How New York became a metropolis of stoops

New Yorkers can thank the Dutch settlers of the 17th century for the stoop (like this one near Columbus Avenue), arguably the city’s most iconic and beloved architectural feature. 

Houses in Holland were built with a front stoep to keep parlor floors from flooding. When the early inhabitants of New Amsterdam built their dwellings, they kept the stoop—though they probably weren’t the grand and ornate staircases built two centuries later. (Below, Lower Manhattan stoops as they reportedly looked in the 1820s).

The stoop could have gone the way of wood-frame houses and corner tea water pumps in the developing metropolis. But stoops served another purpose after the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811—aka, the city street grid—went into effect.

The grid plan didn’t leave any space for alleys. Without a back door to a rowhouse accessed through an alley, servants and workers would enter and exit a residence using the same front stoop the owners used—which wasn’t too popular, at least with the owners.

But a tall stoop set back from the sidewalk allowed for a side door that led to the lower level of the house. While the owners continued to go up and down the stoop to get to the parlor floor (and see and be seen by their neighbors), everyone else was relegated to the side, according to Street Design: The Secrets to Great Cities and Towns. (This Turtle Bay brownstone, above, exemplifies the two-entrance distinction.)

And of course, as New York entered the Gilded Age of busy streets filled with dust, ash, refuse, and enormous piles of horse manure, a very high stoop helped keep all the filth from getting into the house. (See the two above and below, both on the Upper West Side, each with 11 stairs to the front door.)

As architectural styles changed, the New York City stoop changed as well. The short stoops on Federal Style houses from the early 19th century fell out of favor as brownstones, with their high, straight, ornate stoops—took over the streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn.

In the late 19th century, with brownstones derided for their cookie-cutter design (and chocolate sludge appearance), Romanesque Revival styles gained favor. Architects created playful takeoffs of the typical stoop. The “dog-leg” stoop, which turns to the left or right halfway down the steps, was popular on the Upper West Side and in parts of Brooklyn (see the photo above and also at the top of the page).

On East End Avenue is a stoop that I’m calling a double stoop, which appears to serve two halves of a wide brick townhouse.

By the beginning of the 20th century, stoops were getting lopped off altogether in favor of a lower-level entrance requiring just a few steps up or down. A stoop was seen as old-fashioned, for starters. Also, it was easier for a landlord to carve up a brownstone into separate apartments without one, according to Andrew S. Dolkart, the director of the historic preservation program at Columbia University, via a 2012 New York Times article

Stoops are back in style again, the Times article says. And why wouldn’t they be? Elegant or functional, original or rebuilt (as the stoop above probably was), with ironwork on the railings or without, stoops are the front seats in a neighborhood—sharable space where people gather, kids play, and communities grow. They’re symbols of New York, past and present.

[Second image: NYPL; third image: painting by William Chappel]

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25 Responses to “How New York became a metropolis of stoops”

  1. Maxine Cady Says:

    Stoops have a special place in my childhood memory. I remember many hot nights when people couldn’t sleep (who had air conditioning in those days!) and we gathered on our stoops. Something so simple brings back great memories.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks for your comment, Maxine…I can only imagine how lively streets were on those hot summer nights. Now, of course, entire neighborhoods are inside in front of a blasting AC.

  2. Carolyn Lalli Says:

    With New York’s rich Dutch history, how appropriate that the word “stoop” (from Dutch stoep “flight of steps, doorstep, threshold,” from Middle Dutch, from Proto-Germanic *stap- “step} should continue to hold prominence. Thank you for posting such a detailed view of the ornately detailed and various stoops still in use throughout Manhattan. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Thanks! The Dutch left us a lot, considering they were only here for half a century or so.

      • Christine Says:

        I once found myself in an Amsterdam coffee shop where an elderly Dutch man quizzed me, with pride, about all of the Manhattan names that were borrowed from Dutch. He knew more about New York etymology than I did!

  3. Tom Dulski Says:

    great article, some of those stoops are real works of art.

  4. Outosego Says:

    Liked & Shared. Thank you.

  5. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    I learned back when I was a kid stoops were there to keeps the rats and rodents out.

    • Maxine Cady Says:

      Sorry but the rat story doesn’t sound credible. Steps are small enough for them to climb. Interesting though how different stories develop.

  6. Shelly H Says:

    I’ve walked by so many of those stoops in NY and always thought they had so much character. I’m glad many survive today.

  7. Maajbluumke Says:

    This is an interesting article, thank you for sharing! I am Dutch and I never knew that long ago the word ‘stoep’ was also used for a flight of steps in front of a house. ‘Stoep’ is also related to the German word ‘Stufe’, which means ‘step’. Now we only use ‘stoep’ to indicate the sidewalk.

  8. Deborah Shaver Says:

    They are all beautiful.

  9. Greg Says:

    Thanks, I had no idea from whence the term and concept derived.

  10. Brendan Fenton Says:

    Thanks for all this info on Stoops. I played many hours of Stoop ball as a kid in NY.

  11. Kevin Golden Says:

    And dont forget ‘stoop ball’!!! With a Spaldeen!!

  12. AlyDee Says:

    This was a really interesting article! Thank you.

  13. The "There is Pizza and There is Everything Else" Tuesday Edition Says:

    […] look at the history of how New York City became a stoop town. (Ephemeral New […]

  14. Michael Says:

    Great minds!

  15. SF jeff Says:

    Not really unique solution to life’s problems; flooding, dirt and the logistics of heating at that time and place. Montreal had and has elegant iron front stairs to stone buildings. I suppose its with enough trials by enough people with enough resources; something will seem ephemeral. But that’s a good thing.

  16. bo Says:

    Reblogged this on Bobbi's Blog.

  17. David Says:

    I would visit my uncle Kieth on St Marks Place in the east village,sit on the stoop,just sit,and suddenly there
    would be someone,smiling,asking “where are you from?”,”NovaScotia” id say,it bieng where Im from,kept
    happening.Still havent any idea how they could tell.
    Met a man there from the building who had never left
    manhattan and could see no reason to ever leave,said
    “the world comes to me,so why go?”

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