There are so many different types of homes, representing an infinite world of possibilities for your characters. In addition to choosing the right one(s) for your story, it’s also very important to know what exactly they look like. I regret I didn’t describe my characters’ homes in much detail until very recently, but now I know better.
One need not go into elaborate, blow-by-blow detail about floor plans, façades, apartment lobbies, and interior decoration, but it’s helpful to give enough grounding details for readers to mentally picture these places. If a writer has an inaccurate mental picture of, e.g., a NYC townhouse or a Gilded Age estate, it’ll be described all wrong.
Brownstone houses in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Copyright Beyond My Ken
Many people use the words brownstone, townhouse, and rowhouse to refer to differ things, though they’re one and the same. A rowhouse (called a terraced house outside the U.S.) is just a house that shares walls with other houses. It can be a humble proletarian abode or built as a mansion for the city’s élite. Depending on the city’s density, it can be wide or narrow.
Brownstone is a type of material, most popular in the Eastern U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some townhouses and rowhouses are brick, limestone, or wood. In Chicago, greystone was the material of choice. Many homes in southern and northwestern Brooklyn also are greystone. Sometimes these houses are painted.
Despite its popularity, brownstone isn’t the greatest building material. It was ubiquitous because of its ease of quarrying and carving.
Houses in Chicago’s Washington Square, Copyright Michael
These houses range from three to six floors, often including a cellar and garden level. The parlor level is technically the second floor. Because many of these homes were built in the era of horse-drawn vehicles, manure was a huge problem. The refined people living in these homes couldn’t have their entry-level floor at street level!
Some were built as mansions for the wealthy, who usually had second, much more sprawling and grandiose homes in the country or by the shore. Others were intended for proletarian and bourgeois families, sometimes split into duplexes or triplexes, or one apartment per each floor.
These are the kinds of homes the élite of New York, Boston, Baltimore, and other cities lived in before apartments became popular. By the 1920s, townhouses had fallen from fashion.
Houses in Baltimore’s Federal Hill
On average, they’re about 18-20 feet wide. In very densely-populated cities, it’s uncommon to find ones 25 feet or wider. Most were destroyed to make room for apartments or roads. Some houses are also much narrower.
Every so often, one encounters a townhouse attached to a former stable or carriage house, or with such an edifice standing next door or behind the house. This can be used as a garage, a precious commodity in a city, or converted into a small business.
Depth is about 100 feet, sometimes less, sometimes a bit more. The homes built for the wealthy have backyards (albeit usually fairly small). Some houses have their yards joined into one great big communal yard, with things like a garden, playground, and skating rink in winter.
Washington Mews in Greenwich Village, Copyright Beyond My Ken
Many older cities have mews lanes, former carriage houses and stables with living quarters above. Some may have cellars added in the modern era. These are very desirable because they’re on private, often gated alleys, with parking and courtyards. They’re also much wider than the average rowhouse.
As beautiful and historied as these homes can be, it’s easy to see why they became unfashionable and undesirable once luxury apartments appeared.
The Beresford on Central Park West, Copyright David Shankbone
Prewar apartments are highly sought-after, and most associated with NYC. Many are now co-ops. Not only are they more beautiful and unique, inside and out, than postwar architecture, they’re also much better constructed.
These apartments are known for spacious rooms, many big closets, multiple fireplaces, gorgeous details, lovely courtyards (essential for providing light and ventilation), hardwood floors, generous floor plans, kitchens located away from the other rooms, sunken living rooms, thick walls, wide halls, and high ceilings.
Some smaller buildings only have two (very spacious) units per floor. On average, most have about 12-25 stories, though there are some with as few as six.
The more exclusive buildings offer penthouses and duplexes.
Speaking of duplexes, that type of dwelling varies depending on the city or country. In very large, dense U.S. cities, and throughout the U.K., a duplex is a two-floor home, not a house with side-by-side units. A triplex is a three-floor unit.
Some people who live in townhouses rent out the lower two floors as a duplex, or rent a single floor, either for extra income or because they don’t need all that space for themselves.
Lower East Side tenements
Many tenements are in rowhouses, and, particularly in San Francisco and NYC, are railroad-style (e.g., each room connected to the other in a line, like a shotgun house). In the old days, there were often businesses on the first floor. Many only had 2-3 small rooms and no bathroom or running water. On average, they were about 350 square feet.
New Law tenements, built in the U.S. from 1901 on, introduced greater ventilation, light, plumbing, windows, fire safety, and running water. Some also had more square footage and rooms, though they were a far cry from the glamourous prewar apartments.
Olana State Historic Site, Greenpoint, NY
We all know what a mansion or estate is, at least 3,000 square feet, often with many acres for gardens, ponds, trees, outdoor theatres, miniature zoos, and brindle paths. In the Gilded Age, they were particularly decadent, designed to show off wealth, with far more space than even a very large family with many servants needed.
They had as many as ten bedrooms, sitting rooms, drawing rooms, ballrooms, pantries, sculleries, smoking rooms, billiard rooms, music rooms, sewing rooms, anterooms, dressing rooms, solaria, servants’ wings, kitchens, dining rooms, libraries, parlors, and bathrooms. There were also guesthouses and carriage houses.