Skip links

Constructing A Narrative, Part 1

There are various ways for an engineer to investigate a building. They all involve looking at it, looking at available records, perhaps materials testing, and so on. That’s not what I want to talk about. Collecting information is relatively straightforward, but that does not mean you’ve completed an investigation. An investigation leads to a meaningful description of a building: how its structure was meant to work, how it is working, and any problems that have arisen from discrepancies between “meant” and “is.” The building above caught my eye during a site visit nearby yesterday, and I thought that the process of trying to explain some features of its exterior would illustrate the process of how to get that description.

This is the south end of Park Slope, a neighborhood that was built up in the 1880s and 90s, in part as a result of the construction of the elevated train that ran along Third and Fifth Avenues (Brooklyn’s Third and Fifth, which are far away from Manhattan’s more famous Third and Fifth) at that time. The vast majority of buildings in the area are rowhouses or apartment buildings barely larger than rowhouses; nearly everything is, structurally, wood joists carried on brick bearing walls. Architecturally, the building on the corner (blow-up below) fits right in, except for its off-white paint. Paint, of course, might have been a different color 130 years ago or might not have been present.

I have always always liked the detail (on the narrow, front facade) of having bands of stone set into a facade below the window-head level, so that they visually “support” the ends of the lintels. In any case, some minor oddities:

  • The mis-matched window pattern and brick texture at the first floor suggest alterations along the avenue (long) side of the facade.
  • The fact that the long side of the building faces the avenue isn’t quite right. When new blocks were mapped, the lots were typically set up with short sides on the avenues, because avenue-facing lots were assumed to be more valuable.
  • There are no visible chimneys, which almost certainly means they’ve been removed. All of these buildings were built with fireplaces, typically a line in front and a line in back.
  • Those projections with the lozenge-shaped indentations are weird. They are right about where I expect the fireplaces to be, and they project half a brick (AKA 4 inches) from the regular plane of the wall, which is about right for a flue enclosure, but the indentations are right where the flues would be. The way they corbel out at the second floor is, again, a typical detail for flue enclosures, and adds more evidence to the idea that the first floor has been altered, but they’re the same size all the way up, which doesn’t match the reality that another flue is added at each floor, so they should be getting bigger at the top.

The missing chimneys are the easiest to explain: chimney brick tends to deteriorate faster than wall brick, particularly if the chimneys are not in use. So as the fireplaces in these buildings were abandoned in the course of the twentieth century, the chimneys were often removed. The biggest issue is that it makes it impossible to tell from the outside where the flues are.

If the projections actually are flue enclosures, then either (1) the flues are squeezed into the narrow sides of the projections, left and right of the indentations or (2) the flues are entirely inboard of the projections, so that the indentations don’t matter. But if the flues are inboard, then the projections are physically meaningless. I go on the assumption that no one does something for no reason, and it took the mason some effort to build those projections; if they’re not holding the flues, what’s their purpose? The best answer I can think is rather post-modern for the late nineteenth century: I think they might be ornament based on assumption that the people seeing this building are familiar with chimney enclosures on other buildings.

The first-floor situation may be explained by the orientation of the building with the long side facing the avenue. There was no zoning, in the modern sense of the word, in that era, but there were standards. One of them was that retail spaces were located on wider, busier streets in residential areas. If, as a developer, you were looking for less retail space because you thought the new neighborhood might not support four full-size stores, you could rotate the lots this way. That would give you retail in this building along the avenue and a few more houses on the side street. Note that the houses on the side street (to the left of the corner) share the stone-band detail.

So much for speculation. Tomorrow, the answers as best as some research (real estate, no mind-reading or seances) will provide.