Ever consider dating a building? AKA figuring out how old a building is? Use this guide to figure out what clues to look for — the art of elimination is key.
When we say dating a building, we’re not talking about romantically dating a building… that’s just weird. We’re talking about looking at the details of a building to determine the era in which the building was constructed.
Ever watch an old man try to cross the street, and wonder to yourself what day and age he must have lived in to think his hat was cool? Well, you probably should have helped the old man with his groceries, but we do applaud your curiosity. Buildings are much the same way: styles come and go. And those styles give us a huge key to unlocking the past.
We figure this could be super helpful for curious travelers, and staycationers alike — because buildings are everywhere you go. They’re like the Illuminati, except real. They give the city its shape, one unit at the time, endlessly dotting the peripherals of our urban escapades, like happy trees in a Bob Ross painting.
We’ve all heard the phrase, but this time we’re gonna listen. 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, 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. That makes your job of dating this building SUPER easy! Why such a short shelf life? 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 (above), 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 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 dates it the Victorian Era 1860’s-70’s.
While many of these clues are visible from a distance, a few of them require up-close attention to detail. Meaning, if you don’t have access to the building you’re investigating, don’t do anything we wouldn’t do.
Aluminum sealed window — If the window frames are metal, but your fridge magnet doesn’t stick to them, the building was probably built in the 1970’s or later.
Spring-based vs. pulley-based windows — Does your window have two sashes (sliding window panes), one on top and one on bottom? These were made to allow heat to escape up top while breezes can come in at the bottom. Pulley-based sash windows are old-fashioned, usually framed in wood. The pulley itself is usually visible. Most household windows used this system of cords, pulleys and weights from 1780’s up until the 1950’s, when the spring was constructed. So if you don’t see a pulley, a spring holding the sash in place hints that yours were constructed after the 1950’s.
More panes on the top than the bottom — This was very common during the Queen Anne style, circa 1880’s-1890’s; dating a building to the late Victorian Era.
Bay windows — The Bay came straight out of the Victorian Era, very popular anywhere from 1830’s-1900, and most made after that are a nod to the time.
Casement Windows — These are hinged with brass or steel latches. Congratulations, your windows tell you NOTHING about the building’s origin, as this one’s been around in the States since the window history of Ever.
Iron frames — There were some playful ironwork patterns during a Gothic Revival from 1830-1860, but iron frames weren’t widely popular until the 1900’s. So if you have iron frames, you can at least assume that your windows were built after 1850, likely dating your building to the early-to-mid 20th century.
Tuberculosis windows — Does your building have a strange window in a wall leading to another room? An indoor windowed wall was usually placed in every room of a tenement to abide laws to prevent the spread of TB — you’ll find this built into tenement-style buildings from the 19th century up to 1901. (Lots in the Lower East Side of New York!)
Margin lights — If you have a border of thin panes on each side of the window, you’re looking at a trend that was common during the Regency era. The size of windows grows around this time and there is often playful iron framework (Gothic Revival) dating the building 1810’s to 1840’s.
Arched, stone decorative frames — Gothic Revival circa 1840’s and after.
Square, plain, small windows right up to the roof — Dates back to the Colonial era. In the Colonial times windows were great for light, but bad for letting heat escape, so we see smaller windows from this era.
VERY thin, tall and built into a castle — Sounds Medieval. The building you’re dating was built for defense. Fun fact: You can probably shoot an arrow out of your tiny thin window.
And there you have it. A very comprehensive list of What Was Built When. So next time you’re flaneur-ing about a city, take this list with you. Before you know it, you’ll be dating every building in sight.