Architecturally speaking, our city is best described as “serially experimental.” From California pink stucco to stone-veneer faux-Tudor, each dominant design trend that has ever hit Calgary sits in stark contrast to the favoured look of the previous decade and the one that follows. While every aesthetic has its merits, few trends have achieved enduring appeal. A new surge of homebuilding in Calgary, however, is banking on a classic style that has endured for centuries in the major urban centres of the Eastern U.S.
The definition of a brownstone is loose, used as it often is to describe nearly any manner of stone row-housing. Technically, a brownstone is an attached dwelling clad in a dark red-brown version of Triassic-Jurassic sandstone (a lighter version, once quarried near Calgary, comprises many of this city’s heritage buildings).
On the mid 19th-century East Coast, brownstone — mostly extracted from now-defunct quarries in Connecticut — was cheaper than other luxury building materials such as limestone and granite, and it was also easy to carve. That made new, side-by-side, single-family developments in Harlem, Brooklyn and the Upper East and West Sides of New York City, both affordable-ish and on point with the era’s obsession with Romanticism. The brownstone hit the elegant mark of natural and ornate; polished and weathered; beauty and art that only gets better over time. It’s a style that local lawyer-turned-builder Nathan Robb and his business partner (and brother-in-law) Connor Irving have recently brought to exquisite life with projects in Altadore and South Calgary.
After years spent travelling widely and working abroad, Robb fell in love with the sophistication and durability of brick (sturdier cousin to brownstone) and brownstone-style houses. He sees the look as “timeless,” rather than “modern” — a term he feels is used gratuitously by many Calgary home builders. “Connor and I are drawn to what we think is beautiful and what we see has endured for centuries in other cities,” Robb says.
Their company, Oldstreet, was founded four years ago on the duo’s shared philosophy that a home’s exterior should exist outside of fads. “The inside of a home is a better place for people to exhibit their personality through art and furniture that changes and gets updated,” says Robb. Their Charles Block rowhouse development on 20th Street S.W. was completed in 2020, their Berkeley Block rowhouse development on 16th Street N.W. was completed in 2021, and their Brooklyn Heights-inspired King Edward Residences (where Robb and his family reside), created in collaboration with designer Amanda Hamilton, were completed in January 2023.
Built into the appeal of nouveau-brownstones is hope for a community vibe that matches the liveliness and enduring appeal we associate with neighbourhoods like Greenwich Village. In Northwest Calgary, that intention is right there in the name: Greenwich, occupying 59 acres of boutique shopping, the new Calgary Farmers’ Market, and dozens of residential options including brownstone-esque townhouses, is marketed as “New York City style” south of Bowness.
Mathew Backhouse is the leasing manager with Melcor, the developer behind Greenwich. He says the community’s architecture and amenities aim for connectivity. “Greenwich is a lifestyle community and the unique architecture supports the urban village feel of the development,” Backhouse says. “The community was designed to provide connection to the amenities and to enhance the commercial and residential experience. Greenwich allows people access to groceries and retail, walking paths, dog parks and community gardens, all outside their door.” As for the brownstone-style townhouses, “they fit the vibe and they look sharp,” he says.
Likewise, Oldstreet’s Parc on 30th development in Marda Loop, which, like the King Edward Residences, sold out long before it’ll be finished later this spring, has a buzzy urban spirit: the classic front stoops extend into prominent front-yard living across from a popular park and public pool, a fire station and library, and around the corner from a coffee shop (Our Daily Brett). Those residences neighbour a high-end four-townhouse development by Nam Dang-Mitchell Design, also inspired by rowhouses in New York, Boston and London.
Before they build, Robb says he always asks himself: How will this project contribute enduring beauty and vibrancy to the community and to the city? Proof of an enduringly positive answer will be revealed in the decades to come — but Calgary’s got a beautiful start.