Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Sweeney's Courts -- No. 159 East 35th Street

photo by Alice Lum

As the Upper East Side developed in the last decades of the 19th century, certain blocks were designated “stable blocks.”  Here two- and three-story carriage houses and livery stables lined the street.  They were close enough to the homes along the avenues to be convenient; yet far enough away that the smells and noises did not offend the well-to-do residents.

One such block was East 35th Street between Third and Lexington Avenues.  Among the utilitarian structures here was No. 159, a handsome orange brick Romanesque Revival carriage house trimmed in deep red terra cotta.  Horses and vehicles were housed in the street level while upstairs were living quarters for one or two groomsmen or stable boys.  Engaged brick columns on either side of the second story, creative brickwork over the arched windows, and an exuberant cornice of terra cotta garlands and ribbon caused the building to stand out among its peers.

Creative brickwork created engaged columns and the zipper-like eyebrows -- photo by Alice Lum

The little building would not remain a carriage house for long, however.  By the spring of 1884 E. Sweeney had converted it to a place of entertainment.  Known officially as Sweeney’s Hand-Ball and Racquet Courts, or simply Sweeney’s Courts; the fire department preferred to call it a “saloon.”

Sweeney’s Court was well-known, drawing handball contestants from far away.  On March 13, 1884 The Sun reported on the games held here the previous day “between Philip Casey, of Brooklyn, and P. H. Smith, of St. Louis, and James Dunne and William Courtney, both of Brooklyn.”  Most likely Sweeney’s patrons not only drank "intoxicants," but gambled on the matches.

Both Casey and Dunne were former Aldermen of Brooklyn.   Casey held the title of Champion of the World and Smith claimed the title of Champion of St. Louis.  The New York Times called William Courtney “an expert” and when the four men were back at Sweeney’s on October 15 of that year the two champions partnered up against Dunne and Courtney.  The result was an upset with Dunne and Courtney playing “in brilliant style,” according to The Times, and winning three out of five games.

Sweeny’s Court was the center of handball action in New York.  When Casey and Dunne played again in January 1885 The New York Times reported that “There was a large crowd of spectators at Sweeney’s hand ball and racquet court…to see the game.”  The newspaper added that “There were a number of sporting men present, among them ‘Paddy’ Ryan, the pugilist, and Michael Cleary.”

Sweeney added to the excitement of the game by importing a Spanish handball player.  Known only as Sweeney’s Spaniard, he challenged Philip Casey in February 1885 of that year and lost, most likely to the delight of locals. 

If there was gambling going on in Sweeney’s Courts, the police turned a blind eye.  On August 18, 1885 champion Michael Hickey of the Police Department, and Sweeney’s Spaniard” played.  The policeman won two out of the three games.

The beautiful floral cornice was in stark contrast to the sports and pugilism going on inside--photo by Alice Lum

Sweeney offered more than just handball and racquet ball to his patrons.  On August 2, 1885 The Sun reported that “A number of sporting men gathered in Sweeney’s hand ball court in Thirty-fifth street last night to witness a four-round glove fight between Al Marx, better known as the cowboy, from Galveston, Texas, who was once knocked out by John L. Sullivan, and Jim Connors of this city, who lately defeated George Young of England.”

The boxers were fighting for a $100 purse—about $2,000 today—and Sweeney insisted that the Marquis of Queensberry rules were followed.  The Sun noted that “They were both in full ring costume, and were in fine trim.”

The newspaper recounted round-by-round the mutual pummeling of the two contestants.  The account said of the final round “Connors got in a neat upper-cut, which sent Marx reeling against the wall and shook him up.  He faced about again, however, and continued to land some heavy blows.  Connors now had things almost all his own way and countered very heavily on Marx’s much-battered nose and eye until time was called.”

Sweeney’s Spaniard was still here in 1888.  Although he seemed to be more hot air than talent; he was a profitable draw for his patron.  By now he apparently had learned to no longer challenge the world champion.   On August 14 of that year The Evening World announced “Sweeney’s Spaniard, the famous hand-ball player, arrived from Spain on Thursday last, and says he will play any hand-ball player in America, barring Phil Casey, for $1,000 a side.”

Phil Casey retained his championship status for more than a decade -- Spalding's Illustrated Catalog Spring Summer Sports October 1893 (copyright expired)

Irish champion John Lawler took him up on that challenge.  The St. Paul Daily Globe reported on November 30 that “An interesting game of hand-ball was played at Sweeney’s court to-day.  John Lawler, the Irish champion, and Frank Reynolds, defeating Sweeney’s Spaniard and John Bergen by four out of six games.”  Nevertheless Sweeney put a positive spin on the outcome.  “The Spaniard played well, and his backers in the match which is being arranged between him and Lawler expressed themselves satisfied with his chances.”

Although Sweeney’s survived into the 1890s, it was eventually overshadowed, then replaced in popular favor by more commodious and modern facilities.  The decline started when Phil Casey erected his own handball court in 1887 which stole away the international games that had already been planned for Sweeney’s.

The little building changed hands a few times within the next decades.  When, in March 1909, Mrs. F. C. Rainey sold the three abutting stables—Nos. 155 through 159—the possibility arose a modern apartment building would replace them.  Instead they survived by being converted to garages.

In 1929 the former carriage houses were being used as garages.  No. 159 is third from left -- photo NYPL Collection
In 1933 Margaret Zimbalist envisioned a gallery that would not only give struggling artists an outlet; but would present the working class with the ability to purchase art.  She opened the Upstairs Gallery in her own apartment at No. 28 East 56th Street.  On February 3, 1934 it was announced that “The lively little art shop opened recently at 28 East Fifty-sixth street by Margaret Zimbalist as the Upstairs Gallery has undergone a change of name.  It is now the Ten Dollar Gallery and continues in business at the same address.”

Its success (or possibly the awkward situation of having customers plod through her apartment) prompted her to lease the space at No. 159 East 35th Street.  Zimbalist staged exhibitions for artists like Esther Estelle Pressoir, Miyamoto and Werner Drews, with prices ranging from $10 to $100.  A New York newspaper remarked on the exposure to working types that the gallery offered.  “People come in to buy who have never been in an art gallery.  She has sold to a carpenter, a soda clerk, a manicurist.”

Rough-cut stone contrasts with the formal cornice -- photo by Alice Lum

In 1938 architects Delano & Aldrich designed a formal conversion of the space to a first floor art studio with residential space on the upper floor.  The following year sculptor Malvina Hoffman purchased the building. 

Despite the conversion, The New York Times called the property a “two-story private garage” and noted that Hoffman already owned the neighboring building at No. 157.  The artist paid cash for the $36,500 property. 

Hoffman, perhaps best remembered for her sculptures of the Races of Man commissioned by Chicago’s Field Museum, opened the Murray Hill Studio of Sculpture here.  She used the space as her working studio; and opened it to the public three days a week in the afternoons.  The Times reported that she would “exhibit various technical processes of sculpture.  The models by Malvina Hoffman for her sculpture in the Hall of Man at the Field Museum, the International Dance Fountain for the World’s Fair and other work will be shown.”  Admission cost five cents.

By mid-century the studio was home to sculptor Donald DeLue.  In 1950 he received perhaps his most notable commission from the United States Battle Monuments Commission.  DeLue was given the honor of sculpting the monument for the American Cemetery in Normandy.  The artist worked on the monument in the studio on East 35th Street for three years.  On August 6, 1953 it was nearing completion and a reporter from The New York Times visited the studio, commenting on the 22-foot tall plaster model.

Donald DeLue created the memorial in the studio at No. 159 West 35th Street -- photo by Viault

“His design, after much thought, took the form of a single male figure which, he said, symbolizes the spirit of American youth rising from the pain and death of the battlefield.

“The figure stands in an aspiring attitude with arms upraised, its held tilted and mouth open as though speaking.  Its support indicates by its design the watery route of the beachhead assault troops.”

In 1976 the little building with such a varied past was converted once again—this time to a church on the ground floor and a “caretaker’s apartment and coat room” on the second.  The building remains the I Am Sanctuary of New York.  The little-known religious group seeks a “higher self” within the individual; “the focus of the Light and Power of God within the self.”

Today the ground floor of the former carriage house has been successfully obliterated and replaced with a non-matching red brick wall with a centered doorway.  But above the enthusiastic façade survives.
The little building nestles up against another surviving carriage house; giving no hint of its colorful past -- photo by Alice Lum


  1. That new brick ground floor definitely qualifies for a "what were they thinking" mention......good grief.

  2. Lovely building - simple, but attractive. Such a varied and interesting history.