Since the New York borough of Brooklyn was settled by Dutch colonists in the 17th century, it has been home to many different communities. The ocean-side neighbourhood of Brighton Beach houses a large Russian and Ukrainian population; Brooklyn’s biggest Chinese community resides in Sunset Park while Borough Park and Williamsburg both have a strong Jewish presence as well as some of the city’s best kosher bakeries. Although the cultural influences are varied and have given character to each area, there is a common architectural thread running throughout the borough: the brownstone.
Brownstones are 19th-century row-houses, often Italianate in style, that take their name from their earthy brown-coloured sandstone. They were built to cater to the tastes of Brooklyn’s growing middle classes, who favoured them as a sophisticated alternative to brick buildings (although most brownstones are built in brick and faced in sandstone). One of the most distinctive features of a brownstone is its trademark “stoop”, or set of steps leading to the front door.
These houses are also found in parts of Manhattan but Brooklyn’s neighbourhoods of Park Slope, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill, Prospect Heights and Brooklyn Heights have such an abundance of these buildings that they are sometimes collectively referred to as the Brownstone Belt. They are relatively uniform on the outside but the approach people take to decorating them is anything but, with examples channelling a variety of styles from the historic to the contemporary. The most successful examples pay homage to their unusual exterior and interior architecture.
Brownstones have had a chequered past. After the Great Depression in the 1930s, Brooklyn’s neighbourhoods fell on troubled times as industry moved out of the area. This period of decline persisted into the 1960s and 1970s, by which time the middle classes were choosing suburbia over Brooklyn’s crumbling mansions.
The future of brownstones looked bleak until Evelyn Ortner and her husband, Everett, bought a four-storey home in Park Slope, west Brooklyn, in 1963. Having trained as an interior designer, Ortner fell for period features such as papier-mâché and linseed-oil wallpaper and beautifully designed mahogany wood carvings. The couple persuaded their friends as well as businesses to invest in the neighbourhood and went on to form the Brownstone Revival Committee with the aim of saving brownstones from demolition and disrepair.
The Ortner effect was a driver for regeneration, and Brooklyn’s brownstones are now being snapped up for millions in what The New York Times recently coined “The Brooklyn Gold Rush”. A brownstone in Park Slope, for example, costs $1.4m on average and in the neighbourhood of Boerum Hill they go for an average of $1.7m.
Most brownstone owners are sympathetic towards the unusual period features. “Folks moving to brownstone neighbourhoods by and large have a bias towards preservation,” says Jonathan Butler, editor of Brownstoner, a Brooklyn-based blog focusing on renovation and real estate. Butler bought his own brownstone in Clinton Hill, where many row-houses date from the post-civil war period. “One of the positive things about it is that people didn’t have money to do bad renovations in the 1960s and 1970s. So our house still had pretty much all of its architectural detail. The parquet floors, nine fireplaces and crown mouldings are still there.”
When deciding how to decorate, most people take their cue from period features such as sweeping staircases and handrails, often made from mahogany, as well as old marble mantels and decorative stonework. To some extent, the layout of brownstones also dictates how the interior should be lived in. Brownstones are usually 20ft wide by 40ft long with a 60ft garden at the back. The kitchen is on the ground floor – at garden level, with the reception rooms on the parlour level, the floor reached via the street-level stairs.
“A typical interior is pretty dark and can be fussy with decorative moulding,” says Elizabeth Roberts, an architectural designer based in Brooklyn. “The rooms were all designed to be heated by their coal fireplaces, so they all have small doorways that can be closed off to heat each space. So one of the challenges is brightening and opening them up. They are also so long and narrow and they can be hard to furnish.”
Roberts is not afraid to take a contemporary approach. She often uses mid-century pieces, such as a Saarinen womb chair or a sofa from B&B Italia, in large ornate parlours. “I think that the contrast of the fussy stair and the fussy marble mantle with a modern piece complements both.”
Made, an architectural design company based in Red Hook, Brooklyn, has taken a similar approach. In the case of a brownstone in the Boerum Hill area, it was dealing with a shell – many of these houses have decayed to such an extent that it is not unusual to find them in disrepair. Designer Lindsay Crozier, product and material specifier at Made, says that there was nothing to work with other than “the walls, the views and the window organisation”. This presented far more of a challenge than she would have faced had the original layout remained. The firm created an open-plan parlour level – unusual for a townhouse – which resulted in a more loft-like feel: in the kitchen, steel is offset with simple wooden cabinetry; much of the brickwork is exposed or painted white; and the finishing touches, from an industrial-style pendant lamp from Design House Stockholm to a David Weeks mobile that hangs in the dining area, are thoroughly modern.
Whether it is bold paint colours, high-end antiques or pieces from Ikea, there is little that doesn’t suit the brownstone. One of the most important things is “acknowledging the structure” and features of the original building and finding a way for the client to live within it. “A client buys a brownstone for very specific reasons,” says Crozier. “Each building has a story and a history. What we do a lot is try and find out what it is that attracted the client to the building and we try to preserve that character.”