Once upon a time, Manhattan was powered by horses. They hauled carts loaded with food and fuel, they pulled carriages full of people, and the city was alive with the stables needed to house these hard working animals. About 75 carriage houses still survive in Manhattan, most of them clustered on the Upper East Side.
On East 73rd Street between Third Avenue and Lexington, nine have remained together, and when you stroll down the sidewalk, it’s easy to imagine the clip clopping of hooves on this pretty street. But who did these stables belong to? Why are they here in this spot?
This is another story of how Manhattan’s wealthy shaped the city’s architecture. Back in the 1800s, before apartment houses came into vogue and Fifth Avenue was still lined with single family homes, wealthy families had private horses and carriages. But it wouldn’t do to stink up the living room by keeping the horses next door, so carriage houses were built to accommodate the carriages, horses, groomsmen and stable boys. They had to be far enough away to keep the smells and sounds from disturbing the homeowners, but close enough for quick access. In Manhattan, this meant about three blocks east of Fifth Avenue.
These carriage houses weren’t just slapped together. They’re beautiful buildings, some designed by famous architects of the day, like Richard Morris Hunt, who designed the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They’re architecturally eclectic, with styles ranging from neo-Flemish Renaissance to Queen Anne, Beaux Arts and neo-Georgian. Many lush with architectural detail, carriage houses are easy to identify by their giant doors and squat profiles.
Carriage houses are usually massive two- to three-story buildings, traditionally 25 feet wide and 100 feet deep, built full to the lot without a garden and with windows only at the front and back. (Townhouses, on the other hand, start at 18 feet wide and usually contain a garden in the rear.) Ceilings are often 13 or 14 feet high. Since they were built to support horses and carriages, most don’t have basements. The carriages were kept on the ground floor next to the horse stalls and tack room while the groomsmen and stable boys slept in the rooms above. The bigger and fancier the carriage house, the wealthier the homeowner.
Some houses feature details that reveal their original use. This horse head appears above an entry door. On the same building, the little horse heads repeat in the stone above the windows. Love that!
The giant carriage house below is now a single family home, renovated a few years ago. The exterior was sheathed in stucco for years, but when the new owners did their homework and discovered that the original brick lay beneath, they stripped the stucco away to reveal this beautiful facade. I live in the neighborhood and walked by this house often as it was being restored. It was thrilling to see the pristine original surface emerge.
Look at the brick detail and those amazing doors!
Most of the homes that first stood on this bock of 73rd Street were built in the 1860s. They were torn down between 1880 and 1900 when these carriage houses came on the scene. Two of the original houses remain. Below is one of them. Unlike the carriage houses, this little brick beauty is set back from the street to allow for a tiny front garden, which contains two big trees.
Over on 75th Street, also between Third Avenue and Lexington, stands a short row of carriage houses on the south side of the street.
Here’s a close up of one of the less ornate buildings. The brickwork is pretty nifty.
The last one is unusual, at 5 stories high.
I don’t know who lives in this house, but something tells me that the gargoyles above the doors aren’t original!
The two gorgeous, ornate buildings below are at 77th Street and Park Avenue. Both are now private residences. Look at those details in the stonework.
Most of the city’s carriage houses were destroyed to make way for apartment buildings and commercial structures. Some large commercial stables were converted to parking garages. At first, some of the carriage houses owned by the wealthy were also adapted to house cars and chauffeurs, but eventually they passed into other hands and now serve as private homes, fancy shops, art galleries and restaurants. These buildings rarely come on the market and are coveted for their scarcity.
It’s always a thrill to wander down a street and suddenly recognize a carriage house. I always wonder about the history of the building and the other stables that might have stood nearby.