Brownstone Restoration Done Right

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.

Although the price may have been right for builders, brownstone proved to be a less-than desirable façade material over the long haul. As demand taxed supply, much poorer quality brownstone was pressed into service for architectural use. Brownstone is also a sedimentary rock, built up in horizontal layers over time. Combined with the stone's porosity, this composition makes the material susceptible to peeling when installed with the layers running vertically. In fact, that peeled-paint look you've likely noticed in rundown brownstone façades is not paint at all, but the actual layers of stone giving way.

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.

damaged outer layers

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."

Next, continuous coats of a cement product are applied over the entire façade surface. This product, otherwise known as a scratch coat, is applied in several layers to build up the stone that was chipped away. Although the scratch coat is deliberately left rough and haphazard-looking, its application is one of the most important parts of a proper brownstone restoration. And patience is key. "If you don't allow each layer of the scratch coat to completely harden, the cement's efflorescence will bleed through the top brownstone layer," explains Dixon Projects Director of Private Client Services Christian Grapel. "It looks like a white discoloration, and you hate to see it, because at that point, there's nothing you can do about it."

After the scratch coat layers have dried, the cementitious product is combined with brownstone, pigment and mica. "When you look at a newly refinished brownstone, you'll see it glistening in the sun," Sullivan explains. "That's the mica in the mixture catching the light and reflecting it, which would've been a feature of the original quarried brownstone as well."


Ornamental details like corbels, lintels and sills require special care throughout the restoration process. During the scratch coat application, stainless steel pins are driven into the substrate to support the weight of these decorations. In the final stretches of the restoration, the ornaments and details are carefully resculpted. Brownstone artisans use historic tax photos or neighboring buildings as a reference, but much of this artistry is aided by the expertise of the specialists themselves." All the detail is hand done, usually by one person on the brownstone crew. They're just fantastic at what they do," Grapel points out.

In all their renovation work, Dixon Projects is devoted to taking great care in historically accurate restorations whenever possible, even when historic districting doesn't require them to do so. Case in point: 98 Sixth Avenue in Park Slope. This large, corner residence was built in the Italianate style with attractive Second Empire design elements, but over time, much of the home's period details, including window sills and lintels, had been stripped away. Therefore, the façade renovation here was initiated not only to repair weathered brownstone, but to restore the home to its rightful architectural grandeur.

When describing the state of 142 St. Marks Avenue, an Anglo-Italianate brownstone in the Prospect Heights Historic District that's currently undergoing renovation, Wilton remarks, "Like most of the projects where we opt for the full brownstone renovation, it was in pretty disastrous shape. It had a faux façade, like a stone cladding. When you're at that level of decay, there's really no point in trying to patch it."

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."