You’re never too far into wandering before a certain desire strikes. Look out at the diverse steel-and-stone crowd of a skyline, and soon enough when becomes a burning question. WHEN was that majestic house or funky tall building built? WHEN did they put THAT there?
And of course, Why follows close behind, morphing, as it will, into complex-er territories. WHY is that building shaped like a bell?, WHY does a roof look so funky? WHERE are the windows? WHAT was life like for tenement workers?
We understand that so much of an adventure’s excitement comes from curiosity, and we want to feed that fire by offering a layman’s Architecture Guide that could apply to nearly every city in America. So read, memorize, print, or take with you the next time you’re on the streets pinning down decades in an effort to paint the town Familiar. At the very least, we hope this reference will enrich your city experience by drawing your eyes to the details that make life — and exploration — so sweet.
Part 1: If These Walls Could Talk
We’ve all heard the phrase, but this time we’re going to put on our Studio Engineer ears to learn what the (exterior) walls really do have to say. Read on to discover how the outside walls of a building can provide clues to its birth-era.
White brick — This became very popular in the Post-War 1950’s and is still used in some parts now. So, if a building has white brick, it’s safe to say that either it was repainted, or the building was built after World War II.
Faux stone — “Knock-knock!” “Who’s- whoa, that rock sounds HOLLOW…” Well, that’s a big origin clue. Because the earliest appearance of faux stone generally occurs around the turn of the 19th century, it’s safe to say that this wall was likely built sometime in the 20th century or later. This type of facade came into practice as other materials, such as steel and concrete, allowed for once-foundational materials to become decorative, in turn providing the aesthetic on a budget.
Cast-iron — Take a refrigerator magnet around town and try this one out. Especially fun in SoHo of New York City — if the magnet sticks to a columned frame, it was likely built between 1840-1880, during the time of mass-produced cast iron.
These frilly molded materials were a cheap extension of the revivalist period in America, providing industrial buildings with high ceilings and large windows that let in lots of light. However, cast iron proved to buckle in the heat without the help of brick encasing, and this short-lived trend gave way to the sturdier age of steel.
Structural Brick — Is the brick on your building structural? How to tell: If the brick pattern has headers (the smaller, side-squares of the brick) showing, it means the brick is sideways, thus the wall is wider, and it was built to create a thicker load-bearing wall. The most popular style in the States is the Common Bond brick pattern, where a row of headers appears every 5-7 stacks.
Look around ANY city and you’ll start to see this pattern everywhere. Structural load-bearing brick walls were much more common before the age of steel reinforcement, which started around 1850 and took a few decades to become the norm in the States. After that, you’ll see more of the shallower Running Bond without headers.
Concrete blocks — If the building is built with cinder blocks, it can’t be older than the 1837 — because that’s when the first concrete block house was built on Staten Island.
Brownstone — This was cheaper than brick and started off as a lower-income solution around the 1800’s, but it became much more popular in the Romantic Movement, when dark/earthy materials were in favor, and reached its peak in 1860. Most New York brownstones were built in the 19th century.
Patterned brick — Reached a peak of popularity in the Victorian Era. So if you’re seeing an intricate brick pattern on the walls, this is a big clue. Flouncy!
Corner Quoins — A quoin is the extra-large brick on the edge of a facade. It’s like the icing corner on a gingerbread house, and if it’s on your building, it often points to the Victorian Era 1860’s-70’s.
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