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Architect Reveals Hidden Details of Brooklyn

Today Architectural Digest takes you to Brooklyn Heights in New York City for a walking tour with architect Nicholas Potts, highlighting some complex architectural details hidden in plain sight. Just a ferry ride away from Lower Manhattan, the classic buildings of Brooklyn Heights reflect the neighborhood's origins as a residential suburb for the late 19th-century's emerging middle-class. From intricate flourishes to roman columns, a world of architectural influence can be seen from one building to the next, all in the same square mile.

Released on 01/27/2022


We're in Brooklyn Heights today.

My name's Nick Potts.

I'm an architect,

and we're going to be giving you

an architectural walking tour of the neighborhood.

[soft jazz music]

Brooklyn Heights was really the first suburb.

And obviously before there was a train,

there was a ferry at the top of this street.

[ferry horn]

And so a lot of people who worked

in the Wall Street downtown area,

which was really where New York was,

this was kind of the residential community for that.

So these would have been kind of up and coming

upper middle-class people.

[upbeat lounge music]

We're on Willow street today,

looking at a grouping of late federal townhouses.

Most of the houses built around this time

were painted weirdly, even though they were,

they were brick.

Even in some of the earlier buildings,

they would actually paint out the mortar between the bricks

and actually paint that in a different color.

These are all a bit more monochrome,

almost painted to look like they were brick.

The square carving on top of that,

there is a little bit of style being brought in

at this point.

This is right, you know, when the nation was new,

we were looking for our own forms

and people were looking towards Greece,

because there was an ideal of democracy

and so you see these kinds of Greek-y motifs,

and rectangles, these kind of geometric

decorative elements started being applied to the materials.

There's some ionic columns built into the door and frame

and helenic glass, which is drawing a bit from,

you know, what you find in,

stained glass where there's an h-shaped piece of lead,

that the glass, but then, too,

it's a way of dealing with very small pieces of a material

and creating something beautiful out of it.

[lounge music]

This house behind me, the blue-gray one,

this is actually a very early house.

You can tell because it's a wood frame.

In New York city building codes

started changing to the point where by the 1830s,

new building codes were enacted

that essentially outlawed the construction of

new wood buildings within the confines of the city.

It was because of fire.

There were a few really big fires in,

more in Manhattan, that made them enact

these building codes to kind of protect the

safety of the city.

So you can see this federal style

wood-frame house is kind of

a rare survivor of kind of pre-brick period.

This is a very typical federal style entry.

The federal style houses were fairly simple

and the door enframement was where

the builders were much more exuberant.

And you see the leaded glass fan light,

the arch, there's a little bit of shelter.

Stoops are a really interesting New York solution

to the fact that we don't have alleys.

Every house needs a way of getting goods and services.

You can have, essentially,

a door tuck underneath the main entrance.

[lounge music]

So the building behind me right now is a Queen Anne

style townhouse, from sometime

between the 1870s and the 1880s.

I can tell because of, both the shape of the building,

and the different types of materials that are used.

They're almost always asymmetrical.

There's a really kind of crazy attic story

where they really were going to town with trying

to create something new and different.

I really can't imagine what its inspiration was,

and it seems almost medieval,

and it's possible that they were looking towards

things like castles.

But it's totally unlike anything you've ever seen.

The most notable thing would be the terracotta ornament

on top of the windows, and its inset spandrel panels

across the building.

You know, terracotta is a material

that's essentially built like a brick.

It's a clay that's that's fired,

but terracotta is poured into a mold.

So you can get these really kind of deep relief,

sculpted shapes out of it.

[piano tones]

So behind me are two Gothic revival townhouses,

built in the 1840s.

Two things that are really interesting about these

Gothic revival townhouses are

the pointed arch over the doors,

which is a motif that was inspired by

churches and 12th century medieval architecture.

The other interesting thing about

these townhouses is the detail on top of the windows,

which is called a hooded lintel.

Again, taking a very simple kind of horizontal lintel,

and doing something new and fresh with it

that really has no function aside from purely decorative.

[soft jazz music]

So here we are on Pierrepont Street,

another example of a Gothic revival house.

This one is seen as a freestanding almost country house.

One of the big trends that happened

around 1850 when this was built, was there as a,

really, some of the first publications

on the architecture by Andrew Jackson Davis,

Andrew Jackson Downing, who were

publishing these books on kind of ideal country houses.

And a lot of them use this kind of Gothic style

as a starting off point.

So this is really almost like a Gothic Villa.

It's a little more freestanding.

You can see this house

has pulled back from the lot line somewhat.

And it also is set back from the street.

This shows you, this was a very kind of high-end, you know,

luxury house, as opposed to the other townhouses,

which were more, making due with a very small site.

So here we have some very fancy lintels.

A hooded lintel again.

But here there's been an insertion of a trefoil,

sort of detailed carved out of brown stones.

This is fairly elaborate,

communicating the status of the people who built the house.

You can also see the quatrefoil detail of the stoop.

And then, in addition,

you have the pointed arches on the metal fence

and the pointed arches on the porch.

So, it's a lot of different pieces of the building

are communicating like the gothic-ness of it,

when you're building in New York

and you can't build towers and, and,

and moats and everything.

So it's really an applied ornament towards a

fairly straightforward building.

[lounge music]

So behind me is something that you don't see very often

in Brooklyn, and that's porches.

And these Greek revival houses are

really interesting in the fact

that they have a uniform street front.

This was designed as if it would be

one continuous street with a marching colony.

And these weren't really monumental houses.

These were a little bit more working class

than what you see a little bit further north

in Brooklyn Heights.

So, instead of these being done in stone,

as if it was a Greek temple,

it's taking that language, and translating into things that,

you know, a carpenter could make.

You can also see that there are no stoops here.

These are another fairly experimental way of trying to deal

with the fact there's no alley.

There is a bit of an area way,

which is different from what you see, typically.

We're really close to the Atlantic avenue ferry stop.

So these would have been one of the first groupings of

houses built when that connection was made.

[lounge music]

So behind me is a really interesting example

of how these houses would evolve over time,

and be made into something totally new and different

from their original selves.

All of these houses have had a mansard roof put on,

and this was in a much later style,

of a French second empire, about the 1870s.

So I'm a mansard roof was something that developed

in France in the middle of 18th century.

And really it was a way of creating an attic

within the footprint of a floor.

So rather than having a low sloped roof,

you ended up having very,

almost a vertical piece of roof

that has shingles put on it,

and then a much lower pitched roof on top of it.

[lounge music]

It might not be apparent at first,

but this house behind me is actually one

of the newer houses in Brooklyn Heights,

probably dating from around 1905 to 1910.

And the first place to look is the lintels.

They look a lot like some of the brownstone lintels

that we've seen on other houses.

But they appear to be made out of cast concrete.

There's a very kind of refined detail to it.

The brick work is also taking the forms of a Flemish bond,

which is the short, long, short, long sort of pattern.

But you can see it's picked out in different colors.

They're consciously trying to show off the

revival of revival.

[lounge music]

So this is a fairly early example of the Italianate style,

at least starting to emerge in these houses,

even though the house is mostly Greek revival.

On top of the windows,

have these consoles or corbels that are scroll work,

they're really sculptural and projecting out from the house.

This was a thing that you'll see

become a very huge theme in the later

Italianate style houses.

At this point, glass technology

had gotten to the point where you could do

these huge sheets of glass,

which partially was, you know,

these houses started getting much bigger and deeper.

So you needed the light to penetrate

as deep into the house as possible.

So the windows start getting very tall.

You also see the stoop railing

very heavily expressed in brownstone,

really kind of taking the heft of the material

and doing something very sculptural

and sinuous with it.

[lounge music]

Behind me as an example of

three Italianate style townhouses.

Some of the most important things

about the Italianate style,

aside from the fact that they're

built out with the brownstone,

is the use of carving.

And you can see on top of the doors are these corbels,

which are these S-shaped shaped carvings.

There's also a huge amount of interest in using arches

in these buildings.

The Italianate style really came from

looking towards Florence

and things that happened in the Renaissance.

So they were looking towards, again,

other than Greece and Rome.

As Brooklyn grew, Brooklyn Heights became kind of

the center of more kind of upper class living.

People wanted to entertain.

They wanted to have double parlors.

As floor heights got taller.

The houses actually also had to get further from the street

because the amount of steps

to get up to a higher parlor floor means

you need to climb more steps,

meaning the house needs to push further and further back.

So you get these bigger sorts of

sorts of area ways in front of the house.

[jazz music]

So behind me are two Beaux Arts style houses.

These are something that you don't see a whole lot of

in Brooklyn Heights.

They happened a little bit later than

when this neighborhood was built.

They're much lighter, and they're a little bit more

classical than the other styles we've looked at,

which had been more about finding a truly American style.

They became popular around the 1890s,

after the world's Columbian exposition,

which is a very influential world's fair in Chicago.

You can see the laurel wreaths and

Greek cross in some language.

You see the use of arches and

really kind of express Roman language.

We're moving away from brownstone here,

and finding brick again.

And it's using a light brick, almost a Roman sort of brick,

a very low horizontal profile.

The edges of the building are being expressed with coins.

Those are the limestone pieces

at the edge of the building

that's thought to thin it out.

So it's a brick building framed by limestone.

[lounge music]

So behind me is an example of a

Richardsonian Romanesque style house.

This is a style that emerged in the late 1870s, 1880s.

It was popularized by a,

an architect based in Boston named HH Richardson,

hence the name.

It was really a, an attempt at finding

a purely American style, usually sandstone or brownstone.

So it's very kind of soft, and carvel stones,

and they would typically rusticate them.

Rustication is usually when you

carve away the corner to show the profile of every stone.

Or something, split-face, like this one,

where they take a chisel and they make it

almost look like a raw rock.

So it was really expressing the

kind of the heaviness of the stone.

And these sorts of heavy details are

almost always paired with a more delicate

sort of carving, flowers and leaves

that are inspired by nature.

But some of the other notably

Romanesque details on this are,

are on the porch, you see these grouped columns.

So it's taking a very heavy, heavy form,

and making it delicate by expressing it as a

grouping of nine versus one element.

You also see the twisted columns,

and some of those inside panels.

The cornice has a Romanesque detail where

the stone is almost expressed as if it's lattice.

That square carving, it almost looks like

it could be made of basket work.

So they're really playing around with the,

and subverting the true nature of the material,

while also expressing it in other places.

Typically the interiors in these houses were

a little bit dark, they used a lot of wood,

so they were about mood and, and mystery.

And so the use of stained glass would bring that in,

you get this colored light washing into this dark room.

The it's almost like a jewel box,

as opposed to some of the Greek revival,

or earlier styles that were more about lightness and air.

These were more about coziness, and surrounding you.

It was obviously begun as a single family house.

At one point it was a brothel,

and it later expanded into what it is now,

which is an apartment house.

So, you know, these houses,

these big houses have had multiple lives,

and it kind of speaks for the,

you know, this, this neighborhood,

and this part of the city,

that it's constantly reinventing,

and the buildings are becoming new

and different versions of themselves.

[soft jazz music]

Starring: Nick Potts