In 1930, 228 brownstones on twelve acres, housing an estimated 5,000 people and countless speakeasies, were razed to make way for Rockefeller Center. The 70-story RCA Building at its center, with its Art Deco glamour, was a symbol of progress and modernity. The old neighborhood, of course, was the opposite: Once stylish, the half-century-old row houses were host to bars and brothels. Demolition, at the hand of the real estate market or socially engineered slum clearance projects, was, and continues to be, a common fate for the New York row house.
Those that haven’t met the wrecking ball are now often considered relics appropriate for museum-quality conservation. Row houses are the dominant building type in most of New York City’s designated historic districts, and the Landmarks Preservation Commission only publishes one typology-specific guide for property owners: the Rowhouse Manual.
These two fates — overturned in the name of growth, or preserved as high-priced collectibles —dominate the image of the row house in New York. Yet in a city known for scraping the sky, the row house remains the workhorse of residential architecture. The humble row house has persisted in Manhattan and thrived in the outer boroughs — usually in forms that don’t resemble its New York-specific epithet, the brownstone.
Orderly rows of attached two-to-five-story houses march down residential blocks, forming unbroken street walls and accommodating an enormous variety of living arrangements, from tony single-family homes to crowded rooming houses. From the city’s founding to about 1900, all but the very poorest and very richest New Yorkers resided in row houses. The stalwart row house has, and continues to be, a steadfast source of housing for every social and economic class in the city and a defining persona in the streetscape. For more than two centuries, these low-rise, linear compositions have been the New York vernacular.
The row house is the subject of a yearlong investigation here at Urban Omnibus and The Architectural League, the second installment in our Typecast series that examines stereotyped and seemingly stagnant architectural typologies. Over the course of the year, we’ll explore the cultural symbolism of the row house in popular media, from Henry James to Spike Lee; illustrate through comics what happens when strangers are neighbors in a house built for a nuclear family; chronicle how the row house has been and remains a source of affordable housing; document façade materiality (stone veneer, stucco, vinyl siding, oh my!); and profile some of the city’s row house moguls (including the late father of a certain strangely-coiffed presidential candidate).
These small buildings are an overlooked element of an urban housing stock that draws strength and versatility from its varied forms. Despite New York’s soaring image, about 40 percent of the city’s households are in buildings with fewer than five units. Most of these are not the popularly lionized brownstones. Nearly four in five low-income New Yorkers paying market rent live in small buildings. And nearly 40 percent of tenants in buildings with five or fewer units live in the same building as their landlord, according to a working paper from NYU’s Furman Center. Demographically, tenants and landlords that live under the same roof tend to be similar: they have lower incomes, are more likely to be immigrants, Section 8 voucher holders, and black or Hispanic than the population at large.
The row house is home to billionaires and public housing residents alike, but mostly it’s a stable source of middle-class housing. Row houses and related types offer affordability and stability for tenants, wealth-building opportunities for non-professional landlords, and entry points for small developers.
For these reasons, the row house — a form sometimes designated as the “missing middle” of this city and other cities’ current housing production — deserves another look. As the city grapples with impossibly high rents and near-record homelessness, we’re bringing into focus one form that has housed so many New Yorkers of every stripe, past and present. There’s a lot to learn about our housing crisis by examining the city in twenty-foot increments.
The row house has been in continual, fluctuating development in New York since the end of the American Revolution. A quintessentially urban form, the row house addressed an intense demand for new housing in the rapidly growing city where high land costs (and, later, a rectangular street grid) dictated narrow lots. Low-rise construction remained the custom through the 19th century, motivated in part by the city’s relatively small building lots and the reluctance of officials to approve metal-frame construction for taller buildings (which they finally did in 1889). In addition, New Yorkers were resistant to apartment living, which was considered low-class until the development of luxury apartments in the 1880s. The row house was the natural result of the market economics that guide many mass products: It met a demand, and could be produced cheaply and at scale. Of equal importance, the row house appealed to “the peculiar strength of an Anglo-Saxon bias toward ‘house’ and ownership,” in the words of housing historian Richard Plunz.
While found throughout the country, row houses proliferated in older Northeastern cities, including New York City. The city’s first row houses were introduced by the Dutch in the mid-17th century. After Peter Stuyvesant surrendered New Amsterdam to the British in 1664, simplified Georgian style succeeded the characteristic stepped Dutch roofs. The land of office towers south of Canal Street was once blanketed with Federal-style row houses.
Despite modifications over time and some notable variations on the typology, the row house is known for its consistency. Virtually all but the most expensive row houses were built on speculation. Most contractors followed drawings and instructions in published guides known as pattern books, leading to relatively standard floor plans and styles that relied on the builder’s previous experience and skill in copying. Cost savings lay in replicated building plans, shared party walls, and simultaneously installed plumbing, sewer, and other systems.
An enduring early feature is the prominent stoop (from the Dutch stoep, meaning step), a wide entrance staircase flush with one side of the building. In the early 19th century, most row houses were between 18 and 25 feet wide, although later some shrank to as narrow as 12 feet.
Row houses were invariably wood-framed dwellings with load-bearing brick walls; later designs were often fronted with a stone facade. Federal-style architecture dominated from about 1790 until the 1830s. After periods of Greek Revival and Gothic Revival popularity, Italianate-style buildings held sway from the late 1840s through mid-1870s; later popular fashions were more diverse, including Neo-Grec, Queen Anne, Romanesque, and Renaissance.
The flexibility of the row house partially explains its staying power. The boxes are adaptable for different economic classes, can accommodate ground-floor commercial uses, and can be endlessly reconfigured for new living arrangements: “Some would say that the brownstone was so generic that it worked well for no one,” critics quipped. Social customs once dictated the common manner of occupancy for the single-family use for which most row houses were initially built. The parlor (first) floor was only for guests and special occasions — “a socially required space that was seldom used” — with the kitchen below and bedrooms above. But those strictures have long since dissolved, opening the door for some of the stranger row house uses we’ll explore in this series.
Row house development had been primarily confined, in the 19th century, to Manhattan and waterfront Brooklyn. But by 1900, Manhattan was home to more than two million people and Brooklyn over one million, compared to barely 500,000 for the other three boroughs combined. The rapidly growing population and rising land values necessitated increased density, and, coupled with engineering advances, rendered the row house obsolete in the city’s more central neighborhoods. New building technologies, such as steel-frame construction and the elevator, put additional pressure on the city’s row house fabric. Apartment living, previously scorned, became newly fashionable — The Dakota opened in 1884, with an elevator in each corner — and soon after the turn of the century, the death knell had sounded for single-family row house construction in Manhattan.
At the same time, new transportation technology spurred row house construction in the city’s undeveloped expanses. The introduction of elevated train lines and steam ferry service encouraged more far-flung, medium-density development. The opening of the IRT subway in 1904, followed by the BMT and IND lines, intensified this growth. From the Upper West Side to Bedford-Stuyvesant, row house development can be traced along these extensions for working-class and white-collar workers both. Just as the row house became obsolete in one neighborhood, it became viable in the next.
An acute housing shortage led the city to amend the tenement law in 1919 to allow the subdivision of single-family row houses into multi-unit buildings, prompting a wave of conversions. Real estate lawyer Walter Fried recognized the changes underfoot in his Upper West Side neighborhood in the early 1950s when he noticed a dramatic increase in the number of garbage cans in front of the four-story brownstones: “And you knew what that meant: the landlords were breaking up the apartments inside into smaller apartments, so the same space that had been occupied by a family of five might now be occupied by twelve people.” The character of row house living changed significantly.
The crowded and unsanitary conditions in many subdivided row houses made them emblems of urban decay. A 1962 report from the American Planning Association indicted the design and qualities of the row house in fostering slum conditions: The row house “perfectly illustrates conditions of overcrowding, lack of light and air and open space, architectural monotony, and other environmental defects.” Across the country, inner-city neighborhoods deemed slums were the targets of urban renewal, a process that accelerated in the postwar era by an influx of federal Title I money. Swaths of row houses and tenements were replaced with public housing projects, middle-income high-rises, and highways.
Yet the squalor of the rooming house, even as it justified demolition, set the stage for the row house’s next role as a project for a new generation of do-it-yourselfers. Intact clusters of row houses acquired new prestige. A 1976 New York Times article summed up the evolution of a representative brownstone block of West 83rd Street: Developers subdivided land to “build elegant single-family rowhouses, which turned into middle-class rooming houses, which became slums, which now are chic brownstones. Such is the way of the city.”
Brownstone exceptionalism is perhaps the most persistent row house fiction we’d like to dispel. New York’s row houses, no matter what material they are fronted with, are often called after their most famous facade material. This reddish-brown sandstone, quarried primarily in Connecticut and New Jersey, grew popular in the 1840s. Before long, wrote Charles Lockwood, “New York row houses employed brownstone trim and facades with a passion unmatched elsewhere in the nation.” Like ornamented brick rows in Philadelphia and imitation masonry Formstone in Baltimore, “the brownstone is a New York way of life.”
Novelist Edith Wharton was a spokesperson for a rarefied distaste for the dark-colored building material, writing in her memoir A Backward Glance that the city was “cursed with its universal chocolate-colored coating of the most hideous stone ever quarried.” Her complaint was a cheeky version of a common one about the drab and recurrent material.
“Built in repetitive bulk by speculators, brownstones were the suburban tract homes of the nineteenth century,” Suleiman Osman writes in his excellent study of the forces of gentrification, The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn. What is now coveted was originally derided:
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 … 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.”
“Brownstoner,” once a descriptor for middle-class strivers, was recycled in the postwar era when renovation and preservation activism by young, mostly white, professionals hit full stride. Young urbanites “discovered” areas that had been written off as slums, then purchased and renovated dilapidated row houses. Particularly associated with the band of Brooklyn between the waterfront and Prospect Park, the “brownstoner” movement was born from the middle-class’s bohemian desire for preservation and authenticity. “Brownstone Brooklyn” and many contemporary names of the neighborhoods that fall within it were invented as part of “a cultural revolt against sameness, conformity, and bureaucracy,” writes Osman.
And the word has continued to gain power as the brand identity of the privileged, leafy urban lifestyle on display in a West Elm catalogue.
Study of the row house, in New York at least, has mostly been an exercise in preservation or prewar history. Yet the row house has continued to be developed in the boroughs outside of Manhattan, adapted to different needs and income levels, for the same reasons the form thrived in the 19th century: it makes efficient use of land and materials while appealing to the desire for a private home. Brick row houses on Hampden Place in the Bronx, built in 1919, reveal the architect grappling with how to fit the garage within the living space; suburban stylings like driveways and garages, often incorporated directly into the house, are prominent features after the 1920s. Such houses may even constitute the bulk of New York’s row house inventory as more recent crops of row houses have grown further afield. While these are mostly ignored by architectural historians, there are many neighborhoods where such row houses remain a reliable source of middle-income housing.
Although associated with repetition and uniform composition, the row house shows surprising variety. Developers rarely built out a full block front, often constructing just a few attached homes at a time. Twin currents of aging and renovation have heightened the singularity of each house. Ornament lopped off, a coat of painted added, one house destooped, two houses demolished — all change the character of the individual and the ensemble. Many New Yorkers feel that row houses imbue the street with a certain intimacy and personality, and that the stoop culture of row house blocks fosters neighborliness. In a loving rumination on the form in The New Yorker, Judith Thurman wrote, “I know that one should resist the impulse to anthropomorphize, but town houses have a presence and civility missing from more monolithic forms of residential real estate.”
We hope to quash the idea of the row house as an outdated form for contemporary living. Despite thriving residential construction, core area upzonings and outer borough downzonings have diminished the row house — more than 56,000 residential building permits were issued in 2015, but 97 percent were for buildings with five or more units. Why have row houses, which Paul Goldberger has called “the underlying threads of the city’s urban fabric,” been nearly eliminated from the city’s current development profile?
Row houses continue to be built in small numbers. Recent row house developments include multimillion-dollar brick homes in some of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods, like DUMBO and Boerum Hill. New gated, suburban-style row house developments such as Harbor Pointe in the Bronx and Celebration at Rainbow Hill on Staten Island have sold well over the last three decades. And in East New York, one of the city’s most marginalized neighborhoods, approximately 300 modular row houses (of a planned 1,800) have been purchased by first-time homebuyers as part of the Nehemiah affordable housing program.
Despite this variety, the Brooklyn brownstone, awash in nostalgia, is the persistent image of the row house in New York City. Like typecast actors, who portray the same role over and over again, building typologies can become calcified in the public imagination, relegated to a circumscribed vision of their form and role. “We cease to see the variations between projects, and instead apply the same label — and the same connotations — to different kinds of built projects with similar traits,” wrote Cassim Shepard and Andrew Wade in an introduction to The Architectural League’s investigation into towers-in-the-park housing in 2013. “We typecast them.”
Beginning with the towers-in-the-park series, the Typecast project seeks to refresh thinking about architectural typologies that have come to be seen as outdated, urban leftovers from bygone eras. Despite new technologies, policies, and cultural priorities, our understanding of building typologies often remains static and narrowly conceived. In this series, we aim to rethink how social and spatial realities interact, and whether the row house — New York’s indisputably prominent, disputably outmoded form — might nurture contemporary ways of living.
It’s appropriate that row houses follow towers-in-the-park in our study, as the two forms have formed the call-and-response of 20th-century urban revitalization and are often placed, regrettably, in stark opposition. Both were originally conceived as housing for a wide range of income levels and both have oscillated widely in their reception over time, alternately hailed as panacea and categorically condemned.
Towers were a mid-century response to cramped and dangerous housing conditions, which included scores of narrow, aging row houses that had been carved into warrens of rooming houses. When, shortly thereafter, the high-rises were recast as the root of social ills, small-scale, “defensible” dwellings, including row houses, became the in-vogue solution for low- and middle-income housing. The two forms then constitute a reactive cycle: High-rise towers replaced slum conditions in tenements and row houses under Title I of the 1949 Housing Act, which were then in turn deemed slums and replaced by row houses in a new era of HOPE VI-style revitalization.
Our first Typecast series sought to dispel some of the stereotypes of the towers by examining architectural intent, the interplay between physical form and social reality, and their performance today (which is quite good, in some cases). This series will move beyond the brownstone belt — although that area will also be examined, and amiably lampooned — to better understand what the row house offers New Yorkers, and how it influences the character of our lives.
So, what is a row house exactly? We’re defining it as one of a series of two-to-five-story attached dwellings that shares a wall with the houses next to it and forms a continuous group. That definition is mutable (see our forthcoming “Is it a row house?” quiz to decide for yourself), but it’s a serviceable one. A New York row house, within this narrow architectural framework, includes both single-family homes and multi-family dwellings. It includes daycares, embassies, and museums. It envelops both “townhouses,” an urbane moniker for the row house — one also used to specifically describe one-off attached dwellings — and thousands of brownstones, the New York synonym for row housing since the 1870s, due to the pervasiveness of the façade material.
In this series, we’ll look at row house development trends, evolving patterns of use, the lived experience of the form, the row house’s role past and present, and ways the mutable typology can address housing needs for all social and economic classes. But we begin with the simplest question: How many row houses are there in New York City? In the next installment of Typecast, urban planner and artist Neil Freeman will attempt to answer that question using public data to map the typology across the five boroughs. In doing so, he finds the question is not so easy to answer — and reveals just why it’s worth taking a minute to consider the row house.
For a history of the row house in New York City, see: Jackson, Kenneth T. “Row Houses” and “Brownstones.” The Encyclopedia of New York City. 1995. Lockwood, Charles. Bricks and Brownstone: The New York Row House, 1783-1929. New York: Rizzoli, 2003. Plunz, Richard. A History of Housing in New York City: Dwelling Type and Social Change in the American Metropolis. New York: Columbia UP, 1990. Stern, Robert A. M., Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman. New York 1880: Architecture and Urbanism in the Gilded Age. New York, NY: Monacelli, 1999.
Stern, Robert A. M., Thomas Mellins, and David Fishman. New York 1880: Architecture and Urbanism in the Gilded Age. New York, NY: Monacelli, 1999.
Caro, Robert A. The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. New York: Vintage, 1975.
So, Frank S. Row Houses. Rep. no. 164. Chicago: American Society of Planning Officials, 1962.
Fleetwood, Blake. “Biography of a Brownstone.” The New York Times 26 Dec. 1976.
2015 Preliminary Data of Total Housing Unit Building Permits for Bronx, Kings, New York, Queens, and Richmond Counties. From HUD’s SOCDS Building Permits Database.
Lockwood, Charles. Bricks and Brownstone: The New York Row House, 1783-1929. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.