Ironically, demolition led to the open spaces now utilized as community gardens throughout Brooklyn.
When the new residents began to move into these neighborhoods, they began to repair and restore the buildings. "People didn't have the money they have now, so there was less attention to detail. In many cases, owners simply removed or shaved off features, in particular around windows," said Alex Barrett, an architect who focuses on brownstone restoration in Brooklyn. Where once a prominent sill and ornate molding and brackets surrounded a window with distinction, plain windows now punctuated buildings with flaccid monotony. Owners also lopped off stoops, abandoning the original entryways like forgotten lovers.
To stave off erosion of the stone, brownstoners, as the new immigrants dubbed and still dub themselves, also painted brownstone facades. In a second mistake from the 1960s, many brownstoners used nonbreathable paint, which trapped moisture and exacerbated stone spalling. Other brownstoners patched the weakened stone with stucco. Often, however, they failed to match the colors of stucco and stone, leaving the building looking like a teenager's blotchy face. With more experience and money, later owners began to stucco the entire building, and it is these more modern restorations that rankle brownstone purists.
"We recently restored a five-story building and spent seventy-five thousand dollars, which was a good price. We could have paid much less or much, much more. It took two to four guys working full time four months to complete it," said Barrett. First, restorers jackhammered off the old stucco to get down to the original stone. They then applied a gray cement mortar mixed with coarse aggregate to form a base, or scratch coat. Barrett's restorers hand molded all of the scroll work around the new windows using simple trowels. They rebuilt the steps by hand with stucco. On the finish stucco coat, they applied an aggregate-free cement mortar with a custom-created mix of colored sand.
The artistry of a high-quality restoration such as the one on Barrett's row house bestows a dignity that harkens back to the glory days of the brownstone, when owning one meant that a person had achieved a certain level in society. The fancy detailing around the windows and doors gives the building elegance, style, and depth. Barrett's attention to detail results from his interests and concerns about history and the importance of brownstone to the development of New York. But I miss the imperfections of true brownstone. Most restorers, at least the high-end ones, do such a good job that the buildings lack character. The lines are too straight, the stucco too homogenous, the color too even. While stucco restoration corrects the fatal flaws of the past, the buildings lose their soul. The great row houses of modern Brooklyn are no longer brownstones but "brownstuccos." They could fit right in in Santa Fe, stucco capital of the world.
What I like best about brownstone is its geologic essence. When you look closely, you can see that the individual sand grains vary in size from mote to pebble, and in color from reddish to deep mocha. Some bedding planes are thick, some are wavy, and some are not visible because the builder placed the stone with the bedding plane face out, which tends to make the blocks look like wood grain. The erosion differs, depending on resistance and aspect. I found one building with a pair of dragon faces carved out of brownstone below the front porch. One retained its detail while the other had worn away to a ghost of its original fierceness. This heterogeneity reflects the original, complex depositional environment of the stone 200 million years ago.
Most people do not encounter geologic phenomena on a daily basis. You may read about distant volcanoes, earthquakes, and tsunamis in the news but with brownstone you can see the same processes that wore down the Appalachian Mountains and carved the Grand Canyon. You can see how water and ice infiltrate and ferret out the weakest links in a rock and slowly reduce it to its constituent grains. A solid in geologic time is not truly a solid, and it will surrender to an overriding principle of nature—gravity; what goes up must come down, even if it takes millions of years or in the case of the hapless brownstones, decades.
The basic geologic story of brownstone is simple and appealing. Go back 200 million years. Streams wash into a valley and deposit layer upon layer of sand and silt. Dinosaurs plod through the wet sediments leaving behind thousands of tracks. Sediments and tracks harden into sandstone. To understand why dinosaurs inhabited that valley, why quarries occur where they do, and why brownstone was a good building stone, however, requires adding a few more details.
Excerpted from STORIES IN STONE by DAVID B. WILLIAMS Copyright © 2009 by David B. Williams. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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