One house, two house, row house, town house

December 5, 2005 | Ecosystem

What’s the difference among townhouse, row house, and brownstone?

 

BGlobe_rowhouse_50_beacon_street_051009

Row house at 50 Beacon Street, Boston

 

It is a question that has vexed real estate brokers and lovers of urban architecture for generations: What’s the difference between a town house, a row house, and a brownstone? Boston native Kevin D. Murphy, whose book ”The American Townhouse” was published in November, defines each:


 


·         Town house: A multi-story urban house, attached or detached, that is built close to the street and scaled similarly to surrounding houses.


 


·         Row house: A multi-story urban house built in a style that is consistent with, even replicating, that of adjoining houses; often built by the same architect and developer.


 


·         Brownstone: Any of the above structures whose facades are sheathed in brown sandstone.


 


So town house is an overall term, row house a subset of that, and brownstone a further subset of both.


 


“Is that all?” asks the disappointed reader.


 



Disappointed 


No, says the housing blogger, if you are willing to take a detour through urban history.


 



Detourmovie


“No, not another blog detour.”


 


What ultimately distinguishes village from town, and town from city, is population proximity — how closely we can live near one another.  That in turn has a strong technological component, because to live more closely, we must go up. 


 


Housing density creates cities.


 


Cities are places where strangers live peacefully side by side.  As they expand the scale of our living, multi-story structures foster not just anonymity but also uniformity, at which human beings chafe.  (“Repeat after me,” says Steve Martin, “I am an individual!” and the audience roars as one, “I am an individual!!”)


 



”Town houses were often designed to be unique,” said Murphy, who teaches art history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  ”But row houses strove for consistency. Sometimes sameness is boring, but sometimes it gives the streetscape a unity, instead of each building doing its own thing.  And the term brownstone is simply about material, although in New York it’s come to mean any row house built before 1910 as a single-family home.”


 


Classic bow-front or bay window row houses give Boston one of its most iconic images: a streetscape of perfectly proportioned red brick buildings receding into the distance, perhaps punctuated by a church steeple. The bow and bay windows are not unique to Boston, Murphy explained, but are more common in Boston than anywhere else.  He credits British architect Robert Adam’s influence and the fact that the idea of a ”house on a park,” originally developed in London, found an especially eager following in Boston, encouraging windows that allowed for better views.  Further, city fire codes actually encouraged such subtle ”projections” from a building’s main facade.


 


Go far enough back in time, and almost every architectural feature had its origins in construction, engineering, taxation or zoning.


 


Beyond the shape and configuration of the front windows, there are many other architectural elements that mark the town house/row house/brownstone triumvirate [such as] the Italian concept of piano nobile [Italian for "Noble floor" -- Ed.], the placing of the primary living space on the second level above what were the kitchen and other service areas.


 


Cities have always been filthy.  As the famous moth-coloration-evolution experiment demonstrated, only in the twentieth century have moved to the concept of a clean urban environment.  Thus the ground — usually hard-packed earth — was reserved for dry goods, chickens, pigs, coachmen and servants, and it was only one flight up, where the building on the first actual floor, that the nobility lived.


 


But following this initial Puritan reticence, Boston town houses soon became richer and more architecturally complex. Charles Bulfinch, architect of the Massachusetts State House [And the U. S. Capitol -- Ed.], first introduced the bow front to Boston with houses on Beacon Hill‘s Louisburg Square in the late 1820s, borrowing the gesture from English [Scottish! -- Ed.] architect Robert Adam.


 



Bulfinch


“Good architects borrow; great architects steal.”


 


As urban living became more accepted, those with more money wanted to distinguish themselves from those with less, so they spent on visible accoutrements:


 


It was in the South End that the bow front became a signature design element. Five Union Park is a quintessential example, on a street that Michael Doherty, partner in Citylife Real Estate, calls ”the Louisburg Square of the South End.  When Union Park was being laid out, the Back Bay was just being filled in. This is where most prominent people of the time were building houses.”

 

Rowhouse5unionpark

Bow front at 5 Union Street, Boston

 

Buildings are urban geodes, rough exteriors hiding the jewels inside, but using the complexity of their sober articulated brick as the articulated iconography of wealth inside.

 

Geode_gloves

“Open your hands and see all the people ….”

 

One particularly effusive example is the Converse mansion at 348 Beacon St., a brownstone built in 1886. Bow and oriel windows dominate the fa√ßade, and in keeping with the Queen Anne style popular at the time, elements are borrowed freely from numerous architectural periods. But it was not all about style: As architectural historian Bainbridge Bunting has pointed out, Back Bay regulations enacted in the 1870s called for the main fa√ßade of a structure to be set back 20 or 22 feet from the property line.  But, Bainbridge wrote in his book ”Houses of Boston’s Back Bay“: ”The owner was permitted to construct such appendages as steps, porches, and bay, oriel and bow windows.”

 

BGlobe_rowhouse_converse_348_beacon_051009

Row house at 50 Beacon Street, Boston

 

Farther up Beacon Street toward the State House, broker Tracy Campion of R.M. Bradley walked through one of the five units in a town house at 50 Beacon Street.

 

”The large bow window allows you to see up and down the street, and many people are willing to pay a premium to be on a corner lot,” she said. Typical of the hodgepodge design of the 1880s, the building is brick with brownstone accents, meaning it doesn’t qualify as a ”pure” brownstone under historian Kevin Murphy’s criteria.

 

Stone facades are a city’s visible exoskeleton, and as such symbolically important.  Facade appeal endures throughout the decades, so neighborhoods that look wealthy, stay wealthy. 

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