I’m standing in front of two seemingly identical side-by-side brownstones in Brooklyn’s neighborhood of Park Slope.
This residential area is well into its most recent renaissance. By and large every home built here– most dating back to the 1880s and 90s– has been restored, if not to its original glory, then to a fine facsimile thereof. The brownstones in this area–along with what remains of the grand mansions which once lined nearby Prospect Park West–are all imposing reminders of a time when the census showed that Park Slope was the wealthiest community in the entire nation!
At second glance I realize my ‘twin’ brownstones are not as identical as I first thought. One of the homes retains all of the carved pediments over the windows with their accompanying vertical triglyphs, all finely maintained or restored. A beautifully crafted black iron balustrade leads from the front door down to hefty decorative posts at the sidewalk level. There are carvings in the brownstone around the double, glass plated front doors, along with other fanciful carved insets, mostly repeated designs of vines or leaves.
Brownstone or ‘brown Triassic-Jurassic sandstone’ is relatively soft, hence easily sculpted (and easily worn down by the elements.) The sandstone used on the homes in this area of Park Slope is simply a facing; the supporting walls for which they serve as the facade are red brick. The brown sandstone itself came to Brooklyn by way of the East River, down from the Portland Brownstone Quarries in Portland, CT, which recently were closed.
In the ‘twin’ brownstone to my right, all original details were eliminated at some point over the years, victims of an underestimated budget or purposefully excluded in a 1950s effort to ‘modernize.’ The unadorned facade, while still handsome, is definitely a step down from its subtly ornamented neighbor. Gone, too, is the impressive balustrade, replaced by standard suburban, insubstantial wrought iron.
A walk up and down the streets of this area reveals an incredible variety of decoration, a timeless salute to the craftsmen—mostly Italian immigrants—who worked with 19th century architects to bring infinite visual interest to what might otherwise be faceless monotony.
In the late 1800s, novelist Edith Wharton lamented the architectural uniformity of Manhattan and Brooklyn’s upper class neighborhoods, even with its ornamentation. She felt that society’s fear of seeming different or breaking with tradition was echoed in the almost overwhelming use of brownstone: “…Brown sandstone seemed as much the only wear as a frock coat in the afternoon.” She went on to complain that, “…[sandstone’s] uniform hue coated New York City like a cold chocolate sauce.”
I would disagree with Ms. Wharton, or at least as her opinion might have related to the homes in Park Slope. The brownstones here are filled with innumerable differences, a veritable ocean of variation; contrasting setbacks, projecting bay windows, ornately carved eaves and so much more keeping the eye darting, fascinated, from spot to spot on most every exterior.
It is sad, I think, that the fine carvings, the ornamental inset plaques and impressive iron work which were once considered du rigeur for these grand homes have sometimes been lost to weather, budget or a glitch in a particular decade’s taste.
It would seem to me that if God is indeed in the details, Park Slope’s brownstones tell us why.