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What Is a Brownstone?


Jun 26, 2020 by Matt Frankel, CFP

Lots of homeowners and real estate investors are interested in owning a brownstone. But what is a brownstone, exactly?

Brownstone is a type of sandstone that turns brown after exposure to the elements. Mined from quarries in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Scotland, the stone became popular as a building material in the mid-1800s. Today, brownstones -- townhouses constructed with brownstone -- are a type of highly sought-after real estate, especially in New York City, where miles and miles of brownstones were built starting in the late 1860s.

What is brownstone?

Brownstone refers to a variety of brown, red, and pink sandstone that was a popular building material from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. While it first appeared in buildings during the 1600s, it became widely used in the mid-1800s as architecture, art, and literature sought to adopt the textures and tones of the natural world.

What is a brownstone?

A brownstone is a townhouse (or a rowhouse) that was built using brownstone. In general, the structural walls of a brownstone are usually brick, with the brownstone (the stone) attached as a veneer to the front brick wall. The facade's windowsills, lintels, ornamentation, door surrounds, and front stoops are also made of the stone.

The front stoop is one of the distinctive features of a brownstone. Interestingly, these iconic stoops may have been built as a matter of function, not fashion: Some historians believe they were intended to raise the parlor floor above the street level, which was, at the time, a "sea of horse manure."

When brownstones became popular, the stone was a more affordable building material than limestone, granite, and marble. Brownstone was also relatively soft, which meant it could be readily carved into moldings and other decorative architectural devices that dominated the period and gave brownstone its distinctive style. Today, brownstones are one of the most recognizable types of American architecture. Most examples can be found in Brooklyn (known as a "Brooklyn Brownstone"), Manhattan's Upper West Side, and Harlem.

What stones are brownstones made of?

Brownstone is a type of sandstone composed primarily of tiny bits of quartz and feldspar, which are held together by natural cementing agents like clays, iron oxides, and sometimes silica or calcite. The minerals that comprise the stone were deposited into layers by water and wind over hundreds or thousands of years.

There are five primary types of brownstone:

  1. Apostle Island brownstone. This brownstone was quarried from the mid to late 1800s in Wisconsin. It was used to build the first Milwaukee County Courthouse in the 1860s.
  2. Hummelstown brownstone. This stone came from the largest provider of brownstone on the east coast: the Hummelstown Quarry in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania. It was used in the construction of numerous government buildings in Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
  3. New Jersey brownstone. The brownstone quarried from the Passaic Formation in northern New Jersey once provided most of the brownstone used in New Jersey and New York City.
  4. Portland brownstone. Also known as Connecticut River brownstone, Portland brownstone was used to construct landmarks in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Hartford, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.
  5. South Wales brownstone. This sandstone is from the Devonian age and was used primarily in Southern Wales.

What is the difference between a townhouse and a brownstone?

Many people use the terms townhouse and brownstone interchangeably, but they aren't the same thing. A townhouse is a tall, narrow single-family home with at least two floors that shares a wall (called a party wall) with another house. Townhouses can be made of any material, such as brick or wood siding. A true brownstone is a type of townhouse that was built using brownstone. Only townhouses made of brownstone are actual brownstones.

Are brownstones expensive?

Unabashedly, yes. Most brownstone quarries have long been spent, which means brownstone is difficult to find today. In other words, they aren't making any more brownstones. That, along with the historic landmark status of many brownstones, makes these homes a hot commodity. In nearly any NYC neighborhood, it would be hard to find a brownstone for less than $1.5 million, and many homes would sell for many times that.

Because brownstones are so popular (and valuable), many homes are called brownstones when they're actually just regular townhouses or rowhouses. These "fake" brownstones imitate the architectural features of true brownstones, such as the stoop and window lintels. However, the facade of the imposters is constructed with red or yellow brick, instead of the pinkish-brown sandstone used in an original brownstone.

Brownstone maintenance

If you own a brownstone building, it's essential to perform regular maintenance to help slow the rate of decay. Here are a few tips for brownstone owners that are recommended in The Brownstone Guide, a brownstone primer funded by a grant from the New York State Council on the Arts:

  • Keep the gutters clear. Clear the gutters and leaders at least twice a year so that water drains properly.
  • Maintain the roof. Periodically inspect for roof damage and repair leaks right away.
  • Get rid of vegetation. Ivy might look pretty, but it can trap moisture and prevent the walls from ever drying out.
  • Fill open joints. Caulk open joints to keep water from getting into windows, doors, and horizontal structures like window lintels. The Brownstone Guide recommends that you use high-quality polysulfide, butyl rubber, or acrylic latex caulk.
  • Maintain flashing. Inspect metal flashings, which protect ledges, lintels, ornamentation, and other decorative features that could otherwise absorb water. The Brownstone Guide recommends using non-corrosive, non-staining sheet metal, such as lead or lead-coated copper.
  • Repoint as needed. A qualified mason can repoint any loose, broken, or missing mortar joints. The Brownstone Guide notes that the repointing mortar must be softer and more porous than your home's brownstone. Otherwise, any mortar that's too hard could accelerate the brownstone's deterioration.
  • Clean carefully. Clean only to protect the brownstone from pollutants and the excess build-up of dirt. Keep in mind that if cleaning isn't done correctly, it can lead to more damage than years of natural weathering would cause. Be sure to find a qualified mason and ask to see a sample of their work.

Whether your brownstone townhouse is in Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Fort Greene, Jersey City, Manhattan, or some other neighborhood, be sure to do your research before you attempt repairs or start a renovation project. That way you can help preserve your real estate investment for years to come.

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