Brownstones are an indelible feature of New York City’s distinct architectural landscape. New York City has the largest compilation of brownstones in the United States—by far. They are the primary residential units in Bedford Stuyvesant and the Upper West Side. Harlem, Queens, and the Bronx also host a swath of the iconic homes. Brooklyn, in particular, is defined by its brownstones. They line the streets of Fort Greene, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, and Cobble Hill, and are scattered in bundles from Greenpoint to Red Hook. Many of these brownstones are now the most desirable (and expensive) properties in the borough.
Brownstones have touched every corner of the desirability spectrum throughout their lengthy tenure. As the city grew and became increasingly affluent in the mid-Nineteenth Century, residents demanded more refined and sophisticated residential architecture. The majority of previous homes had been tenement buildings and brick/wood rowhouses. Wealthier immigrants considered both to be shoddy; they began importing massive amounts of brownstone, which was easily and cheaply transported from quarries in New Jersey and Connecticut. As new row houses were constructed, an outer layer of brownstone was swathed atop the brick, creating a handsome facade. The best brownstones were those that appeared to be—quite simply—solid stone (hence successfully masking the less-classy brick). The homes were also marked by their enormous stoops, which were originally designed to assuage the buildup of horse manure on the sidewalks.
Opinions in New York—and neighborhoods in New York—have the uncanny ability to change drastically over time. As NYC deteriorated into blight and crime in the 60’s and 70’s, property values of the once highly-prized brownstones plummeted. In many neighborhoods—such as Bedford-Stuyvesant and Harlem—their mere presence became synonymous with urban decay. At the height of New York’s nadir, many brownstones could be purchased for under $15,000.
NYC’s housing market has obviously improved dramatically. Rents and home prices are the highest they’ve been, well, ever. Primary residential developments in the last decade have been modern high-rises—enormous glass towers capable of housing thousands of people. Many argue that these high-rises diminish the distinct architectural landscape of the city and thus dilute its culture, further contributing to NYC’s ongoing homogenization. They claim that the brownstones are a fundamental facet of New York City history, and must be maintained. Images of families sitting on stoops, children running through fire hydrants, old ladies screaming at kids out of their windows; New York is defined by these people and these neighborhoods, and to eliminate brownstones is to (arguably) eliminate a defining mecca of NYC culture.
Which is why Hamlin Venture’s Brownstones 2.0 (the first batch of which were recently completed in Brooklyn) is such a brilliant idea. They are 2013’s brownstones—modern rowhouses infused with a retro flare. They utilize contemporary engineering and architecture, yet maintain a distinct New-York-iness. They incorporate useful amenities, yet still have stoops. They boast stainless steel appliances, large windows, and small backyards, yet manage to blend in effortlessly with the surrounding neighborhood.
“We wanted every detail to feel authentic,” said the The President of Hamlin Ventures.
Judging by the photos, they’ve kind of managed to do it. Unfortunately for lower and middle class families, however, the brownstones have finished their 150-year gentrification loop and returned to their upper class roots. At $4.3 million a pop, these new homes are all but unaffordable for anyone but the rich.