Brown Bearing

O nce you know about it, you see it everywhere. It’s in the foundations along Hillhouse Avenue, the facade of City Hall and the walls of Grove Street Cemetery. Its name is synonymous with distinctive urban townhouses that line both Fifth Avenue in New York City and Chapel Street along Wooster Square.

That name is “brownstone,” which is actually the trade name for the type of sandstone found in the Portland Formation, a geological feature that runs through Connecticut into Massachusetts. The brown stone’s pinkish cast comes from feldspar “as well as staining by the mineral hematite,” according to a National Historic Landmarks survey.

New Haven lays claim to one of the Portland Formation’s brownstone quarries, located in and near what is now Quarry Park in Fair Haven Heights. Drive past Benjamin Jepson Magnet School on Lexington Avenue, and you can see some remaining outcroppings of brownstone. But most of the brownstone that built the nation’s cities during the Industrial Revolution came from Portland, Connecticut, just across the Connecticut River from Middletown. It was shipped as far as Chicago, New Orleans, Denver and even San Francisco and appears in such well-known structures as New York City’s Plaza Hotel and the mansions of the Vanderbilts, the Rothschilds and the Astors, according to the Historic Landmarks survey.

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In New Haven, Grove Street Cemetery is a good place to get up close to this historic stone. Its walls are built of odd-shaped, pinkish brownstone blocks now weathered and spotted with moss, but the burying ground itself is also “loaded with” brownstone tombstones, says its superintendent, Seeley Jennings. The Landmarks survey notes a connection between quarrying and grave markers. The first Portland brownstone quarry, which opened around 1690, was owned by James Stancliff, a mason and stonecutter who “was known particularly for carving gravestones, many of which still survive in Connecticut Valley colonial cemeteries; he may have been the first person to embellish Puritan gravestones with decorative carvings of items such as skulls.”

On Yale’s campus, the tomb of secret society Skull and Bones, built in 1856 on High Street, is fashioned of brownstone. So is Dwight Hall, designed by the prominent 19th-century architect Henry Austin, who often used brownstone. Originally built as a library from 1842-46, Dwight Hall was “the first building on campus designed in the Gothic Revival tradition,” according to a Yale architecture tour.

Austin was the architect, as well, of New Haven’s City Hall (1861-62) and of Grove Street Cemetery’s Egyptian Revival entrance gate (1845), which both feature brownstone. Wooster Square’s “Brownstone Row” at 552-562 Chapel Street was built circa 1871. Episcopalians seem partial to brownstone. The Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James on Olive Street is made of brownstone, as are St. John’s Episcopal Church on Humphrey Street and St. James Episcopal Church in Fair Haven Heights. That’s not surprising—the latter church is a stone’s throw from the old quarry. Sometimes brownstone wasn’t used as the main construction material but rather as decorative flair. For example, the front of Trinity Lutheran Church (1870) at the corner of Orange and Wall Streets features slices of Portland brownstone in the repeated Gothic arches of its portico and windows.

It’s hard to identify which brownstone comes from New Haven—at least, for the casual observer. But Brian Skinner, Professor Emeritus of and Senior Research Scientist in Geology and Geophysics at Yale, says there is a discernible difference between Fair Haven brownstone and Portland brownstone. The cemetery’s walls are made of Fair Haven stone, which Skinner says is not uniformly grained, though it has a natural “tough cement that holds the rock particles together.” In contrast, the Portland brownstone—used, for example, at Skull and Bones—is fine and even-grained. But its cement reacts with the slight acidity of rainwater, Skinner says. “Even though the stone may look better, it doesn’t wear as well.”

When brownstone was cut in the quarries, it was “seasoned” to allow water to seep out and the stone to harden, according to a publication from the Geological Society of Connecticut and the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection. If left unseasoned, the stone was “subject to peeling or cracking as the water in the rock froze in the winter months.” As brownstone became more popular, quarrymen sometimes pushed the stone out to market too fast, with poor results. At the same time, architects began to save money in their designs by using the brownstone as a facing or veneer on top of other types of stone. Water tended to seep between these layers, and the facing often peeled or broke. “Portland brownstone quickly gained a new, but undeserved, reputation as an unstable building material,” the Geological Society writes.

The stone does have a tendency to flake away, leaving the faces of some brownstone grave markers unreadable today, Grove Street superintendent Jennings says. But when it holds up, it “stands up better than the marble” in terms of readability. Many of the cemetery’s brownstone markers are still legible today, nearly two centuries later, he says, while those made of marble have often been made inscrutable by acid rain.

Declining quality was just one of several problems that led to the end of the so-called Brownstone Era, according to the Landmarks survey. In addition, the stone had simply had its day and was no longer considered fashionable. The final blow was delivered by the Connecticut River, which flooded the Portland quarries in 1936 and again during the infamous 1938 hurricane. They never recovered. In all, the survey reports, 10 million cubic feet of stone had been extracted from them.

Though Portland’s quarries never reopened, a limited revival occurred from 1993 to 2012, when, according to a 2012 Hartford Courant article, geologist Mike Meehan opened a small quarry for architectural restoration and some new construction. Today, Portland’s main quarry is the site of Brownstone Exploration & Discovery Park, a thrilling water park with ziplines off the old quarry cliffs and swimming in its flooded basin.

Both cities and people, it turns out, can be swimming in brownstone.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Photographed by Dan Mims. Images 1 and 7 depict St. James Episcopal Church. Images 2 and 6 depict the Episcopal Church of St. Paul and St. James. Images 3 and 5 depict Grove Street Cemetery. Image 4 depicts Wooster Square’s “Brownstone Row.”

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Join her this month on Goodreads for a guided winter reading of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.

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