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The Science Survey

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The Science Survey

We've got the news down to a science!

The Science Survey

Brownstones: New York’s Living History

Brownstone homes, from the 18th century to today, have been a New York staple.
Park Slope is home to many brownstones. The Brooklyn neighborhood went from being referred to as a “slum” in the ’60s to being one of the most expensive places in the city. (Photo Credit: David Berkowitz from New York, NY, USA, CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons)

Brownstone, in the most literal sense, is just a type of sandstone. But if you have spent enough time in New York, you might think of a brownstone as one of those coveted row houses scattered across the city. There is a good chance you saw a few as Blair and Serena walked the streets of Manhattan in Gossip Girl. Or maybe you’ve wondered how Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw could afford her Upper East Side brownstone unit on a column writer’s salary. Today, there is no question that the brownstone is synonymous with wealth, opulence, and classic New York. 

New York’s whirlwind love story with the brownstone began in the late 18th century. Quarried from New Jersey’s cliffs, brownstone became the building material of choice during the early to mid-1800s, during a time of rapid expansion. This sedimentary rock was relatively abundant and easy to carve intricate designs into, making it the perfect canvas to capture the city’s character. And like New York, brownstone evolved, with the original pink morphing into its eponymous color with age. 

Interestingly enough, the brownstones in reality contain very little of the actual material because of its durability. Brownstone bricks only decorate the surface, or the face, of the homes, providing a cleaner look than stone. 

Apart from the famous color, brownstones are defined by their callback to Greco-Roman styles during the era of Romantic Classicism. Previously, the material had been less desirable because it was less expensive, with limestone and marble being more highly regarded. But in the 1840s, the style really took off, because people wanted to return to nature while maintaining a sense of modernity. The brownstone offered exactly that. The material itself played into the natural element without taking away the urban feel. Ornate ironwork, decorative moldings, and cornices adorn the facades, making each brownstone a work of art. 

And quickly, a trend began. Affluent families flocked to brownstones as a status symbol. With the stoops towering over the streets, which were often filled with dung because of the horse heavy transportation, there was a physical separation from common people. The servants quarters were usually located in the level under these stoops, reinforcing the class division. 

However, with the Industrial Revolution making distribution, development, and construction faster, brownstones became more accessible to upper middle class families. The price of the material combined with the uniform structure, made them more affordable. Since they were row houses, brownstones could be made with an almost assembly line method. As they became more prominent, brownstones were further solidified as a classic. 

But with time, the style faded, with Beaux Arts and Art Deco gradually replacing it. Brownstones became a relic of the past, many falling into disrepair or being torn down. The 1960s to 1970s is when brownstones really lost their status. As more middle class families moved into blue collar neighborhoods like the West Village, brownstones lost their association with wealth. Many of the homes had been renovated, altered into apartments. It was no longer something exclusive, more everyday New Yorkers had access to them. 

Eventually, and maybe luckily, brownstones experienced a revival. In the 1980s, there was a new interest in the homes. They were fixer uppers, affordable property that New Yorkers could buy and polish to their unique tastes. Manhattanites started buying historic homes in neighborhoods like Park Slope. Having a grand historic building, many of which weren’t left, was in a way a status symbol. Prices were around $200,000, but soon saw an exponential rise as they became a trend. Today, a brownstone in New York City runs from $3.5 to 20 million. 

In 2018, Jane and Thor Rinden, a couple who had purchased their Brooklyn brownstone in the 1960s for $29,000 sold it for $2.9 million. They spent five years renovating the home. It was an intense process as they had to install new electricity, heat, and water systems. But in the end, it culminated in this shared masterpiece. The Lindens are respectively a teacher and an artist. With the current given prices, they would not be able to afford their home. That attests to the dramatic value increase. 

Some brownstones have been transformed into upscale bed-and-breakfasts, boutique hotels, and commercial spaces. Their ability to weave themselves into our modern world is a testament to their timeless allure. 

Brownstones were featured in pop culture more frequently. Amongst them is the Cosby Brownstone. Featured in The Cosby Show which detailed the life of an African American family living in Brooklyn Heights, the home is recognizable to many. Another is the Tenenbaum’s home from Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. Interior and exterior shots of a Harlem brownstone on 144th Street and Covenant Avenue were heavily utilized in the film.  

Even more recently, as in post-Coronavirus pandemic, interest in brownstones continues to grow. During a time of isolation, as romanticism provided escapism to many, there was a resurgence of the desire to return to nature. The space and privacy of brownstones, as they did in the past, fulfilled this need. 

With the rise in popularity came an emphasis on historical preservation. Many parts of New York City history have been destroyed, one of the more well known examples being the original Penn Station. Today, there is an even greater motivation to maintain old architecture as Brutalist styles become more standard. The Brownstone Project, a Brooklyn-based organization’s core mission is to protect and sustain brownstones. On their website, they state that they “consider owning and caring for a brownstone to be a real responsibility.

Furthermore, as brownstones have regained their status as a signifier of wealth, it is important to keep gentrification in mind. Many of the neighborhoods brownstones are home to, such as Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvestant, are primarily and historically African American communities. When these areas are commodified by rich, often white buyers, they become less and less accessible to their original residents. 

In October 2023, it was reported that the median price for a home in Bedford-Stuyvestant was $1.3 million. Currently around half of the population identifies as African American. In 2000, around three fourths did. With gentrification, African Americans in New York lose part of the physical access to their culture and history. 

However, it’s important to note that the relationship between brownstones and gentrification is nuanced. The preservation and renovation of brownstones from wealthy buyers can contribute to the historic character of the neighborhood and benefit the broader community. In some cases, efforts are made to ensure that long-time residents are not displaced and that the neighborhood retains its identity. Efforts to mitigate the negative impacts of gentrification include the implementation of affordable housing initiatives, tenant protections, and community engagement programs.

Brownstones in New York represent not only a historic architectural style but a way of life. These elegant structures have weathered the test of time, adapting to the changing needs of the city while retaining their essential character. Today, they continue to stand as proud symbols of community, craftsmanship, and the enduring allure of the city’s past. In a rapidly changing cityscape, brownstones remind us of the rich history that lies beneath the towering skyscrapers, inviting us to step back in time and appreciate the elegance and charm of a bygone era. 

In a rapidly changing cityscape, brownstones remind us of the rich history that lies beneath the towering skyscrapers, inviting us to step back in time and appreciate the elegance and charm of a bygone era.

About the Contributor
Faizunnesa Mahzabin, Staff Reporter
Faizunnesa Mahzabin is a Copy Chief and Social Media Editor for 'The Science Survey.’ She enjoys journalistic writing because of how it can both educate and entertain. She feels that photography adds a necessary element to writing by capturing emotion that can only be visually seen, not described. Faizunnesa spends her free time reading books, watching movies, and listening to music.