Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Charming 1864 Sniffen Court


In the early days of the Civil War when Manhattan’s elite families were establishing themselves in the Murray Hill area, three ambitious speculators devised an idea. The wealthy families whose brick and brownstone mansions were rising along Madison Avenue owned fine carriages and well-bred horses. And they would need a place to house them.

In 1863 John E. Wylie, a broker; Caleb B. Knevals, a grocer; and James D. Smith, a “merchant” purchased land on 36th Street between 3rd and Lexington Avenues. Here they built ten two-story carriage houses facing an off-the-street enclave. Their ingenious scheme of situating the buildings on a cul-de-sac reduced the noises and odors associated with stables.

Their speculation paid off.

The carriage houses, which the developers called collectively “Sniffen Court,” were finished early in 1864. Within a three-month period from May to July of that year they all sold. Wealthy homeowners stabled their landaus and cabriolets at Sniffen Court for decades. Whitelaw Reid who lived in the prestigious Villard houses at Madison Avenue and 50th Street owned No. 7 until 1902.

As automobiles replaced horse-drawn carriages in the early 20th Century, the stables found a new use. By 1921 nearly all of them had been converted to residences. On August 10 of that year, The New York Times reported “An interesting deal in Sniffen Court, one of those little-known thoroughfares in this city…provided the chief activity in the realty market.” The stables at No. 7 and 9 was sold by banker Henry Clews. “The buyer plans to remodel the building into a dwelling,” said The Times. “Practically all of the old stables there have been transformed in recent years into neat homes occupied by artists and writers, the stables lending themselves readily to easy remodeling with capacious studios. These changes have made Sniffen Court one of the characteristically attractive small residential thoroughfares on Manhattan Island.”


A year later architects DeSuarez & Hatton added an partial penthouse to No. 5.  Sniffen Court became a Bohemian enclave of the arty set.

In 1916 piles of flagstones lay against the rear wall.  No protective fencing was yet needed. -- photo NYPL Collection

As the century wore on, Sniffen Court became more exclusive. Where piles of flagstones were once piled against the far wall artist Malvina Hoffman, who lived in the Court for four decades, installed Greek horsemen bas relief sculptures. A tall iron gate now protects the serenity of the lane from 36th Street interlopers.


Today Sniffen Court is one of the most desirable and quaint residential hide-aways in Manhattan. Where the horses of 19th Century aristocrats once chewed oats, apartments now sell for several million dollars.

non-historic photographs taken by the author

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