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Part VII: The Brownstone Facade Gets a Facelift

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What does it take to restore a historic facade?

The scratch coat installed on the front facade of the brownstone. Photo by Buck Projects.
The scratch coat installed on the front facade of the brownstone. Photo by Buck Projects.

After a decade working for New York City firm Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, Brent Allen Buck was ready for a change of pace. In 2015, Buck struck out on his own to launch Buck Projects, headquartered in the Brooklyn brownstone he renovated on nights and weekends over the course of two years. That home, whose renovation process Buck will outline in the first ever Renovation Diary series for Curbed, serves as his home base and design laboratory, as well as a backdrop to a complete set of teak pepper mills by Danish modernist Jens Quistgaard. Follow along this summer as Buck details the highs, lows, joys, and travails of home renovation.

Though the house wasn't finished, we moved into a third floor room in September 2014. There was no hot water for a few weeks and no working kitchen. Our life was packed in boxes and stored in a small room. At 8am each morning, we greeted the construction crew for a quick meeting and a smile before heading off to work. With the interior work winding down, we turned our attention to the exterior, particularly the front facade.

The black-and-white tax ID photo from the 1940s depicted an idealized view of the brownstone's exterior. It was easy to romanticize what it might have been like to walk past the stately structure at that time, and the team made it their mission to restore the front of the house back to what it once was. We put some of our own small touches on the front facade, but our intention was to restore it to a historic condition.

The front door, stripped (left). The archival photo of the brownstone and its neighboring buildings, from a 1940s tax assessment (right).
The front door, stripped (left). The archival photo of the brownstone and its neighboring buildings, from a 1940s tax assessment (right).
Buck Projects

In the package we submitted to the Landmarks Preservation Commission, we outlined and detailed each step we would take: window casings, ornamental brownstone profiles, the front doors, the planters, the sidewalk, the light over the front doors, the front yard, and the ironwork.

Re-facing the front of brownstones is a building tradition in Brooklyn. The 3" to 4" thick brownstone material—sandstone—which was installed on our home has a relatively short lifespan. Over time, water penetrates the surface, freezes, and thaws, thus making the exterior masonry unstable. Large pieces of sandstone were falling off the facade when we purchased the building. Before starting work on the facade, we interviewed and researched multiple subcontractors. When we found one we thought could execute the cladding work, we were shocked by the price. Working in architecture, I get bids all the time and am rarely that shocked, but this bid was 15 percent of our total budget. We did more research and found a suitable sub for 50% the cost of that initial bid. We were nearing the end of the project and winter was fast approaching, so we had to make decisions quickly. We eschewed large windowbox ledges on the front to save money: They would have cost us $3,000 apiece.

The team mixed three different colors of brownstone for review by a  Landmarks Preservation Commission staff person (left). The scratch coat on the facade while it was being refinished from the original, crumbling sandstone (right).
The team mixed three different colors of brownstone for review by a Landmarks Preservation Commission staff person (left). The scratch coat on the facade while it was being refinished from the original, crumbling sandstone (right).
Buck Projects

To fix the front of the brownstone, our subcontractor removed all unstable portions of the surface material using chisels. Once we had chiseled back the sandstone to reach a fully stable surface, he installed a gray scratch coat—a cement-like mixture—the first step in rebuilding the facade detail. The scratch coat bonded to the old brownstone material and served as a base for new sculpted ornamentation. Once that layer had dried, the next step began: sculpting historic details with the finish coat (mixture of sand, cement, and brownstone dust). The team created three different samples of the finish coat to explore color and texture options, which were presented to the Landmarks Preservation Commission for consideration as to what was the most historically appropriate. Once the LPC settled on the color for our house, our talented team built up layers of new brownstone cement to recreate the original detail. Working at a pace of a week-and-a-half per floor, a team of craftsmen from Bangladesh sculpted the new door hoods, sills, and lintels. The tax ID photo of our street came in quite handy for this step, as both our house and our neighbor's had lost a great deal of original detail in the intervening decades.

We removed security bars and broken glass from the ten-foot-tall stoop-level vestibule doors leading into the parlor level. We also stripped the doors and replaced the wood panels with glass lites so that we could see who's at the front door from the interior.

Read more:
Part I: The Hunt is on for a Renovation Project in Brownstone Brooklyn
Part II: Designing a Modern Home Inside a Traditional Brooklyn Brownstone
Part III: Bringing a Brownstone Back From the Brink
Part IV: Rewiring from Top to Bottom
Part V: Making a Kitchen From Scratch
Part VI: Polishing the Brownstone Interior

Replacing the ironwork took a lot of, ah, legwork. We wanted to stay true to the heavy historic ironwork typical of an Italianate brownstone of this size and time period. It was important to us that the ironwork be iron—not concrete-filled fiberglass, as you sometimes see in renovations as a money-saving tactic. By the time our house was photographed in the 1940s, the original ironwork had been stripped. Luckily, in that same photo, you can see the original detail on our neighbor's house (which was built at the same time as ours) that showed what the ironwork looked like.

The fence posts (left) and fence section (right) were both found in a scrapyard and selected to approximate the original brownstone's ironwork.
The fence posts (left) and fence section (right) were both found in a scrapyard and selected to approximate the original brownstone's ironwork.
Buck Projects.

We found ourselves climbing through piles in scrap yards searching for pieces to match. In the end, we found a fence piece, a gate, and five fence posts that we took to ironworker Rafael Medrano to restore. We weren't able to salvage an additional length of fence, the correct newel posts, or enough balusters and handrail sections for the stoop. Medrano ended up recreating the missing length of fence, while the balusters and handrails were sourced from an importer who cast the pieces in China. We had the newel posts fabricated in Brooklyn. So, with the help of three different fabricators and old ironwork found in four different locations, we were able to approximate the detail spied in our neighbors' circa-1940s tax ID photo.

The balusters for the stoop stair were fabricated in China.
The balusters for the stoop stair were fabricated in China.
Buck Projects

The front yard and sidewalk concrete were in rough shape—and we were responsible for fixing them, as per the New York City Department of Buildings. We decided to use bluestone, which would have been authentic to the house in its original state. The stone was quarried near Kingston, New York, and delivered to the job site with a small hoist that set the pavers in place. We developed our own pattern for the natural cleft bluestone pavers in the front yard, which range between four and six inches thick, giving the quarry specific sizes for each piece. It wasn't cheap, but our hope is that these stones will last a lifetime—or two.

While mostly complete, the punch list for the house continues apace. Our focus has shifted to the rear yard, where we've started installing a steel deck (required to be steel by code), an on-grade patio paved with more bluestone, and a minimalist retaining wall. Later this fall, we're adding a wood fence and plants along the back perimeter—at which point, we may consider our house finally "finished." Of course, I'll continue to tinker… So my wife and I have come to terms with the house never really being complete.

A bluestone paver being lowered into place in the front courtyard enclosure.
A bluestone paver being lowered into place in the front courtyard enclosure.
Buck Projects

We first saw our house in March 2013, closed on it and started construction in July 2013, moved in in September 2014, and were mostly complete by November 2014. The first meal we cooked in the newly installed kitchen was Thanksgiving dinner for our extended family. As we've filled it up with furniture, art, rugs, and objects, the house has become a container for our life. Every day—as friends and family visit, filling the house with memories, laughter, the sounds of feet running up the hall and dogs barking—the house becomes more of a home. —Brent Allen Buck

The restored brownstone exterior.
The restored brownstone exterior.
Devon Banks