Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A 1906 Home for Automobiles -- No. 177-179 East 73rd Street

photo by Alice Lum
As the 20th century dawned, startling technological developments were changing society.  Telephones and telegraphs made instant communication possible.  There was a global, frenzied competition among inventors to create a flying machine.  And the automobile was slowly replacing the carriage on city streets.

The Automobile Realty Company recognized the significance of the motorcar and also realized that with the increased numbers came a need for garaging.   The fledgling firm purchased two brownstone houses at Nos. 177 and 179 East 73rd Street in October 1905 with intentions to replace them with a garage.

On the same day that The New York Times reported the sale, it separately commented that “Scarcely a day passes without the leasing of some building for a garage, or of some plot as the site for one.” 

The location made perfect sense.  Like the several two-story carriage houses around it, the garage would be conveniently located to the mansions of Madison and Park Avenues; but far enough away to prevent any disturbance.  The Automobile Realty Company commissioned architect Charles F. Hoppe to design the new structure, which was completed in 1906.

The design of the “auto garage” was meant to appeal to the wealthy carriage owners who were one-by-one converting to automobiles.  A stately five stories tall, Hoppe worked in the still-popular Beaux Arts style.  A substantial granite and limestone base formed the first floor with a large central entrance door, over which a carved stone cartouche announced the address.

Three stories of brick were broken by a central span of windows in a deep terra-cotta frame.  Above a heavy cornice of terra-cotta blocks sits a steep mansard roof with highly unusual terra-cotta framed dormers.

The unusual dormers are constructed of terra-cotta blocks -- photo by Alice Lum
Among the first patrons of the new garage was former Mayor Hugh Grant who parked his $10,000 limousine here in 1907.  Mayor Grant parked his automobile here until March 16 of that year, anyway.

On that day Mrs. Grant called for the car and chauffeur William Wheeler picked her up, along with her two daughters, little two-and-a-half year old Hugh J. Grant Jr., and his nurse, Mrs. D. M. Brown.   The two little girls departed at the home of a friend on West 51st Street.   Mrs. Grant then directed Wheeler to drive through the Park.

When Wheeler swerved to avoid a ditch between trolley rails, he turned into the path of an approaching trolley.  “Before the machine could leave the tracks, the car crashed into the rear wheel of the automobile and hurled it against the pillar,” said The New York Times.

Mrs. Grant suffered a cut over her eye that required stitches and little Hugh suffered from shock.  “For more than two hours after the accident he was unable to speak, and it was only after electrical appliances had been used that his speech was restored,” reported The Times.

As for the car, “The machine…was a total wreck,” said the paper.

Over a century after its construction, the “auto garage” continues to do what it was designed to do:  garage cars.   It remains in outstanding condition with little change since Mrs. Grant’s limousine rolled out for the last time in 1907.

Narrow, recessed windows stretch upwards three stories, enhancing the verticality of the structure -- photo by Alice Lum
The Landmarks Preservation Commission remarked in 1980 that “The sophistication of the design is unusual for this type of building,” and the AIA Guide to New York City called it “A proud, exquisitely detailed Beaux Arts container for the newly emerging automobile.”

It is a fascinating survivor of a time when horses were being replaced by machines and forward-thinking entrepreneurs took advantage of the opportunity.

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