Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The New York Cab Company Stable - 318-330 Amsterdam Avenue

Despite the Real Estate Record & Guide's describing him as "the dealer in fancy goods," William T. Walton had turned much of his focus away from his Eighth Avenue dry good store to Upper West Side real estate development by the mid 1880s.  A resident of the district himself, his name regularly appeared in realty documents as he purchased plots, and built apartments and commercial buildings.

And as the city's population swelled, increased transportation was needed for those residents not wealthy enough to own their own vehicles and horses.   The concept of New York Cab Company was announced on October 6, 1876, prompting The New York Herald to run the headline CHEAP CABS and explain "The rate of transportation will be fifty cents an hour for all passengers."  (The fare would translate to about $11.50 per hour today.)

Although the firm had not yet been formally organized, it proposed to revamp the disorganized taxi system currently in place.  Independent drivers who owned a carriage operated on their own, setting their own fares (normally higher than those in Europe).  The New York Cab Company would hire existing cabs and drivers, cover their stabling and repairs, and pay them $1.50 per trip.

In 1884 the firm finally began operation.  Appleton's Dictionary of Greater New York said "The New York Cab Company have recently placed on the streets cabs at rates much cheaper than have hitherto ruled.  The cabs are black and yellow, and are popularly known as the 'black and tan.'"

In the eight years since its organizers had first come up with the idea, the fares had risen.  Appleton's said that there were two kinds of cabs--two-seated and four-seated--and "The tariff of charges is twenty-five cents a mile, or fraction thereof, or $1.00 by the hour."

The guidebook warned tourists about being fooled by other cabs who parroted the bright yellow stripe.  "Strangers should be cautioned against cabs painted yellow and black in imitation, the drivers of which usually charge higher rates."

That same year, in July, William T. Walton purchased the large plot of land at the northwest corner of 10th Avenue (renamed Amsterdam Avenue in 1890) and 75th Street.   By the time his architect, Charles Abbott French, filed plans four years later, in March 1888, the New York Cab Company had several stables throughout the city.

A comment in the Record & Guide on November 2, 1889 may explain the long delay in constructing Walton's building.  "W. T. Walton intends completing the storage warehouse, commenced some eighteen months ago, on the west side of 10th avenue, between 75th and 76th streets."

It appears that the storage warehouse idea stalled, and construction was kickstarted following negotiations with the New York Cab Company.  Their newest stable was completed in July 1890 at a reported cost of $45,000--more than $1.2 million today.   The only commercial stables in the neighborhood at the time, French's five-story structure was as handsome as it was utilitarian.   His elegant take on Romanesque Revival included expected beefy elements, like the undressed stone courses above each row of openings, and the chunky boulders that formed the base of the massive arched carriage bays.  But he softened the design by adding tasteful fanlights to the arched openings of the top floor and dripping incised lines that implied fluting down the three story pilasters .

The New York Cab Company was fully installed in the building in 1891.   Almost immediately the firm experienced labor problems.   Drivers complained that they were allowed only one meal break during their long shifts (Thomas Ketchell later testified to the State Arbitration Board that his shift ended at 1:00 in the morning and his next started at 6:00).  One hackman, Timothy O'Connor, testified that any driver who arrived to work more than three minutes late would be laid off for a three days.

Late in 1896 the drivers struck.   The New York Cab Company continued operations, using non-union labor.  On January 11, 1897 Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt received a letter from J. E. Bausch, secretary of the Cab Driver's Association, requesting that police be removed from outside the stables.  Roosevelt's reply evidenced the violent nature of labor conflicts at the time.  It said in part:

As a matter of fact the strikers or their sympathizers have committed a number of brutal assaults upon the peaceable employees of the New York Cab Company, in addition to attempting to destroy the property of the company...If the strikers are law abiding and peaceable they can have no possible objection to the presence of the police.

The strike sparked a surprising counter-move by the management.  On January 10 the New-York Tribune reported "The New-York Cab Company has been making preparations for some time to introduce horseless carriages to take the place of the cabs now in use, and the strike of its drivers has spurred it on to hasten the work of the inventors."

That announcement may have been more bluff than reality, for it would be several more years before motorized taxicabs would become viable.  The New York Cab Company continued providing its services with telegraph lines (and later telephones) in the office provided connection to theaters, docks and other facilities where passengers could call for cabs.  The firm negotiated an exclusive contract with the Cunard Line, for instance.

Among the New York Cab Company's valued customers at the turn of the century was Dr. Albert M. Johnston and his wife, Marie Layton Johnston.  The couple was married in 1901 and Johnston's dental practice was at No. 463 Fifth Avenue where he made about $291,000 per year by today's standards.  Marie added to the household by working as the head bookkeeper and cashier of the United States Playing Card Company.

The New York Times reported on October 5, 1903 "Both husband and wife were well known for their manner of dress and the lavishness of their tips."  They lived near the New York Cab Company's stable, in the Dorilton Apartments at 71st Street and Broadway.  Marie's taxi bills ran about $200 per month--more than $5,600 today--by the time of The Times article.

The reason the newspaper was reporting on the Johnstons' lifestyle was because Marie's employer had discovered how they managed to support it.  The 29-year old was arrested for having embezzled between $30,000 and $40,000.  The New York Cab Company found itself not only short two customers, but a significant amount of money.

Among the original founders of the New York Cab Company was William K. Vanderbilt, Jr.  In May 1907 he joined in another new enterprise, the Motor Carriage Company.  Power Wagon reported the firm "proposes to operate 300 gasoline cabs...within the period of a year."

In a separate article the magazine noted that Vanderbilt "is known to be enthusiastic on the subject of motor cab use, and is already heavily interested in the New York Cab Company, which operates horse-drawn vehicles."  The writer suspected "that the time is not far distant when a merger of these two interests will take place."

Indeed, on January 7, 1911 Automobile Topics noted "The Cab and Taxi Company is a consolidation of the New York Cab Company, the New York Livery and Auto Service Company, the Taxi Service Company, the Com-Automobile Company, the Club Taxi Company, Union Taxicab Auto Service Company and the Moulton Stable Company."  Among the 35 "stations" listed for the new conglomerate was the former Amsterdam Avenue stable.

By the time of the article, William T. Walton had altered the ground floor to accommodate shops.  On February 11, 1911 the Record & Guide announced that he had leased a store and basement "to the Colonial Restaurant for a term of years.  This completes the renting of the stores recently altered in the building."

Another business in the building by 1913 was the Metropolitan Motorcycle Repair Co.  An advertisement that year read "Have your motorcycle overhauled now; expert work, moderate charges; ten years' experience in motor cycle repair work."

I. H. Simpson operated his plumbing business from a ground floor shop by 1915 when he purchased a new Ward Special electric truck.  One of 18 merchants in New York City to use the innovative vehicle, he no doubt garaged it within the building.  The Edison Monthly noted in January 1916 "Arrangements have been made with stables throughout the city whereby these electric cars may be stored for ten dollars a month, this fee including the washing of the car."

I. H. Simpson's 1915 Ward Special truck, like those pictured above, was garaged in the building.  The Edison Monthly, January 1916 (copyright expired)

Simpson was still operating from the shop at No. 326 Amsterdam Avenue when he partnered with John Fath.  Fath had run his own company on West 83rd Street for years; but The Plumbers Trade Journal explained the men joined forces "to conduct a plumbing and heating business on a larger scale."

Two years before women won the right to vote nationally, New York State allowed women to register.  One of the shops in the former stables building became a registration office in the spring of 1918.  In reporting on the procedures on May 26, the New-York Tribune pointed out "In the garage at Amsterdam Avenue and Seventy-fifth Street a woman election clerk, Miss Beatrice Cassell, won the admiration of the man who was working for the other party with her, Arno R. Domeyer."

Domeyer told the reporter "For nine years I've been inspector of elections and I've never seen the equal for speed of Miss Cassell."  Beatrice was optimistic about the future for women, adding "When I've been inspector for nine years I'll be a Congresswoman."

At least one potential voter was having a hard time grasping her gender's newly-acquired independence.  The Tribune reported "One of the women who will know better next time is Mrs. Laura Rosebault, of 1 West Sixty-seventh Street, who tucked the card carefully into her pocketbook and started toward the door."

When a clerk pointed her toward the canvas enclosure for filling out the form, she explained "Oh, I'm going to take it home and let my husband show me how."

The article continued "After the clerk had brought her to understand that this was not the usual thing she emerged triumphant, having placed the cross in the proper place without her husband's aid."

In July the following year the McGraw Tire & Rubber Company leased the entire second floor.  A surprising tenant already in the building was the Enterprise Music Supply Company.  Charles Shongood described it later saying "The business occupies 10,000 square feet of floor space and contains the best equipped jobbing plant of its kind in New York City."

After that company declared bankruptcy in 1920, a public auction was held in the building on January 13 1921.  The announcement said "The stock to be sold comprises all of the latest and most popular instrumental and vocal numbers of sheet-music, as well as a complete line of the earlier standard musical compositions; also an extensive stock of phonograph records and music rolls."

The following year the Walton family had extensive renovations done, costing more than $200,000.  Included in the updates were reinforced floors and new elevators.  Now, in addition to the sidewalk level stores, an automobile repair shop was on the first floor and basement, with "public garage and auto repair shop" on the upper floors, according to Department of Buildings documents.

The Sherman Square Garage moved into the renovated space, while the auto repair shop was leased to the Graves Sales Corporation.  On the morning of June 8, 1923 Phyllis Simpson, secretary to Robert Graves, Jr., was sitting at her desk in the Graves Sales first floor office.  Upstairs 15 employees of the Sherman Square Garage were tending to business.  There were about 100 cars parked throughout the building.

Suddenly a gasoline tank exploded in the basement repair shop directly under Phyllis Simpson's desk.  The force of the explosion threw her from her chair and the entire building was rocked.  Twelve of the Sherman Square Garage employees rushed out of the building.  The other three ran to the roof and down a fire escape to safety.

The fire in the basement spread to flammable, toxic supplies.  The New York Times reported "Smoke poured from the place and fumes from burning tires, electric batteries and other automobile paraphernalia swept over the district."  Fourteen fire fighters staggered out of the basement, nearly overcome by the fumes, and were treated at a nearby store.

Fire Chief John Kenlon arrived after the third alarm was sent out.  "It may not have been a spectacular fire," he told reporters after a two-hour battle, "but it was ten times harder on the men than spectacular blazes usually are."

None of the vehicles on the upper floors were injured; but the building suffered about $50,000 in damages--a significant $703,000 today.

As the Upper West Side neighborhood changed, the old structure rather remarkably did not.  The Walton family sold it in 1946 and throughout the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st it continued to house a garage with various businesses--a player piano store, a laundry, and a succession of restaurants, for instance--on the ground floor.

Like gaping maws, the massive arched bays survive on the 75th Street side.  Once scores of horse-drawn hansoms and landaus came and went through these openings daily.

In the late 1980s the preservation group Landmark West! began efforts to protect the building.  Its location outside the boundaries of the Upper West Side/Central Park West Historic District put it in jeopardy of demolition or significant alteration.  Two decades later, in October 2006, the group's unrelenting push finally resulted in the Landmarks Preservation Commission designating the former New-York Cab Company Stable an individual New York City landmark.

photographs by the author

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