Over the holidays I got to see many old friends across the country. In Texas, I visited a friend in the Brownstone development near Austin; in Alabama, I drove past a place called The Brownstones on the Gulf; in Charleston, I stayed overnight with a friend in a development called the Carolina Brownstones. I mentioned the theme in housing I’d noticed during my travels to the owner of the last place, thinking it was funny. His wife, a proud New Yorker, said these were pale imitations, and that the only real brownstones were those found in New York City. After my trip, I learned she had a point, but at that moment, my issue wasn’t with the stone the houses were made of, but with their accessories.
Looking around the roof deck, I could see that the white vinyl railings there and on the stairs appeared flimsy. I’ve always been of the opinion that vinyl is not the best material for balcony railings, and it also seems insufficiently durable as entry stair railing. The white vinyl also contrasted sharply with the reddish-brown, green, and blue colors that were the primary colors of the buildings. Vinyl was not what I pictured on a brownstone, iron railing was.
The Origin of the New York Brownstone
The term brownstone comes from a particular type of townhouse that was built in New York in the late 19th and early 20th century. As the city grew larger, row houses went up, first of wood, and then of brick. Fortunes were made, and the newly well-off middle class wanted distinguished townhomes. To make these they turned to a local sandstone quarried in New Jersey and Connecticut, and started building facades using this stone to disguise brickwork. Eventually, they dispensed with the brick entirely, and started building entire homes out of this sandstone, called brownstone. The homes get their name from the stone’s distinctive color, which is caused by a high concentration of oxidized iron.
These townhouses have gone from being middle-class residences to properties bid on by the rich and famous, and have made brownstones synonymous with luxury urban living. The wide use of the name has to do with advertising an urban lifestyle in a private home that’s bigger than an apartment. Usually, these are housing developments that are laid out like cities, with grocery, retail, and entertainment in a central location. The goal is to recreate the urban lifestyle of New York in other places. New Yorkers tend to see this as a terrible misappropriation of the term brownstone, but even New Yorkers misuse the word by calling brick row houses brownstones. Appropriating a style of housing common in one part of the country for use in another area is a natural part of the evolution of an architectural style, and as these new neighborhoods evolve they may take on a Brooklyn-esque vibe or develop their own. An easy way to speed along this process is through external details like paint or stair, deck, and balcony railings.
On a Brownstone, Iron Railing Provides Classic Elegance
The original New York brownstones went up during the late industrial era, and this was the age of wrought iron. While the original brownstones lacked features like front balconies, they usually featured wrought iron railings on the front stairs. Wrought iron, unfortunately, has a number of drawbacks, and in most cases has been replaced with steel, which makes a lower maintenance wrought iron railing alternative. If you have an original wrought iron railing on your brownstone stairs then you may wish to check it for safety risks, and restore or replace it as needed.
Brownstones made of other materials in other locations usually come with whatever type of railing matched the style of what was being built at the time. But whether you have old wrought iron or newer railing types like vinyl or steel installed on-site, your brownstone-style home may benefit from steel panel railing systems, which have the following advantages:
- A cleaner appearance: The tastes of the past ran towards ornamentation, and old wrought iron can seem, well, overwrought. Modern tastes run towards cleaner lines and greater simplicity. Modern steel panel railings have clean lines, but retain much of the elegance of wrought iron.
- Integration of modern features: Adding features like lighting is much easier with a railing system built to work with those features. Older iron railings were solid, and lighting them was similar to putting up Christmas lights, requiring running the wires outside and around the metal. Modern steel railings allow for wires to be run within the rails and even for lighting to be integrated into the post caps.
- Greater durability: Modern steel railings are stronger than traditional wrought iron railings, and modern coating techniques–especially as used by high-quality manufacturers–are able to defend it from corrosion like rust.
- Easier customization: Steel decorative top rails, baluster knuckles, and center panels are readily available, and are much easier to create out of steel than out of iron. These additions are also easier to add to the railing, even after installation, and are often removable and interchangeable for more flexibility.
Modern touches like these can add comfort and safety to historic New York brownstones, and can give a classic touch to newly constructed townhomes. While your new brownstone may have yet to age into venerable grace, it’s never too soon to start treating your home like a classic. As with New York’s brownstones, today’s starter townhome may be tomorrow’s must-have home for the wealthy. Future generations may even admire the way you’ve brought things together, as long as you use well-crafted materials, including railings, that will stand the test of time.
One wrought iron system that fulfills this promise is the Fe26 steel panel railing from Fortress Railing. These railings are constructed of pre-galvanized steel that is fully welded, given an e-coating after welding, and finally covered with a high-quality coat of DuPont powder coating for a rust- and UV-resistant railing that stands up to time. Fortress railings can also be personalized with knuckles, accent rails, and cap rails for a unique look. This customizability and high-quality protection from the elements are also features found in Fortress Building Products’ other products, such as bamboo-based composite decking and durable steel fencing.