The Steps of a Brownstone Restoration – Ultimate Hammer Guide

Renovating a brownstone is no small undertaking. Of course, renovating any home is difficult. Consider renovating a home that’s 100 or 200 years. Then consider that the home you’re renovating is a historic building and must be maintained with a certain look. Do all of this in one of the world’s biggest cities. Now you might have a sense of the challenges of renovating a brownstone. Maybe.

This is article is, in truth, very simplified. It’s possible to fill several books with everything you might encounter in a Manhattan or Brooklyn brownstone. Then, as soon as you stop writing, someone will find something you hadn’t included.

Our attempt is to give a very high-level view what brownstone renovation looks for the do-it-yourselfer and for those who might contract the work out.

The Building

A brownstone is a style of New York townhouse that was built from the early 19th century to the early 20th century. It’s named for the stone that’s used to create the façade, sandstone. Much of the sandstone in Manhattan and Brooklyn came from the Passaic Formation in Northern New Jersey although some stone was shipped from as far away a Northern Wisconsin.

Brownstone has fallen out of favor as a construction material because it’s not durable. It’s a soft stone which makes it easy to work in, but moisture, freezing, and wear and tear can compromise the stone. Visit:

The Vision

When renovating a brownstone, it helps to start with a vision of what you need and want. Many brownstones have been broken into several apartments. That’s fine if that’s what you want, but start out thinking in terms of what you want from the house.

  • Do you need a large kitchen?
  • Will there be an elevator?
  • Do you want the interior to be as original as possible or would like it to be ultra-modern?

The Balance

The exterior of your brownstone will need to remain as original as possible. Any changes will need to be approved by the City. While you can get permits for the interior, the exterior needs approval from the Landmarks Preservation Commission. Because brownstones are uniquely New York, they’re actually a tourist attraction and part of the city’s identity.

You will need to include in your package to them, everything you plan to do to the outside. That can include:

  • The façade
  • The steps
  • The light over the front door
  • The ironwork
  • The planters
  • The sidewalk
  • The front yard
  • The basement accesses
  • The front door
  • Windows and windows casings

Anything that can be seen from the outside needs to be considered. They will reject anything that doesn’t meet their standards and have you starting again.

The City

Other than the Landmarks Preservation Commission, you will still need to deal with the Building Commission of the City. Even if you plan to keep everything “original”, you will need to upgrade plumbing, electrical, heating, and more. You will need to get all the same permits you would need for any other renovation.

The History

One challenge brownstones present is the history of movement inside the building. The rules weren’t always so strict. Many brownstones have been broken into multiple apartments. This means that the history of your particular brownstone needs to be unraveled before you can even get started.

You will need to find load-bearing walls, see if there are all old doorways that can be reclaimed, and work your ways down to original floors and walls to see what can stay and what must go.

The Surprises

Here’s where a brownstone can get interesting. There is 150+ years of history and you might be the first person to tear out these walls or work in the garden. Some surprises are great. Others, not so much.

  • Dead animals – It’s common to find dead animals in old houses. Birds, rats, mice, and even household pets. Usually, the bodies are desiccated and not a health hazard, but it can still be startling.
  • Water damage – Very often, old water damage is found in homes in Manhattan and Brooklyn. It’s a wet place. Don’t surprised if you open a wall and find it has been getting rained on for years.
  • Structural damage – An inspector can only judge by what they can see. Even if you did a home inspection before buying, you might find structural damage that was invisible. This repair can be expensive and time-consuming.
  • Fire damage – As strange as it might be, there are many brownstones that have fire damage that was never really repaired properly. These weren‘t always homes for the wealthy. Fires would start and people would put them out. Then they would cover it up for you to discover.
  • Asbestos – Yes, it was used in private homes, in tiles, coatings, and more. If you find asbestos, all work must stop and you must hire a removal team that is trained and equipped to take it out.
  • Air shafts – Most old buildings didn’t have a lot of light and many of New York’s brownstones predate gas light, let alone electricity. After opening a wall, you might find a central air shaft that will let light and air all the way to the first floor.
  • Dumbwaiters – Dumbwaiters were common in the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. Many of those shafts have been forgotten, but you might find yourself with a cool accessory when you knock out a wall or poke around in a closet.
  • Art – It’s rare, but people have found paintings from famous artists right on the walls of their home. If you find a mural on a wall in your home, check with an art professional before you paint over it. Many of the world’s greatest artists rented flats in Manhattan and Brooklyn while they were studying.
  • Fireplaces – Everyone had them. In fact, many people had several. You might find usable fireplaces behind walls. Have them checked by a professional before you light a fire in one.
  • Tools and other items – There are always tools and other items found. If you’re lucky, you’ll discover tools from the 19th century that are worth a lot of money. In all likelihood, you’ll find things like razors, hammers, pliers, and more, all stuck in walls or buried in the backyard.

The Work

Now you have a sense of what might be entailed in fixing up a brownstone. It can range from masonry to carpentry to iron work. It will include everything from replacing load-bearing walls to painting.

It can be helpful to have a general contractor that understands how to work on Manhattan and Brooklyn brownstones. They’ll cut through red tape, find the right specialists to do the intricate work, and even help you complete the DIY portions of the project well.