When an inferno raced through five 19th century Woodlawn Avenue brick row houses in July, it jeopardized one of the few Saratoga Springs examples of the brownstone-style homes that are so numerous in New York City.
The owner of those Woodlawn homes still hopes to rebuild what architectural historian James K. Kettlewell calls the Holmes Block, a set of five brick row houses built between 1872 and 1874 as an investment property for undertaker Ebenezer Holmes.
The handful of other brick row houses in the brownstone style include 1-5 Clinton St., on Nelson Avenue next to the Springwater Inn and 176-180 Regent St.
In addition, wooden brownstone-style row houses stand on Thomas Street.
Though not as showy as the grand single-family homes from that era, the row houses tell a story of the city’s architectural history, as businessmen looking to expand their wealth constructed them during a post-Civil War real estate boom.
“The row houses were typically more of a working-class type of housing,” said Samantha Bosshart, executive director of the Saratoga Springs Preservation Foundation. “We’ve always thought they were unique.”
Many of the row houses embody the Second Empire style popular between 1865 and 1874 during the High Victorian age; it imitated French architecture revived by Napoleon III.
The row houses are characterized by elevated foundations, staircases leading to the front entrances, two-story bay windows and mansard roofs, where the roof’s slope rises nearly vertically on all four sides and is edged by a weighty cornice that surrounds a flat roof on top, as described by Kettlewell in his 1991 book, “Saratoga Springs: An Architectural History.”
The mansard roof and the elevated basement allowed the top and bottom levels of the house to include usable rooms, Kettlewell said.
Row houses may have been less popular in Saratoga Springs than in the big East Coast cities because the resort town’s residents enjoyed the Victorian custom of socializing on the front porch, he suggested. Most homes have sweeping porches that just weren’t possible to put on brownstone-style row houses, Kettlewell said.
“Although such row houses appear elsewhere in America from the 18th century on, this is the only time that they were common in the architectural history of Saratoga Springs until the present,” Kettlewell writes.
Although they look similar in style to the New York City brownstones, the Saratoga Springs row houses aren’t technically brownstones.
While 19th century builders in New York City constructed their row houses from brownstone, a type of sandstone, those in Saratoga Springs used brick or wood to create the same elements, most likely because those materials were more readily available locally than brownstone, which needed to be shipped to the area, Kettlewell said.
Grand buildings such as the Canfield Casino feature brownstone in the trim and ornamental details rather than the entire structure.
“It’s a material that reflects the taste of the Victorian age, which wants everything to be toned richly,” Kettlewell said.
Bosshart said that notable local architect J.D. Stevens designed two of the row house blocks — the Holmes block at 100-108 Woodlawn Ave. and the Thomas Street houses. Stevens was best known for his work in designing the United States Hotel and the short-lived and little-known Grand Central Hotel.
The various row house blocks around the city vary in style. On Clinton Street, the painted brick houses’ roof lines vary, creating an impression of distinct homes rather than a continuous block.
The Nelson Avenue row houses lack the two-story bay windows on the front and feature a single front porch roof that extends across the whole row, sheltering three separate entrances into the homes. The Woodlawn Avenue homes are built from the darkest brick of the handful of 19th century row houses.
After the fire, only the facades of some of those row houses stand, and owner Robert Israel has said he hopes to save the facades when he rebuilds the row houses, which contained several apartments before the fire and were largely rented to Skidmore College students during the school year and workers at Saratoga Race Course during the summer.
“He’s trying. We’re hopeful,” Bosshart said, noting that saving the buildings is not a “done deal” yet. “We appreciate that Bob is making every effort to preserve them.”