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Just as "Jacuzzi" and "Kleenex" are generally used to describe any hot tub or tissue, brownstone is a particular term with various uses that stretch far beyond its narrow meaning. In this day and age, brownstone is often used interchangeably with a row or townhouse.

What is a brownstone? How is it used in the building trade? And why does it change color when exposed to the sun?

Today, we discuss more about how this material is mined from quarries surrounding New York, Connecticut, Michigan, and other states. Brownstone has been used since the 1800s as a reliable and cost-effective material to build houses and buildings.

Get ready to take a delightful walk down the brownstone path, as this guide was written to give you all the information you need regarding this traditional building material.

The Basics of Brownstone

Let us start by talking about the fundamentals of brownstones. First off, brownstone is a soft-brown sandstone material, which is also known as freestone because it can be cut in nearly every direction.

Brownstones can be carved into ornate designs by skilled stoneworkers who produce fancy-looking facades all over New York City brownstones. There are a multitude of uses for this versatile material, so if you are not opposed to having a brown building, it is attractive.

The chocolate brown color of the stone partially affected its rise in popularity during the 1800s. The rock contains hematite iron ore, which tends to turn the stone brown when weathered. Before the 1800s, brownstones were much cheaper and considered less desirable than more expensive materials like limestone, marble, or granite. This all changed with the arrival of "Romanticism," an intellectual and artistic movement that idealized natural settings when building a home. Brownstone does a perfect job of evoking that natural look, which is why people wanted it.

Brownstone in the 1900s

During the 1900s in New York City, brownstones became extremely popular as a building material because of their natural look and reliability. A few years before, in 1882, a federal building census was done, which showed a massive 80% of New York stone buildings used brownstone to construct these properties.

Mining improvements made brownstone even more affordable during the Industrial Revolution when steam-powered machines were introduced to replace human labor. By the mid-18th century, brownstone was one of the most desirable materials on the market, and even today, it still represents neighborhood appeal and urban sophistication.

The Quarries Where Brownstone Was Born

Before Brooklyn brownstone and South Wales brownstone rose in popularity in the upscale city streets, it started in substantial open pits called quarries.

Portland, Connecticut

When you stand in front of any New York City brownstone, the chance is good that you are looking at a Portland brownstone from the Portland quarry. It is an easy barge commute to New York because the quarry is located along the Connecticut River.

In the 1700s, brownstone quarrying began in Portland, and many different constructions utilized the material for building purposes. Rows of houses, monuments, and churches were all built with the Connecticut river brownstone in New York.

Apostle Island Wisconsin

In Minnesota, St. Paul, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Detroit, and Chicago, many brownstone real estate used brownstone-mined from the Apostle Island quarries, located in Lake Superior, east coast of Duluth, Minnesota.

Lake superiors made it inexpensive and easy to transport apostle island brownstone, which helped further spread material popularity.

Hummelstown, Pennsylvania

Another familiar source of brownstone was a place near Pennsylvania's capital, called Hummelstown quarry. In the 17th century, Hummelstown brownstone was cut here and used in several prominent buildings along the East Coasts and upper west side of Fort Greene, including the National Exchange Bank of Baltimore, the North American Building in Philadelphia, and the Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Washington D.C.

New Jersey

Below New Jersey is the Passaic and Stockton formations, which are geological jersey brownstone formations that extend over 200 miles across the state. The Passaic brownstone adorns the New Jersey Old First Presbyterian Church in Newark, and the Stockton formations were used for Princeton University's Nassau Hall.

Brownstone Townhouses

The terms "row house," "brownstone," and "townhouse" are often used interchangeably, but there are considerable differences. Row houses and townhouses are small buildings attached to other buildings' or townhouses' structural walls. These brownstone buildings are often placed in a row, although there can be different configurations.

In most cases, a townhouse or row house is made from brick walls from brownstone quarries, but most importantly, the front needs to have a brownstone front brick wall.

In New York City, it is most common to find brownstones only townhouses in areas like Manhattan's upper west, West Virginia, and Brooklyn heights east coast, where it sells for 36% more than many buildings on the market.

A true brownstone home has distinctive features like a spacious property of up to four or five stories and over 5,000 square feet of living space. Examples of this case include tall ceilings and carved fireplaces, some with exquisite detail and artistry.

Many brownstones, other townhouses, and numerous government buildings have an area that leads up from the sidewalk called the parlor floor or park slope, which typically contains the dining room and living room.

These days, many brownstones have been segmented into multiple units, giving more people a chance to try out brownstone living. However, savvy investors and real estate agents reclaim some multi-unit buildings looking at restoring brownstones and reselling the home.

The Enduring Appeal of the Brownstone

When the Portland brownstone quarry shut down in 2012, it shocked the public that something so iconic would be coming to an end. Many people may want to stay in a brownstone townhouse for many reasons that we are going to discuss below:

  • One of the main practical reasons is brownstone living rose to popularity in the 18th-century protection because it can protect you from a fire hazard
  • Brownstone is less flammable than other real estate materials and, during that era, was one of the cheapest options available
  • Supply drives demands in this day and age, so no one is building new brownstones, and the remaining ones are over 1oo years old
  • The brownstone house has long been considered fashionable because of its grandeur looks and aesthetic appeal, often found in affluent neighborhoods

Maintaining a Brownstone in New York City

Nearly as long as people have been frothing over brownstone, others have talked about the stone's propensity to decay. The stone is especially susceptible to pollution and climate changes because of this porous layered composition.

If you perform regular maintenance, you can aid with the upkeep, especially if you take the following steps to lower the chances of water damage:

  • Remove ivy
  • Inspect metal flashing to ensure it's not absorbing moisture
  • Keep gutters clear
  • Inspect metal flashings and roofs often and quickly repair any leaks
  • Apply caulk to open joints to keep water away from the party wall (door surrounds, horizontal structures, and windows)

Before buying brownstone homes, it's recommended to have a real estate engineer assess the property to see if it has any water penetration issues.

Conclusion

Brownstone homes are more than just property made out of a particular type of stone. It is the idea of rows of pleasant-looking stoops and houses in a tree-lined street where you can sit outside and say "Hello" to neighbors while enjoying the day.

Actual brownstone owners know that it has a connotation around community and togetherness, which is why people around the country love these homes.    

David Bitton

David is the co-founder & CMO of DoorLoop, a best-selling author, legal CLE speaker, and real estate investor. When he's not hanging with his two children, he's writing articles here!