Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The 1902 Automobile Stables on East 75th Street

On November 24, 1899 The New York Times reported that the McKenny estate “has sold the five three-story dwellings 168 to 176 East Seventy-fifth Street.”  The rowhouses had been built in 1880 and their impending demolition was sparked as much by the change in the neighborhood as by a revolution in transportation.

Fifteen months later, on February 22, 1902, Western Electrician reported that “Edmund C. Stout of the firm of Hill & Stout, architects, will undertake the erection of five automobile stables on the lots 168 to 176 East Seventy-fifth Street, New York.”  There were wealthy New Yorkers who adamantly argued that the horseless carriage was simply a fad; one that would never replace the dependable horse.  Others disagreed.

By the first years of the 20th century, millionaires added automobiles as an alternative means of getting about.  Hill & Stout’s “automobile stables” would take care of that new-found problem of where to house the expensive contraptions.

Three days before Western Electrician’s article, The Horseless Age described the new buildings, mentioning “we have never heard of any being built solely for the use of automobiles.”  The magazine assumed that a new word would be coined for such buildings.  “Whether the term ‘automobile stables’ is correct or whether some word suitable to the keeping of automobiles should be coined to take the place of the word stables will develop with the extensive use of automobiles, which is sure to come.

“It seems rather incongruous to call buildings in which horseless carriages are kept stables.”

The magazine felt “This novel departure in the method of keeping motor vehicles should certainly appeal to anyone who has two or more machines, for the disadvantages and annoyances to an owner of several machines of being compelled to keep them in a public repair station is well known, and it is equally disagreeable to keep them in the same stable with horses.”

Stout & Hill's draughtsman H. W. Dyer produced a detailed drawing in 1902 -- The Horseless Age, February 19, 1902 (copyright expired)

Edmund C. Stout’s automobile stables followed closely the traditional layout of a carriage house:  Centered double bay doors were flanked by an entrance and a window.  A large arched window over the bay doors harkened to the hay loft of many stables.  Like the carriage houses of Manhattan’s millionaires, these garages would be architecturally appealing and upscale.

The first floor of each garage was capable of housing up to five automobiles.  Industrial-type elevators would lower the cars to the cellar “which is entirely open, well ventilated and dry, thus adapted for storage of machines not in constant use.”   The rear portion of the ground level contained a washing station, a repair pit so mechanics could easily get under the cars, a fully-equipped work bench, and an “electric charging board.”

Floor plans show handsome, octagonal rooms with fireplaces on the second floor of Nos. 168 and 176 The Horseless Age, February 19, 1902 (copyright expired)

The second floor was elegantly outfitted for the owner’s use “or for the family of the chauffeur or machinist, as the owner may elect.”  The wealthy owner who elected to turn this level over to a worker and his family would be generous.  There was a billiard room with fireplace at the rear, and a 17-foot square room to the front with another fireplace where the spacious arched window overlooked the street.  The Horseless Carriage noted “This room may be used as a stitting room or dining room, and off of it is an alcove of generous proportions in which a bed or a lounge can be placed.”

Next to the alcove was a modern bathroom that included a “shower bath.”  There was also a kitchen on this floor.

Stout used blackened bricks to create designs in the facades, as seen in No. 176 here.

The third floor was designated as the “chauffeur’s apartments.”  Here were a large living room, three bedrooms, a “commodious bath,” and a gas range, pantry closet, washtubs, and other conveniences.   The top floor contained two bedrooms to the rear, a water closet, and a large living room with a fireplace.  “Thus the floor can be used for storage or for spare bedrooms, or for anything that odd rooms in a house would be ordinarily used for,” said the magazine.

Stout’s charming string of garages, called “in the modern French style of architecture,” by The Horseless Age, were faced in brownish-red Harvard brick with touches of blackened brick used as quoins and highlights.  The architect alternated the roofline with gables and dormers so that the five structures were, as described by Horseless Age, “each separate and distinct, yet are treated as a whole.”

No. 174, above, was owned by millionaire Mortimer Leo Schiff.

The row was completed before the end of 1902 and The New York Times deemed it “a row of five ornate structures.”  The newspaper said “Inside they are luxuriously fitted up, containing on the upper floors a living room, which the owner may use if he feels so disposed, a dining room, and small kitchen, in which suppers or light meals may be prepared, and a billiard room.”

Among the first purchasers was millionaire C. G. K. Billings, who bought No. 172 in April 1903.  The Times said “Mr. Billings’s horses, for which he recently completed a fine stable on Washington Heights, will, it is said, engage less of his attention in the future, and his friends say that his automobile house will contain one of the most imposing assortments of motor vehicles to be found in the city.”

One of the first cars Billings would drive into the garage was his new Mors limousine he had imported from France in October.  The Motor World said “It is an imposing looking car.  It is rated at 45 horsepower, and contains the new features that are directly traceable to the influence of the Mercedes of French construction…The body is of the limousine pattern, roomy and exceedingly comfortable…The appointments are most complete and luxurious.  There is a speaking tube, by means of which the chauffeur can be communicated with, and two electric lights.  The interior is furnished in fawn colored cloth, and the body is finished in a rich cream color, with dark trimmings.”

The garage next door, No. 170, was purchased by financier Hamilton McKown Twombly.  Twombly was a director in several railroads and other firms.  Twombly housed five high-end automobiles in the garage, one of which was destroyed on November 17, 1904.

The following day The New York Times reported on the fire “caused by the explosion of a five-gallon can of gasoline” which did about $500 damage to the building.  “The firemen had considerable trouble in extinguishing the flames,” said the newspaper.  Touring cars and limousines were rapidly removed from the garages; but Twombly’s Mercedes did not make it out.

Motor Age reported “During a fire in the garage of H. McK. Twombly, 170 East Seventy-fifth street, New York, a 60-horsepower Mercedes car, valued at $27,000…was destroyed.”  The loss would amount to about $685,000 today.

A well-dressed gentleman stands in the bay of No. 168 in 1906.  Architectural Record, February 1906 (copyright expired)

Billings’s chauffeur, Harry Cornell who had once been employed by Mayor Hugh j. Grant, lived upstairs at No. 172.  The 35-year old was arrested on the evening of June 15, 1904 and charged “with having in his possession an auto gasoline generator and an electric lamp which were stolen from the Smith & Mayberry automobile sheds at 513 Seventh Avenue,” as reported in The Times the following day.  Billings, it may be assumed, soon searched for a new chauffeur.

The indecision regarding the proper terms to apply to the new automobile age went beyond “automobile stables.”  In 1905 the owner of No. 176 advertised in the newspapers for a “coachman wanted.”

The single garage not purchased by a wealthy auto owner was No. 168.  Instead it became the Continental Automobile School where one could learn to drive for $25 payable in installments.  An advertisement in the New-York Tribune on March 13, 1906 offered "Come and see our practical school; disappointed scholars from other schools come to us to become competent chauffeurs; foreign and American cars for road work; day and evening classes; no limit to course; French, German and American instructors."

On the other side of Billings’s garage No. 174 was owned by banker Mortimer Leo Schiff.  When his fleet of automobiles outgrew the building by 1909, he commissioned the eminent architect C. P. H. Gilbert to enlarge it.  On July 4 that year The Times reported that the architect had filed plans for the renovations.  (The enlarged facility was still not sufficient and Schiff would eventually purchase a second private garage at No. 212 East 74th Street.)

The quaint garages would not house automobiles for very long.  Billings had sold No. 172 to Robert Schnaier by 1914.  That year, in March, Schnaier leased the upper floors to the Herter Looms.  It was the first hint of changes to come.

In the meantime, Mortimer Schiff maintained his private garage and wealthy Felix Warburg took over No. 170 from Twombly.  No. 168 was owned by another millionaire banker, George F. Baker, First National Bank President.  On September 15, 1916 Warburg found himself in court defending himself for his chauffeur’s reckless driving.  When Edward Mehl was arrested and charged $25 for driving in excess of the speed limit, he explained that he was doing so “under the explicit direction of his employer.”

Judge Beal told Warburg “My object in having you brought here this morning was that I do not approve of the noticeable reticence of employers in cases where chauffeurs get into trouble through following the employer’s instructions.”

Warburg explained that the reason his limousine was speeding (although he maintained he did not direct his chauffeur to speed) was that “he was on his way to Dobb’s Ferry Hospital with a friend, the father of Albert Stern, Jr., who had been shot accidentally,” according to The New York Times.

The Judge accepted Warburg’s explanation, saying “in view of this morning’s developments we’ll forget all about it.”

In 1920 a group of investors formed the Seventy-Fifth Street Syndicate to improve the block.  They purchased more than a dozen buildings and upgraded them to high-end residences.  Among the first of the garages they converted was No. 176.  On September 13, 1920 The New York Times reported “Clara W. M. Tailer is the buyer of the dwelling at 176 East Seventy-fifth Street, sold recently by the Seventy-fifth Street Syndicate.”  The New-York Tribune added “She will alter the house and occupy.”

Clara would not enjoy her new home for long.  On April 29, 1921 she died "suddenly" in the residence.

One by one the other garages were renovated.  In 1921 artist Lawrence Maldarelli was living in No. 172 and Emily Vanderbilt Thayer had taken over No. 176.  The former wife of William H. Vanderbilt, she leased “her house for the season” in September 1930 to banker Maurice Wertheim.  “The season” dragged on for two years with Wertheim leasing the residence through 1932.

By now it appears that only two of the five buildings were still being used as private garages—Mortimer Schiff died in 1931 but No. 174 was still owned by his estate; and No. 168 was still being used by George Baker.  When Schiff’s estate was settled in 1933 the garage was assessed at $46,000; a substantial $775,000 in today’s dollars.

That same year on July 20 The New York Times announced that Emily Vanderbilt Thayer “is married again.”  In what the newspaper called “a quiet home ceremony,” she married writer Raoul Whitfield in the No. 176 East 75th Street house.  The newspaper added that the marriage would be “a surprise to their friends as there had been no announcement of engagement.”

The newlyweds’ blissful lives on East 75th Street would be short lived.  On February 22, 1935 a Times headline read “Emily Whitfield Sues; Former Mrs. Vanderbilt Seeks to Divorce Third Husband.”

No. 176 soon became home to Mr. and Mrs. John A Woodbridge, whose baby daughter was born in 1935.  The Schiff garage, No. 174, was home to Arthur Gray, Jr. and family by the 1940s.  They welcomed their third child in 1948.

The ground floor of two of the garages became commercial spaces.  By the mid-1950s the studio-gallery of sculptress Maria Clapp was in No. 170, and the interior design/antiques business of Gertrude B. Jarvis—called the Jarvis Carriage House—was at No. 172.

The Schiff garage at No. 174 was listed as a five-bedroom single-family home when it went on the market for $6.8 million in August 2008.  Six years later it was back on the market for $14.75 million.

No. 170 is hidden behind construction netting in 2014.
Today two of the former garages, Nos. 174 and 176, are private homes.  The others have been converted to apartments.  The alterations to the charming string have not spoiled their charm and few passersby today realize that a little over a century ago the expensive limousines and “pleasure cars” of Manhattan’s wealthy drove through their doors.

non-historic photographs taken by the author


  1. A brief note on Harrison McKown Twombley: he was not only a financial advisor to the Vanderbilts, he was also married to William H.'s daughter, Florence. He was an inspired businessman and venture capitalist and his great financial acumen is very much responsible for the fact that many of his descendants remain enormously rich which is not the case for any of the other Vanderbilts. His financial savvy permitted his widow to live in pre World War I fashion until her death in the 1950's, still attended by a staff that exceeded 100. I have always loved a story about her that took place at Florham, her enormous country place in New Jersey (now Fairleigh Dickinson University's main campus). The draft had just been introduced as America prepared itself for possilbe involvment in the looming Second World War. A young guest, casting about for a suitable topic of conversation with the famously frosty Mrs. Twombley said something to the effect of how hard it must be to run a large house with the men servants being called up for the draft. Mrs. Twombley shook her head sadly in agreement and added, "Yes. We lost four this week. From the pantry alone."

    Great post. I begin every morning with Daytonian.

  2. One of these houses, 174, was used for the exterior of the house occupied by Jack Lemmon's character in the film "How to Murder Your Wife."