Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A 1904 Horse and Carriage Auction House -- Nos. 126-128 E. 13th Street

photo by Alice Lum
By 1903 the Van Tassell & Kearney Auction Mart had established itself as one of the premier houses in New York City for the sale of carriages as well as horses. That year an ad appearing in the New York Tribune boasted “Finest display in New York of Carriages of the highest grade and most fashionable designs. Broughams, omnibuses, victorias, station wagons, wagonetts, traps.”

To the 21st century mind, Victorian horse-drawn transportation were “carriages.” But just as we differentiate among SUV’s, sedans, convertibles, sports cards and minibuses, the turn of the century buyer purchased vehicles specific to his needs.

Van Tassell & Kearney sold various vehicles including "gooch wagons," tub carts," and "governess carts."

Van Tassell & Kearney operated from buildings at Nos. 130-132 East 13th Street and Nos. 125 to 129 East 12th Street. In February 1903 two four-story brick buildings at Nos. 126 and 128 East 13th Street became available at auction and were purchased by John J. Sullivan. The cleared lot would become an adjoining showroom and auction space for Van Tassell & Kearney’s Auction Mart.

Completed in 1904, the masculine, utilitarian structure was designed by the prominent architectural firm of Jardine, Kent, and Jardine. Constructed of red brick and contrasting limestone, it was a brawny mass with Beaux Arts splashes – the visual focus being a large central arched window embellished with a carved cartouche.

Carved, decorative stonework added interest to the utilitarian structure -- photo by Alice Lum
Van Tassell & Kearney’s not only sold to New York’s most elite – among them buyers with names like Belmont, Vanderbilt and Mackay – but they were trusted by the wealthy to sell their own stock.

In 1904 the book “Prominent and Progressive Americans” spoke of retired Dr. W. E. Woodend. “Dr. Woodend and his wife are popular members of society, and have been prominent in many of the horse shows which have come to be leading social functions. They maintain a fine stable of horses…In the New York Horse Show of 1903 their horses were conspicuous prize-winners, and in the course of the show captured no fewer than twenty ribbons.”

On March 13, 1906 some of Dr. Woodend’s geldings were among the 24 horses auctioned at Van Tassell & Kearney’s; the total sale amounting to $11,250 – more than a quarter million dollars today.

The architects created sunburst effects with creative brickwork around the oval windows -- photo by Alice Lum
A year later The New York Tribune reported that “Mrs. John Gerken, always one of the most prominent figures at the Horse Show, has decided to give up nearly her entire stable. Her failure to carry off as many awards as usual at the last horse show, she says, has nothing to do with her determination. Her only object, she says, is to get rid of the trouble and annoyance of a big stable. She will maintain only eight show horses. The rest will be sold on May 20 by Van Tassell & Kearney.”

That year was a good one for the firm.  In October the New York Herald mentioned “At Van Tasell & Kearney’s regular semi-weekly auction sale on Tuesday a cabriolet brought $760 and a brougham brought $825. These are record prices for second-hand carriages sold this season and are almost up to the standard of values current when automobiles were unknown. Not less significant than the prices were the number and character of the bidders who came to buy these and other carriages in the last week’s sales.”

The reporter said that Mr. Kearney was very pleased and “it looked quite like old times.” It appeared to the auctioneer that the fad of the automobile was fading and “the carriage horse is coming back.”

Van Tassell & Kearney custom-built this trap for "Mr. LaSalla."  The 500-lb. vehicle could be drawn either by one or two horses -- The Rider and Driver 1911
Although the era of the carriage horse would not come back, it would be a while before it disappeared entirely. In 1911 The Rider and Driver magazine marveled at the Van Tassell & Kearney’s operations. “Few people are aware of the magnitude of their premises and the extent of business they are doing with our wealthiest and most critical class of carriage buyers in town and country. Their patrons include members of the Cabinet and foreign ministers, prominent citizens, city officials; and at all horse shows, floral parades and summer resorts are to be seen every description of traps from Van Tassell & Kearney’s.”

In 1911 Van Tassell & Kearney introduced the "Horse Show Dog Cart," a small trap-type carriage --The Rider and Driver 1911 
The magazine described in detail the assembly of buildings, with underground space that ran from 13th to 12th Streets. “The basement is fitted up for accommodating one hundred and fifty horses, where they are stabled in well-ventilated stalls.”

The firm steadfastly refused to accept the invasion of the automobile into the staid tradition of horse-drawn buggies and carriages. On July 28, 1918, as more and more motorcars chugged along the streets and avenues of New York, a Van Tassell & Kearney ad in the New York Tribune insisted “The report that horses and carriages are coming back to their own in Newport is positively founded on fact.”

The prediction, of course, was not to be and before long the venerable auction house that refused to adapt to change was no more.

The cavernous building was used a a machinery shop in the decades leading to World War II. Then on December 28, 1941 the Delehanty Institute announced it would be using the building as instructional space. With most of the able-bodied men off fighting in the Pacific and Europe, the institute opened “a branch in machine shop practice for women” here. The former auction space was used for teaching women “assembly and inspection work, the reading of blueprints, and various mechanical aspects needed in defense industries.”

In 1978 artist Frank Stella took over the building, using it as his studio for 27 years. It was from here that the influential artist added free-standing sculpture to his painting and print-making art. In 2005 the building was sold to Isaac Mishan for $10 million. Mishan planned to demolish the structure to replace it with a seven-story sleek condo building.

A proposed 7-story condo was slated to replace the old auction mart -- sketch Gothamist.com
Preservationists rushed in. By September 3, 2006 the developer had construction permits in hand, but demolition permits had not be issued. At an emergency meeting of the Landmarks Preservation Commission the next day, politicians including State Senator Tom Duane, Assemblywoman Deborah Glick and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer pleaded to save the building. Local residents joined representatives from the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, the Municipal Arts Society, and the Metropolitan Chapter of the Victorian Society in America in the appeal.

During the meeting Johnathon Hayes who lived in the neighborhood asserted “The space cries out for adaptive reuse…We cannot live by luxury condominiums alone.”

Although to this day the Landmarks Preservation Commission has not designated the structure, the owners were swayed. They voluntarily allowed it to be listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, giving up the right to alter the exterior or build on it in anyway inconsistent with historic preservation guidelines. In exchange they received a substantial tax write-off.

In 2007 the Peridance Center leased the building and began a nearly three-year renovation. When opened in December 2009, it housed six roomy climate-controlled, soundproof dance studios, a 200-seat theater for the Peridance Contemporary Dance Company, a café and boutique.

The handsome old auction house where Belmonts and Vanderbilts shopped for show horses is a faultless example of creative recycling of historic properties.

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