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A Beginners Guide to Brownstone Style

By Carroll Gardens Office | on March 20,2012 at 3:25PM

Cornices, Lintels and Doors... Oh My!

If you read the last bulletin, you know all about brownstone, and the fun does not stop there. Now that we’ve identified the façade, lets go deeper! That’s right, its time to identify architectural styles. Walking around Brooklyn, you’ve probably noticed that all brownstones do not look alike. There are various types of cornices, lintels and doors lurking around every corner. What does this mean? And what the heck is Italianate style? What about the seamless rows of brick townhouses that line the peaceful streets of Boerum Hill, or the gently curved façades of the limestone houses bordering Prospect Park? This article attempts to answer those questions and to help you enjoy the architectural pleasures of Brownstone Brooklyn.
The styles that are most prominent in Brownstone Brooklyn are Italianate, Queen Anne, and Greek Revival, all popular in the 1800s. When we hear “Brownstone,” the house that most of us picture is an Italianate style house. Typically 2-4 stories, built primarily from 1840-1870 with a full brownstone façade, this classic style is accented by two paneled arched doors, a wide stoop, and cast iron handrails and fences. Italianate brownstones are relatively free of ornamentation except for the entrance and embellished cornices (at the roof line), supported by elegantly carved brackets.
Just as there are ranch houses built for movie stars and ranch houses for the rest of us, there were Italianates built for the wealthy merchants and those built for the workers. Many of the three-story brick row houses in Boerum Hill are Italianate style modified to a smaller size without the expensive layer of brownstone. The uniform building height and window lintels (above) and sills create the symmetry that the neighborhood is known for.
Brooklyn Heights is a great place to encounter Greek Revival-style brownstones. In fact, there are 405 of them in the Brooklyn Heights historic district. Built from 1830-1850, this is perhaps the easiest style to identify because of its three-to-three-and-a-half story height and six-over-six double-hung windows. Often you can see small attic windows just below the cornice. Typically the stoops are of medium height and narrower than the Italianate style. The single-paneled wood door is framed by an entrance fit for a Greek temple: simple bold columns supporting an imposing stone door hood with minimal decoration. The roof line is ornamented by a carved wooden cornice.
Driving across Ninth Street toward Prospect Park the houses form a cacophonous symphony of architectural detail, each unique and yet designed around a central theme of brick, brownstone and terra cotta elements that create an unexpected harmony. This is the eccentric charm of Queen Anne style homes built in the late 1800s. These houses are characterized by asymmetry and details drawn from styles known for elaborate ornamentation. Gabled roofs are accented by Second Empire pointed dormers, chimneys and even turrets. Whimsical windows of various pane size and shape, sometimes with stained glass, rise up two or three stories above multi-paneled wood doors with Greek Revival columns supporting the door hood. These magnificent houses strike a perfect counterpoint to the classic brownstones in the neighborhood.
As popular tastes changed, the Queen Anne style was gradually replaced by Romanesque Revival (1880-1890). Continuing the practice of using a mix of building materials and asymmetry, this style includes arched windows and doorways ornamented with byzantine-inspired vegetation and animal heads. It is a style that many of us connect with gothic romances.
The stately rows of limestone houses seen in Park Slope were built in roughly the same years but incorporated the subdued ornamentation typical of the Greek Revival period. These Renaissance Revival (1880-1920) homes provide a stark contrast to the excesses of Romanesque ornamentation. Simple wreath and garland motifs decorate doors and windows.
Important tip: These houses have been around a long time and through a lot of renovations, some historically accurate, some not-so-much. Focus on the cornices, lintels and doors to make the most accurate style identification.
We have provided a lot of information, and yet covered only the most popular styles! If you need a “cheat sheet,” the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission has provided an easy reference guide with illustrations, available at:
Enjoy your walk or drive around Brooklyn, and if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by!
   Cobble Hill: 268 Court Street (btw. Butler and Degraw)
   Brooklyn Heights: 179 Atlantic Ave. (btw. Court and Clinton)
   Park Slope: 372 Seventh Ave. (btw. 11th and 12th streets)