At Face Value

At Face Value by Rob Stephenson

Clad in stone, brick, wood, vinyl, shingles, or stucco, row houses represent a swath of architectural styles and every kind of variation on a theme. Facades might be sculpturally rich, have tacked on ornament, or remain unadorned. This is a key characteristic of New York’s rows: They form an ensemble but are almost never uniform. Siblings, but not twins.

Built continuously for two centuries, row houses are found throughout the city but some styles are rooted in a particular place. Pointy-roofed, carefully detailed rows with drop-down driveways? Almost certainly Queens. Elaborate limestone rows? Probably Park Slope, Crown Heights, or the Upper East Side. But most types are more anonymous and can be found in every borough.

In addition, row houses regularly change clothes. Colors, stoops, cornices, awnings, and building heights are all modified by their owners. While brick predominates for row houses new and old, many receive new veneers and coats of paint either to protect aging faces or suit an owner’s taste. Frequently entire facades are transformed; old stamped sheet metal cornices hint to the building’s age after facades are re-clad with vinyl or imitation masonry Formstone. While some rows are continuous blocks, most have visible seams between houses that highlight these differences. Each 12-to-20-foot-wide stretch has its own personality. As an estimated quarter of the city’s residential building stock, this particularly adaptable form offers a unique lens on how New Yorkers make their homes.

We sent photographer Rob Stephenson out to document the many faces of the city’s row houses. While New Yorkers often use “brownstone” as a synonym for row house, the reality is that the form is far more varied than that equivalence suggests. Here, the staid brownstone is rarely seen. From Port Morris to Greenwood Heights, his photos show what home really looks like here. New York’s row houses offer a mirror on the city: idiosyncratic, regal and threadbare (sometimes simultaneously), and beautifully diverse.

Originally published in Urban Omnibus, 2018.

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