Most townhouses in New York City were built between the 1860's and the the 1930's and vary greatly in architectural expression. Some townhouses are also called brownstones; this term refers to those that were constructed with sandstone of reddish-brownish color which was commonly used as a building material at the turn of the 20th Century on the East Coast. As a typology, New York City townhouses are usually narrow buildings with three to four stories and a basement or garden floor. The floor plan's organization is dictated by window placement. Since the sidewall of the buildings abut, windows are only possible on the front and back walls.
|Typical townhouse plan|
That is the reason for locating the main public rooms such as the living or dining, fronting the street and the more private rooms such as the bedrooms, facing the garden or back of the building. Service rooms such as kitchens, bathrooms, closets, and stair halls end up in the middle of the building. These rooms can have lower ceilings, allowing space for mechanical systems and transfer of the plumbing pipes above them. The central stair hall usually has a skylight at the top of the stairs to bring light to the center of the floor plan.
|Townhouse front stoop|
Brownstones typically have a front stoop which connects the street to the parlor or main floor, thereby becoming a nexus between the public and the private realms. Stoops are your first impression as you walk by the building and they set the character for the architecture. There is no substitute for a properly scaled stone banister with stone balusters and properly proportioned columns to greet you as you pass the threshold into the front hall.
The front hall leads to the stair, which can be an arresting design element; it also opens unto the parlor room via a pair of tall double doors. With ceilings as tall as 12 feet or more, the parlor floor can easily accommodate the main rooms of the house such as living, dining, library, or other entertaining rooms. In fact, tall ceilings is one of the reasons townhouses are a popular residential building type.
A few steps down from the sidewalk, the basement or the garden floor, has access to the garden which can be a landscaped sanctuary in the midst of the bustling city. Though this floor has the lowest ceiling heights, between 8 and 9 feet, it can be the best location for certain recreation rooms of the house such as the gym, billiard room, or media room, as well as the kitchen, laundry room and other less visible rooms of the house.
Townhouse interiors tend to be chockfull of columns, wainscoting, paneling, bookcases, as well as beautiful floors and ceilings; this millwork is what gives townhouses their character. In many instances, the central staircase has beautifully turned balusters and handrails running to the top floors.
The millwork is hierarchically organized so that the more public rooms have the most intricate and elaborate window and door casings, crown and base moldings. The millwork in the parlor room is the grandest and most intricate of the house. Moldings get progressively simpler and less ornate as one moves through the corridors to reach the bedrooms and baths. Millwork character cannot be appropriately understood without reference to scale. Scale is a measurement of the size of something relative to the size of something else and ultimately relative to the size of a person.
|Parlor's elaborate millwork|
|Bathroom's simpler millwork|