November 2018

Why Stoops?

by Don Friedman on November 30, 2018

A long time ago, the combination of my speaking quickly, my accent, and the word “stoop” got me in trouble when some acquaintances thought I was calling their house stupid. In any case, there’s a picture of a fairly normal late-nineteenth-century stoop on a New York brownstone. It’s in good but not great condition.

So, why stoops? Rowhouses were built at this time in every major city on the east coast and in a fair number of houses elsewhere in the country. Usually the front door is up one to four steps, creating a first (“parlor”) floor slightly above the street. That makes sense, as it gets the big front parlor windows out of the line of sight of passers-by. If the first floor is elevated, you can sit and look out without everyone being able to see back in. Rowhouses in London – arguably the greatest rowhouse city in the world – follow this pattern. So why does New York have these very high entrances?

The typical New York stoop is so high that the basement floor is only two or three feet below sidewalk grade. This makes the basement a real floor, as opposed to being used just for storage and the building’s mechanical equipment…which is why so many of these houses have a cellar underneath the basement. Gotta put that stuff somewhere. So why that pattern here?

The popular theory for years was that they were some form of architectural echo from the Dutch colonization period, and they were built to prevent the flooding that was a concern in Holland but is far less of one here. There are two holes in that theory that are so big that you have to search to find a shred that’s not hole: first, contemporaneous Dutch houses didn’t have such high stoops; second, the stoops got so tall in the second half of the 1800s, after a relatively low-stooped first half of the century. The new theory is less romantic: the stoops are there to keep the nice portion of the house, including the parlors, well above the tide of horse manure. But there were horses elsewhere. Another possibility is that it became a local fad, like wearing ridiculous hats, and served no real purpose at all, as again can be seen by looking at houses in other cities.

Short answer: we don’t know.

A Clue!

November 29, 2018

I as going to straighten out that picture, taken on site while I was up a ladder with my hand holding the camera above my head inside a ceiling, but I decided that the unedited version has a certain cinéma-vérité feel to it. The bottom of the picture is ceiling framing, as is the (sort […]

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Three Generations of Escape

November 27, 2018

Sometimes a single location gives you a nice recap of a piece of construction history. That’s not an alley above, it’s the middle of the block in a commercial section of midtown. The buildings have very narrow rear yards, so I was standing on a setback roof of the building on the far right, fronting […]

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November 26, 2018

Some years ago, I stayed in a hotel in central Glasgow, near George Square. I was pleasantly surprised to find an impressive statue of James Watt in the square. It occurred to me then that the reason I was surprised was that engineers are so rarely represented in statues in New York and in the […]

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November 25, 2018

I came home one day and found Baba Yaga’s house in our living room. Surprisingly stable, too.

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So Very Sad

November 24, 2018

That blockfront is near the foot of Water Street, which is to say it’s on very old landfill. Pearl Street marks the original location of the East River, and it’s a block west of Water Street. The building just to the left of the white truck has more or less its original facade: a granite […]

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The Big Store

November 23, 2018

That postcard (courtesy of Ephemeral New York) is a slightly – only slightly – imaginative view of the 1897 Siegel Cooper store at Sixth Avenue and 18th Street. It was eventually supposed in size by, among others, Macy’s new flagship store, but it still feels very big. Its grandeur, as a store, is what I […]

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Happy Thanksgiving

November 22, 2018
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A Different Mindset

November 21, 2018

That’s 68 Jane Street, at the corner of Jane and Greenwich Street. It was built as an ordinary manufacturing loft in 1897. The lot-line wall, facing us, is just plain brick, but the street facades are fantastic and fortunately protected as part of the Greenwich Village Historic District. Every once in a while you see […]

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What Resurgence Looks Like

November 20, 2018

That photo was taken from the roof of a small commercial building in East Harlem. The annotations are calling out what kind of buildings are nearby: “A” buildings are new below-market-rate housing, built within the last ten years or so. “B” is a somewhat older example of below-market-rate housing. “C” buildings are tenements somewhere around 110-120 […]

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