Dixon Projects takes a painstaking approach when restoring New York City's revered brownstone residences to their former glory.
Few things conjure up images of quintessential New York City like its ubiquitous and highly prized brownstone row houses. Lining the streets with uniform facades in chocolate and russet hues, these stately homes are the esteemed centerpieces of many of our area's protected historic streets, especially in Brooklyn, Manhattan and Jersey City.
As a façade material, brownstone — a type of sandstone — came to prominence during the city's 19th century building boom. Far cheaper than limestone or granite, brownstone was quarried at a rapid pace from neighboring New Jersey and Connecticut as developers rushed to meet New York City's exploding population.
Properly repairing and restoring brownstone is a time-consuming and expensive specialty, so cheap stucco patches or a layer of paint became the slap-dash solution of choice for building owners without much reverence to appearance or historic value. As demand for fine brownstone residences skyrockets and historic landmark protections grow, meticulous and careful façade restorations have, thankfully, become more prevalent.
The first step in a by-the-book brownstone renovation involves completely removing the damaged outer layers of stone. As Patrick Sullivan, an executive director at Dixon Projects explains, "The restoration team uses handheld jackhammers to chip the brownstone down to a suitable substrate, which means they're taking off all of the brownstone that’s peeling or eroded. They get down about an inch-and-a-half into the three-inch slabs. That's where you find the part that's strong and hasn't been affected by water."
At this stage, for homes within the five boroughs, approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission is required. Three or more color samples are applied to the renovated building, and an LPC preservationist must select and approve one of the samples before the final layers can be applied to the home.
At a situation like this, Dixon's longstanding expertise in working with the LPC becomes critical to the entire construction process. "Dealing with Landmarks requires experience and a delicate human touch," Project Manager Brendan Wilton explains. "You're ready to begin the final stages of the façade with your full crew, and that often dictates a lot of the interior work as well. If you don't have your masonry openings sorted out, you can't put new windows in, and so on. In order to stay on schedule, you have to prepare the right color samples and work in close collaboration with the LPC."
A consistent temperature above 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit is necessary in order to allow each layer during the restoration process to cure properly, meaning brownstone façade repairs must be timed within a tight window from the end of spring through fall each year. Today, construction crews that specialize in brownstone restoration are highly sought-after tradespeople, often of Bangladeshi origin. In 2013, The New York Times profiled the growing specialty, noting that immigrants from Bangladesh have established an esteemed reputation in the field, often learning the trade from friends and relatives who have arrived before them.
Keeping weather deadlines in mind, the team received Landmarks approval and color selection just in time, and the final brownstone layers were applied in late November. Stay tuned for the finished product: 142 St. Marks is expected to be ready for leasing in the summer of 2018.
While historically accurate, well-executed brownstone restoration can be time consuming and expensive, the cost and care reap huge rewards especially when it comes to first impressions. "It gives such great curb appeal," says Sullivan. "It revitalizes the true significance of these homes and gives them that historic feel and pop from the street that people really like and have grown to expect."