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Brownstones vs. Greystones: Why They're Different, and Why It Matters

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Welcome back to Period Dramas, a weekly column that alternates between roundups of historic homes on the market and answering questions we’ve always had about older structures.

Each week, we see a healthy number of houses come across our desks—many of the now-fashionable and well-known Brooklyn brownstone types among them. Recently, though, our counterparts at Curbed Chicago introduced us to the lesser-known greystone.

Intrigued, we set off to answer a few core questions: Are the two related? What makes a brownstone, and what a greystone? And aren't they all just townhouses, anyway? Here's what we found.

Brownstone—the building material—is a specific type of sandstone that is, as its name implies, characteristically dark. The trademark color is due to a high amount of iron in the stone. A brownstone—the structure—first popped up in New York City in the early 19th century and is typically a city rowhouse clad in the eponymous sandstone.

Built for the burgeoning middle class, these single-family houses employed the stone, usually quarried in nearby New Jersey, as a cheaper alternative to marble or limestone. In fact, many of the earlier rowhouses have only a brownstone facade—the rest of the structure is brick—while later houses are made entirely of the sandstone. Today, the majority of brownstones can be found either in Brooklyn or in Manhattan on the Upper West Side or in Harlem.

Note: Over the years, the term "brownstone" has become accepted to include almost any city rowhouse, but the widespread use of the term is technically incorrect. If the building is not made of brownstone, then the house is not a brownstone; it is, instead, a townhouse or a rowhouse.

New York City, though, wasn't the only city where a burgeoning number of upwardly mobile urbanites could afford their own homes, said Elizabeth Dillon, principal at architecture firm Historical Concepts and member of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art. "Brownstone offered a material that had the appearance of wealth—and it seemed like a similar circumstance was also happening in Chicago."

The Chicago greystone began appearing in neighborhoods like North Lawndale, Woodlawn, and Lakeview in the 1890s. Like its New York cousin, Bedford limestone is both locally sourced—from central Indiana—and named for its color. "After the Great Chicago Fire in 1871, when there was more rebuilding and economic prosperity, Chicagoans wanted something that was a bit more ostentatious for their residences—so they turned to the greystone," said Dillon.

Built for a variety of classes, ranging from the working class to the wealthy, the greystone—unlike the single-family brownstone—was almost always designed as a two-, three-, or four-family home, and that's how many are preserved today. By contrast, a good deal of New York's brownstones have been converted into multiple-family apartment homes.

The facades of the brownstone and the greystone differ primarily in style. While brownstones typically feature Italianate details, like doorways surrounded by foliated molding, the greystone is often Romanesque or Neoclassical. It's not uncommon to see roughly carved blocks of greystone and intricately carved column capitals grace the 30,000 or so greystones around Chicago.

The aesthetic difference is purely dependent on when the buildings were constructed. "The brownstone heyday was a bit earlier than the greystone time period," said Dillon. "Italianate gothic was in vogue around the apex of the brownstone in the 1830s and 1840s, while the greystone was built at the end of the 19th century, right when Romanesque architecture was popular."

However, we would be remiss to neglect the fact that greystones were built through the 1930s, and they were also built along the Neoclassical, Beaux Arts, and Chateauesque styles. Similarly, brownstones, while largely Italianate, were not only built in that style: Some of the later examples, especially on Manhattan's Upper West Side, stretch into the Queen Anne, Beaux Arts, and even Romanesque varieties.

The most notable difference between the two is that the greystone is usually a semi-detached or fully detached townhouse, while the brownstone is almost always a rowhouse—one that immediately adjoins the neighboring building to create a solid street facade. Walk down any street in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens, and you'll know exactly what we mean.

Despite their similarities, greystones and brownstones are distinct variations on a theme, more architectural cousins than siblings. That doesn't mean buyers won't require vigilance when looking for them: Just because a listing touts the name, the facade material still has to check out.