What Makes a House a Brownstone?
The defining feature of a brownstone is that it must feature a particular type of brown sandstone facade from the Triassic-Jurassic era. Brownstones are usually townhouses or rowhouses made from brick and coated with this brown sandstone to give them the charming, sophisticated look that many people love.
Townhouses and rowhouses are tall, narrow buildings that share walls with other buildings on either one or both sides. Even though the term brownstone is often used interchangeably with rowhouse and townhouse, a true brownstone must feature this unique sandstone coating to be considered authentic.
Although the exact construction varies from building to building, they typically feature 3 to 5 floors, large stoops, and ornate detailing that was hand-crafted by skilled stone workers in the 1800s. They are also naturally quite spacious and feature large bay windows and high ceilings that are attractive to homebuyers.
Brownstone Townhouse History
Most brownstones were built in the 19th Century when this building material was the most common. Initially, brownstone was not seen as a desirable building material because it didn't have the opulent look of granite or marble.
But architectural trends changed in the 1800s with the rise of Romanticism, which emphasized nature and authenticity over decadence. Brownstone had an earthier look that was much cheaper than other popular building materials, so it quickly became all the rage.
Brownstones catered to a growing middle class searching for elegant homes that were less expensive than those made with marble, granite, or limestone. The unique detailing and attractive features were a way for the merchant class to express their tastes and personality – which is why today they are a symbol of urban sophistication.
Where Does Brownstone Come From?
Four main quarries in the United States mined brownstone during the period it was popular.
The Bass Island Brownstone Company owned a quarry on Basswood Island, Wisconsin, from 1868 to the 1890s. This quarry and similar facilities in the Apostle Islands supplied much of the brownstone in the Midwest.
The Hummelstown Quarry in Hummelstown, Pennsylvania, was the largest supplier of the brownstone on the east coast, and many historic government buildings throughout West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, and Delaware were built with stone mined in Hummelstown.
Brownstone quarries in Portland, Connecticut, were also a major supplier of the material, and many important buildings in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and Baltimore contain Connecticut River Brownstone.
New Jersey Brownstone
Most of the brownstones in New York and New Jersey came from the Passaic Formation in northern New Jersey.
What Makes a Brownstone House So Special?
Despite the material's popularity, the style eventually fell out of fashion in the early 20th Century, as residents and developers began to voice complaints that the stone was liable to crack and crumble in intense weather. Then, in the 1940s, the Portland Quarry was flooded by the Connecticut River and officially shut down for good in 2012, ending a large part of the brownstone excavation in the Northeast. While brownstone is still mined in other parts of the world – home builders have long ago abandoned this type of construction in favor of more modern designs.
As a result, only a limited number of brownstones are left, creating a scarcity that helps drive demand. In addition, brownstones offer a style and aesthetic that many homebuyers love.
They often feature stylistic elements that are difficult to find in other homes – including carved fireplaces, stone detailing, garden levels, and other charming features characteristic of the Romantic era. Plus, they are often more spacious than other city apartments and have come to symbolize wealth and sophistication in many urban neighborhoods.
As a result, massive demand for brownstones exists among those who prefer a timeless design over all the modern bells and whistles. But the high demand also makes true brownstones expensive and challenging to find without a sizeable budget.
Brownstone vs. Townhouse Differences
The terms brownstone and townhouse are often used interchangeably; however, they are different concepts. A brownstone refers to a townhouse or rowhouse-style building with a distinct sandstone coating that gives it a brownish appearance. On the other hand, a townhouse refers to any multi-floor building that shares at least one wall with an adjacent building. A rowhouse is a similar type of construction that also features multiple separate units that share walls. But rowhouses are typically lined up in a neat row and feature a uniform design, whereas townhouses may be laid out and grouped differently.
All residential brownstones are either townhouses or rowhouses. However, not all townhouses are brownstones as they can be built with many different materials. Plus, the type of design commonly referred to as a brownstone is typically only found in the United States, whereas townhouses are a common type of building found worldwide.
Brownstone Townhouse FAQ
Why are Brownstones So Expensive?
Brownstones are expensive due to their rarity and allure. They have a charming look that many homebuyers love and offer space and comfort that is often scarce in major cities. Plus, there is a limited supply and consistent demand, which will inevitably drive up prices. So, brownstones are both functional and visually pleasing, making them a desirable asset for those with the means.
Are Brownstones Only in New York?
No, brownstones can be found all over the United States. They are commonly associated with New York City because they can be found all over Brooklyn and Manhattan. However, you will see brownstones in many major cities, including Boston, Philadelphia, Washington DC, and Baltimore. It was also a popular material for government buildings and municipal facilities all across the US feature brownstone coating.
How Much Does a NYC Brownstone Cost?
Today, brownstones are usually listed in the ballpark of $3 million to $10 million, although it depends on the location and condition of the building. It's common for private landlords and developers to purchase old brownstones and revitalize them to meet modern living standards -meaning even renters can also get a chance to live in one of these coveted buildings.