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What is a Brownstone?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Brownstone is a word used both to refer to a type of building material and structures built or sheathed in it. While it is most closely associated with the Eastern United States, this material was at one point used all over the world in construction, particularly in upper class regions. A distinctive architectural style using brownstone is very familiar to many residents of industrialized nations. Its popularity as a building material waned when builders began to realize that it weathered poorly, and that other materials might be more suitable.

The building material is a type of sandstone, which was heavily deposited in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey during the late Triassic period. Deposits of brownstone formed in other parts of the world as well. The stone's unique reddish brown color comes from dissolved iron oxides in the rock. It proved relatively easy to quarry and carve, and became a popular building material in the 19th century.

New York and Boston both have a large number of brownstone homes that were built in the form of terrace or row houses with raised entrances. Harlem, Park Slope, and Brooklyn all have large numbers of such homes in varying condition. The stone can also be found in structures across the United States and in Europe, especially in large cities.

The brownstone quarries provided stable employment and income to the towns in which they were located. However, the ease with which the stone could be quarried turned out to be an indicator of its strength in general. The ornate carvings and ornamentation that characterize much 19th century building quickly wore away when they were carved into brownstone, which is a soft, crumbly material unlike marble or granite. The stone also had a potential for failing when it was used as a vital construction component.

As a result, builders turned to stronger, more versatile materials for construction. A reddish brown granite that is very similar to the stone is now used to repair older brownstone houses or build new structures that are designed to mimic them. Although it is no longer popular in new homes, extant examples of brownstone can be seen in many places. Especially on the East Coast of the United States, landlords tend to be proud of homes built with this material, ensuring that examples of 19th century architecture in brownstone will be around in the future for people to look at. In some cities, tour guides will take visitors on walking trips of the city to visit neighborhoods filled with these stately old homes.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a About Mechanics researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments
By anon959055 — On Jul 01, 2014

No, and no thank you. I'd rather not go back to the past and live with old technology. I love modern technology with glass and steel, which saves me money on energy and has new technology (touchscreen glass) built into it. I am glad I don't live in the 20th century anymore.

By StarJo — On May 06, 2012

@cloudel - You could always build a house out of the granite that looks like brownstone. That is what my sister and her husband did, and I really can’t tell the difference between it and the real thing.

She fell in love with the brownstone apartments she saw on the coast when they vacationed there, and her husband suggested that they use granite to get the same effect. Granite is pretty tough, so their house should last for many decades before needing any maintenance.

They picked out a color of granite that matches the coastal brownstone apartments almost perfectly. I love the exterior of their home, because it just looks so solid and important somehow!

By cloudel — On May 05, 2012

My friend lives in a brownstone townhome in Virginia, and the place is really old. It is super elegant, both inside and out, and that is why she was drawn to it.

The ceilings are high, the kitchen is huge, and she even has a terrace. The dining room is big enough for a banquet, so her family usually comes there for Thanksgiving dinner.

I think that the stone is very attractive. I can see why many homes were made out of it, and it is a shame that it erodes over time. If it were more stable, I would love to build a home out of it, but I guess that isn’t such a great idea.

By seag47 — On May 05, 2012

I have seen a group of brownstone condominiums in person, and though the material is beautiful, I could see it starting to wear a bit. The texture and overall appearance are gorgeous, but I would be too concerned about the long-term sturdiness of the structure to live there.

Since brownstone is a kind of sandstone, it is understandable that it can crumble. I have felt of pieces of sandstone before, and it isn’t too hard to coax bits of large stones to flake away.

In the area where I live, we have a lot of strong storms, so I prefer to live in a brick house. It is much sturdier than a condo made of brownstone, and if my house did get hit by a tornado, I would feel much safer in it.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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