Brownstone Mysteries Explained


THE parlor floor of the 1850s Brooklyn row house where I live is pretty intact, with moldings, mantels, an elaborate plaster arch in mint condition, and a 3-foot-wide rosette in the center of the ceiling, from which dangles a gilded chandelier (and some people think I’m a strict modernist!)

Shortly after moving here in November 2006, I noticed that the rosette had dark spaces in the scrolly plasterwork that looked like deep black holes.  Turns out they ARE holes.  According to the handy reference Bricks and Brownstone, the New York Row House 1783-1929, these were vents for the fumes that came out of the gaslight that once hung from this fancy centerpiece. The holes trapped the fumes and carried them into the chimney flue, then outdoors.  It is startling to see something so obsolete and low-tech still in place, and I wonder how many others have them.  Are they rare or a dime a dozen here in Boerum Hill?

The same book revealed why such a classy house has such crummy floors. Instead of the 150_5038patterned oak parquet you get in a lot of later 19th century Park Slope houses, this house has simple 4″ pine strips,  none too fine looking.  Why?  Very simple: the fashion in the 1850s was for wall-to-wall carpets!

Power looms invented (by Erastus Bigelow) in the 1840s enabled cheap production of woven tapestry carpets. “By the 1850s,” writes Charles Lockwood, “nearly every middle-class family proudly put a thick floral-patterned carpet in the parlor.”

The floors were never meant to be seen.  Today, they are, and they look oddly rustic, especially stained yellow-orange, as mine are <ugh>.

About cara

I blog (for fun) here at casaCARA, and write (for money) about architecture, interiors, gardens and travel for many national magazines and websites.
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6 Responses to Brownstone Mysteries Explained

  1. Arlene Waxenberg Erenberg says:

    Your house is lovely!! I was born is Brooklyn, Williamsburg, to be exact.
    I live in Norwalk, Ct. just a skip and a jump to my beloved NYC!
    Are you a real estate broker? Wishing you a very healthy, happy and prosperous New Year.

  2. cara says:

    Nope – not a real estate broker. A small-time real estate investor (in old houses, natch) and very happy with the results. Thanks for your comment, Arlene!

  3. Melissa says:

    Now I have to go take a look at the two original fixtures in the parlor room and parlor floor hall of my mother’s brownstone. I can’t tell what’s going on with the fixture in the hall because they’re painted over and I don’t see any holes.

    While my mom’s brownstone has a mix of parquet and thin plank on all but the 4th floor, my dad’s brownstone has 3″ plank flooring that I wish were covered in carpet.

  4. cara says:

    The one in the hall may not have holes, because the hall didn’t have a noxious heat source, but I’ll be curious to hear whether the rosette in your mom’s parlor seems to have them. When does her house date from? Where there’s parquet, it may because carpet had gone OUT of style (1870s-’80s? – just guessing) and parquet had come IN. And your dad’s? I have 3″ planks, too, here in Boerum Hill – this house is 1852. How nice to be part of a two-brownstone family! Thanks for commenting, Melissa.

  5. Melissa says:

    There’s parquet on the hall of the parlor floor and the parlor room, and in the 3rd floor hall. I don’t remember what’s in the 3rd floor rooms. I want to say that the fourth floor has parquet floors, but I can’t remember and need to check. I lived there for 22 years, you’d think I would know. What is the rear room in the parlor floor called? My mother’s parlor floor is two rooms divided by pocket doors. The rear room, her bedroom, has been carpeted forever, so I don’t know what’s under there.

    Some years ago we had to replace the push button fixture in the hallway, it had a patent dated 1899 on the back, and there are still gas fixtures. so I’m assuming the house is a little over 150 years old. I haven’t looked it up, but I believe we’re the third or fourth family to live in it.

    This is a Bed-Stuy brownstone, outside of the historic district.

  6. cara says:

    I call the rear room on the parlor floor “the back parlor.” The front room is “the front parlor.” Sometimes there’s a middle room, in deep row houses. I guess we can call that “the middle parlor”;-)

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