|A steam-driven elevated train puffs past the elaborate Third Avenue Car Barn -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
The Third Avenue Railroad Company was granted a franchise on December 18, 1852. The horse-drawn cars began operating around six months later, on July 3. The company was instantly successful. A year after taking on its first passenger, the company’s line was extended to 86th Street. By 1859 the route ran to Harlem, terminating around 129th Street.
The astounding success and growth of the company necessitated a “car barn” where the street cars could be maintained and housed and the teams of horses could be stabled. The car barn was completed in 1861—a cutting-edge explosion of French Second Empire architecture. The style would not gain popularity in the United States for a few years, but the car barn introduced it with gusto.
Providing a block-long expanse of floor space for maintenance and stables, it housed the company's offices on the second floor. Looking more like a railroad depot than a maintenance shed, it sprouted tiled mansard towers, ornamented dormers and spiky cast iron roof cresting. The iconic Victorian structure would be closely mirrored a century and a half later in Disney World’s pseudo-Victorian railway station.
|When Berenice Abbott shot the car barn in 1936 as part of the Federal Art Project, little had changed since 1861 -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
In 1872, with the Civil War ended and the city expanding, the Third Avenue Railway Company enlarged the car barn. It now engulfed the entire block from Third to Second Avenue, from 65th to 66th Street. With extended routes and more and more cars there came a problem. The horses were often overworked and stifling summer heat took its toll. One passenger wrote that the trip from Manhattan to Harlem took an hour and twenty minutes providing “no horse balked or fell dead across the tracks.”
The Chicago City Railroad Company found a solution to the problem when it opened its cable traction system in January 1882. The Third Avenue Railway Company took note. The following year the company contracted the Chicago Railway’s construction engineer to lay a test cable system on 10th Avenue (later renamed Amsterdam Avenue).
|After 1872 the massive building stretched back to 2nd Avenue -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
There had been a problem with Chicago’s system. If a cable snapped, the entire system went down. The Third Avenue Railway Company stepped around the problem by laying two cables—if one broke the other could quickly be engaged.
Although many of the company’s employees were dissatisfied with the new system—it eliminated the jobs of some stable boys and the increased capacity of the new cable cars meant fewer drivers—the firm realized nearly 30 percent savings. For one thing, the life span of a car horse was only about five years, thereby requiring consistent replacement. The public was elated, as well. Reduced stable odors, horse manure on the streets and lessened damage to pavement by horse hooves were all welcomed side effects.
|A team of horses is whipped while a group of men attempt to push a streetcar through the snow -- Harper's Weekly, 1872 (copyright expired)
A writer to The New York Times a month later celebrated the passing of the horse-drawn cars. “Of course, the first thought of every humane patron of the line is to present his congratulations to the Third Avenue car horse on being extinct…In equine days the Third Avenue car horse was the equine analogue of the yellow dog, that is to say, the lowest of his kind.”
But while he was happy with the replacement of the horse with electricity, the writer was not as pleased with the accommodations of the new trolleys. He found the 32-inch wide seats too confining.
“There was once a famous glutton who observed that a turkey, though very good eating, was an inconvenient bird, being a little too much for one and not quite enough for two. One need not be a glutton to find that true of the seats in the new cars…Two stout passengers who are doomed to occupy one of these seats in common glare at each other’s unfair proportions with unconcealed, and, in the case of beamy and candid female passengers, with articulately expressed disgust.”
By now Schribner’s magazine deemed the Third Avenue Railway Company “the richest street railway corporation” in the nation. But the expenses of electrification and route extension took its toll. The company failed on February 28, 1900 and was put into receivership.
A cost-savings initiative was put into effect in 1907. The “car ahead” policy shortened routes, requiring passengers to inconveniently change cars. The passengers revolted. On August 23 of that year the New-York Tribune reported that “Still another riot was added yesterday to the many for which the “car ahead” rule is responsible, when the passengers on a Third avenue car refused to change at the barns at 65th street when ordered to by the conductor.”
Six men and one woman sat stubbornly on the car as it was brought into the car barn around midnight. After an hour, the car cleaners began to clean up and ordered the passengers to leave. “The sweepers outnumbered the passengers, and although the latter fought every inch of the way, they were soon ejected from the barn. Several passengers from another car joined in the melee, and then missiles began to fly.”
The battle resulted in at least two arrests and some bruises. The passengers, who would have received a free transfer, continued on their way home having to pay a new fare, somewhat worse for the wear.
But there was another opponent looming in the near future: the subway system. Although the streetcars continued to be used on Manhattan routes, the outlying routes were abandoned. The Third Avenue Railway’s car barn was still constructing streetcars—about two per week—through the 1930s.
|At some point between 1936 and 1946 the car barn lost its mansard towers -- from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
Then in the first years of the 1940s the firm changed its name to the Third Avenue Transit Corporation and abandoned the streetcar in favor of motorized buses. By now the magnificent car barn had lost most of its Second Empire detailing, the grand towers sheared off.
|A bus is under construction in the car barn in the mid-1940s. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York
On July 15, 1946 The New York Times reported “To mark the formal end o the era of surface trolley car transportation in Manhattan, the Third Avenue Transit Corporation has decided to sell at auction its old car barns and other properties that it has used for two generations or more.” The article noted that “The oldest and one of the most valuable properties” was the Third Avenue car barn. “The three-story building there is a relic of Civil War days and has been used for car barns, repair shops and offices.”
In 1952 the glazed white brick Manhattan House apartment building rose on the site of the old car barn. The 19-story apartment building still stands, an interesting example of ambitious mid-century modern architecture; but not nearly so picturesque as its predecessor.
|Crisp 1950s architecture replaced the Victorian embellishments --from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York