Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Literary Dose #45

"While they would later be viewed as authentic, contemporaries dismissed brownstones as modern and artificial. Foreshadowing post-World War II broadsides against urban renewal and suburban architecture, critics in the nineteenth century decried the mechanical, dehumanizing monotony of brownstone rows. 'When one has seen one house he has seen them all,' wrote one writer, 'the same everlasting high stoops and gloomy brown-stone fronts, the same number of holes punched in precisely the same places.' 'The architecture is not only impressive, it is oppressive,' complained another critic. 'Its great defect is its monotony, which soon grows tiresome.' Still others, prefiguring 1990s dismissals of McMansions, lambasted the gaudy, overadorned stone fronts preferred by New York's brownstone nouveau riche: 'What we lack in invention, we can cover by "ornamentation" and hence we have miles of reiterated and unmeaning rope mouldings, filigreed jambs, and window-heads twisted into all sorts of conceivable contortions.' Some regarded Brooklyn brownstones as particularly fake. 'The majority are deceptive, fraudulent, pretentious -- mere shells,' complained a Washington Post writer in 1886 of the rows of small, boxy townhouses. '[They are] plated, so to speak, with a coating of brownstone in front and trimmed inside with cheap pine so that a poor man may boast a brown-stone house. And they have alcove bed-rooms and marble buffet niches and factory-made stained glass door panes, so that the clerk may live like the shadow of the millionaire.'"
- Suleiman Osman from The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York (University of Chicago Press, 2011, pp. 29-30)

(Note: the illustration is the first hit in a Google image search for "brownstone.")

Update 03.10: The Museum of the City of New York is hosting the panel discussion The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn, moderated by author Suleiman Osman, with Eric Demby, Dr. Kenneth Patton, Amy Sohn, and Michelle de la Uz, on Tuesday, March 15. Mention "A Daily Dose of Architecture" and get your tickets at the member price of $6 each! Call 917-492-3395 or email