- The Row House Reborn: Architecture and Neighborhoods in New York City, 1908–1929
In my hometown, a suburb north of Baltimore, the shopping mall built in my youth in the 1960s received a postmodern facelift a few years ago. When I give tours downtown, people are always interested when I point out how a two-and-a-half-story Federal period house became a three-story Italianate house in the 1880s, especially when they can see the ghost of the old steep gable roofline or the different bricks used for the new third story.
We are all used to modernizations, upgrades, and remodeling when a style deemed fashionable in one period seems dreary, boring, and down-at-the-mouth. In his new book The Row House Reborn: Architecture and Neighborhoods in New York City, 1908–1929, Andrew Scott Dolkart, the James Marston Fitch Associate Professor of Historic Preservation at Columbia University, examines just this phenomenon in several New York City neighborhoods that received fashionable Arts and Crafts/Colonial Revival–style facelifts in the period from about 1915 to 1930. But in analyzing the stylistic changes wrought by architects and their clients, he also opens a long-shuttered window into a little-known period in the city’s residential history when historic neighborhoods were reclaimed, a segment of the city’s elite returned to row house living, and fashionable artist-studios popped up all over Greenwich Village.
Dolkart first became aware of these neighborhoods when, as a graduate student in Columbia’s historic preservation program in the mid-1970s, he began working at the [End Page 100] New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. At the time he and his colleagues felt that the Treadwell Farm Historic District (four block fronts on East 61st and 62nd streets between Second and Third avenues in Manhattan, one of the earliest designated districts) was also one of “the worst historic districts” in the city. The distinguished brownstones that lined its streets had mostly been altered over the years, and many original architectural details were missing. Some twenty years later, however, Dolkart came to see these houses in a new light as he realized that the alterations made to these brownstones were actually part of a new and determined aesthetic initiative to “modernize” and stylistically update façades that by the late teens seemed hopelessly old-fashioned.
As he began to look more closely at this group of buildings, Dolkart discovered that in fact contemporary journalists and architectural critics had written enthusiastically about these modernizing designs and that they were the work of known and respected architects. These insights launched him on a journey of discovery to document the extent of these stylistic “redesigns” of old New York brownstones in the once-fashionable residential districts of the city. The result is this book, which not only identifies the architects and clients involved in this stylistic revolution, but also equates the phenomenon with bringing old walking city neighborhoods back to life and providing attractive, viable, singlefamily housing options in a city becoming “apartmentalized.” the book is richly illustrated with many plates from early twentiethcentury architectural and garden periodicals Dolkart discovered in his search for the history and meaning of these post–World War I façade redesigns, and the extensive footnotes contain invaluable references from this literature for readers who may wish to explore this period of New York history on their own.
Dolkart’s decision to seek out contemporary interpretations of the buildings he investigates is what makes this book so valuable an addition to our understanding of both New York residential architecture and the period in question. It is no longer enough for architectural historians to merely look at, analyze, and describe their own reactions to buildings, no matter how thorough and intensive their academic training. The concepts of style and taste are always elusive, but one can only really understand why one generation chose to identify with a particular style, or made certain...