The term brownstone is synonymous with row house because of its common use in early 1900s buildings. However, brownstone is in fact a building material that was often used in these constructions. Featuring a variety of brown, red and pink sandstone, brownstone became a popular North American building material in the mid-1800s.
Distinguishable by its rich, earth-toned colour and a variety of surface textures, brownstone was a popular building material because it was relatively easy to quarry and carve. Once used all over the world, particularly in upper class regions of industrialized nations, brownstone fell out of favour when builders began to realize it weathered poorly and deteriorates quickly.
Today, brownstones are repaired with a reddish-brown granite, rather than brownstone itself, which is also used to build new structures that mimic the originals.
The brownstone’s reddish-brown colour comes from dissolved iron oxides in the rock, and the buildings still standing today are synonymous with luxury and old world craftsmanship, which is why they are so highly sought after and thus so expensive.
Brownstones in the Boston and New York areas can sell for as much as half a million dollars for one flat in a multi-unit home, while full brownstones comprised of two to four units will go for anywhere from $2 to $4 million.
If you’re trying to determine if a building you’re looking at is made of brownstone, have a close look for some of its distinguishing characteristics. Brown should be the dominant tone of the stone with swirls, bands or veins of other colours sometimes noticed. It’s likely the surface may appear crumbly and weathered, though well-preserved and maintained buildings will feature a harder stone surface that’s still quite sharp. And you may also notice previous repairs made by masons, such as patching or resurfacing.
Ultimately the tell-tale sign of a brownstone building will be its age. If the building was constructed between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, it’s likely an authentic brownstone. Newer constructions will be reconstructions that mimic the appearance, but of course will still offer a similar, beautiful appearance.