Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The 75th Street Riding Academy -- Nos. 115-119 E. 75th Street

A coating of white paint hides the contrast of brick and terra cotta -- photo by Alice Lum

In the 1880s riding academies and livery stables cropped up along the western edge of Central Park, the bridle paths and drives of which were attractive spots for an afternoon ride.  The commodious buildings offered New Yorkers a convenient place to board their personal horses, or from which to lease a saddle horse for the afternoon.  In 1888 the Engineering & Building Record noted “That horseback riding is on the increase in New York City need not be doubted by any one.  It is one of the most healthful of exercises and most agreeable of recreations.”

Thomas Patten thought out of the box.  As comfortable rowhouses were being erected on the East Side blocks running off the Park, he envisioned an upscale riding school among them.  In 1887 construction started on his ground-breaking 75th Street Riding School on East 75th Street.  Patten hired architect George Martin Huss to design a stable and riding academy the likes of which had never been seen before.

Completed a year later, the four-story brick structure was a formidable Romanesque Revival pile.  The severity of its bulk was lessened by a series of arched openings at the second floor.  The rhythm of the arches was amplified by three-dimensional brick voissoirs that cartwheeled from one pilaster to the next.  Huss made sparing use of terra cotta for capitals, a bandcourse and other embellishments.  A handsome horse’s head served as the keystone to the large arch of the third floor.  Behind the triangular pediment, unseen from the street, was the arched ceiling of the double-height riding ring.

photo by Alice Lum

On June 2, 1888 The Engineering & Building Record announced the opening of the unusual school.  “Quite a novelty in riding-schools has recently been opened at Nos. 115, 117, and 119 East Seventy-fifth Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues.  It is the first elevated-ring riding-school in New York and has been leased to Mr. J. D. Brown by the owner, Mr. Thomas Patten.

Carriages were stored on the ground level (the lowest level on the cross-section was in the basement).  The soaring two-story high riding ring would, sadly, not last long -- Engineering & Building Record, June 2, 1888 (copyright expired)

“Few people realize the feasibility of having an entirely commodious and thoroughly safe riding-ring for saddle-horses on the third floor of a building…The architect, Mr. George Martin Huss, has utilized in this building all of the available space of the plot, which is three lots in frontage and over one hundred feet deep by arranging for a riding-floor on the top story, a well-equipped stable below it, a carriage-house on the ground floor and another stable beneath that.”

The New York Times said “A riding ring stuck up on the top floor of a three-story building, with a well equipped stable below it, a carriage house on the ground floor, and another stable beneath that, is something of a curiosity in New-York.”
At the festive opening, a riding and jumping exhibition was staged.  Huss had used concrete for the floors, covered with asphalt.  The result was that the building—necessarily filled with hay and other flammable materials—was as fireproof as possible, and the noises of the galloping and jumping horses on the top floor were muffled.  Several ladies who were inspecting the second floor paddocks during on opening night were surprised to discover that the galloping and jumping exhibitions had started—they heard nothing on the floor below.

The Times noted on April 1, 1888 that “A large party of ladies and gentlemen, many of them representing various riding clubs, were present at the entertainment last night.”  The newspaper added “The only difference between this riding academy and others seems to be its altitude.”

The theory behind locating the riding ring unconventionally on the top floor had to do with logistics.  “It is claimed for the new scheme that it will do away with the dampness arising from the ground floors, as well as permit the proper conduct of the livery business in the same building,” explained The New York Times.  Engineering & Building Record agreed, but added that the top floor also enabled “better light and air.”

Perhaps, indeed, the East Side was no place for a riding academy; or maybe J. D. Brown simply mismanaged it.  For whatever reason, within a year the 75th Street Riding Academy was no more.  In 1889 the soaring, double-height riding ring was floored over, creating a third and fourth floor internally.  Seven years later, on April 24, 1896, the Commissioners of the Sinking Fund resolved to take over the building to house the patrol wagon service of the 25th Precinct.  The horse-drawn wagons had been previously housed at the stables at No. 161 East 70th Street. 

The following year in its Annual Report the New York Police Department described the function of the patrol wagon service.  “These wagons have been of such infinite value to the Department that it is difficult to see how it will be possible to get along without them.  They are used for conveying prisoners to and from the station-houses and from places where arrests are made; in conveying drunken or noisy persons to the station-houses; in answering calls for Police assistance, and, in general, supplementing the work of the Department, particularly in the handling and care of women and children…In the busier parts of the city they are kept almost constantly at work day and night.”

Although the New York Police Department was comprised of a great many Irish-born officers; it was instead the Irish reputation for rowdiness and drunkenness that earned the patrol wagons the nickname “Paddy wagons.”

In 1912 the aging stable building once again got a make-over.  The Police Department had moved out and the city was seeing a change-over from horse-drawn vehicles to automobiles.  A year-long renovation resulted in the former stable building’s transformation into the Sullivan Garage.

Like the 75th Street Riding Academy, the Sullivan Garage would not last more than a year, either.  In 1914 Horseless Age reported that the Standard Oil Co. of New York, the Vacuum Oil Co. and the Platt and Washburn Refining Co. had filed a petition in bankruptcy against the Sullivan Garage Co.  A year later the same magazine noted that, indeed, the Sullivan Garage had suffered bankruptcy.

The building became the Spangler Garage and it would become part of a messy and embarrassing incident in 1919.  Toward the end of the year Policeman Paul J. Somers of the East 77th Street station house began selling raffle tickets for $1 each.  The tickets read:
Drawing for a handsome auto, for the benefit of a family in need, to be held at Spangler Garage, 117 East Seventy-fifth Street, Wednesday, Dec. 4, at 8 P.M.  Tickets $1.

Somers sold the tickets to merchants while in uniform and informed them “that the proceeds were to go to the family of Policeman McCormack, who was shot and killed in a Harlem district while on duty,” according to The New York Times.

Word of the supposed raffle reached Lieutenant Joseph Bannon.  He tracked down Somers in the store of H. Cohen selling tickets.  The problem was that the proceeds for the needy family were actually intended for Somers, himself. 

The policeman was publicly humiliated and a trial ensued.  “Somers testified that the drawing was for his sole benefit, as his salary as a policeman had not been sufficient to support his family, consisting of his wife and seven children,” reported The Times on February 14, 1920.

photo by Alice Lum

A significant fire in 1922 resulted in the destruction of the arched roof and subsequent replacement.  Throughout the rest of the 20th century and continuing today the hefty Romanesque Revival structure continues its life as a garage; its ground floor heavily altered, but the upper stories remaining essentially intact.


  1. Absolutely appreciate looking into the mind of the architect - drawings - floor plans. Also love the terracotta icons like horses or Indians one sees in hidden corners of the old city.

  2. For 30 years I have been wondering what "first elevated riding ring in New York" meant. Thank you. Christopher Gray

    1. Absolutely fascinating building, wasn't it?