Thursday, July 14, 2022

The 1888 Van Tassell & Kearney Building - 130-132 East 13th (125 East 12th)


On October 15, 1887 the Real Estate Record & Guide described the plans for Van Tassell & Kearney's "stable and carriage house" on East 13th Street between Third and Fourth Avenues.  "It will contain five floors and basement, the latter being used to accommodate one hundred horses.  The first floor will be used as an auction room and the four floors above for carriages."  The structure, in fact, would be more than a stable, it was carriage and horse auction mart.

William Van Tassell had been in the horse auction business since 1864, a partner in Johnston & Van Tassell at 110-112 East 13th Street.  He joined Edward Kearney in 1874, changing the company's name to Van Tassell & Kearney.  There were about 100,000 horses in New York City at the time, and auction houses of horses and vehicles were highly important.  Van Tassell & Kearney were known as one of the largest and most reliable.

Completed in 1888, the new building had cost $200,000 to construct--more than $5.6 million today.  Architects D. & J. Jardine had created a handsome brick-faced structure atop a cast iron base.  The style, sometimes called "brick warehouse style," drew on the Romanesque Revival with heavy piers that rose to large arches.  The building extended through the block to East 12th Street, where its nearly-identical facade was slightly wider.  The architects used terra cotta to embellish the structure with decorative rondels, foliate capitals, and elaborate sprandrel panels between the third and fourth floors depicting riding crops and horseshoes on a leafy background.

The building opened on November 10, 1888.  The Sun commented, "Van Tassell & Kearney, whose magnificent new auction mart and storage house for carriages, at 130 and 132 East Thirteenth street...was opened on Saturday last, are the leaders in their trade, having gained a reputation for sterling integrity ever since the establishment of the firm in 1867 [sic]."

Excitement turned to tragedy a month later.  Around 4:30 on December 7, a good friend of William Van Tassell, Dr. John W. Dowling stopped by to visit.  The Sun said, "Mr. Van Tassell was proud of the great establishment, and whenever an intimate friend came around he usually wanted to show him through it."  Van Tassell unlocked the elevator door, "expecting to find the car in the place it usually was in when not in use.  Someone had left it two flights up."  He stepped into the dark shaft, and plummeted "without a word or cry, into the cellar, 112 feet below."  

Dr. Dowling went for help, and by the light of a lantern, Van Tassell could be seen at the bottom of the shaft.  His skull had been fractured, and he died within two hours of being brought up.  The following day, The Evening World reported rather dramatically:

The sadly mutilated body of Auctioneer William Van Tassell, who was killed last evening by falling 112 feet through an elevator shaft in his new building, 132 East Thirteenth street, lies to-day in the darkened parlor of his home, 28 Irving place.  The art of the undertaker has done much to restore a natural look to the dead man's countenance, but the ugly gash in the skull where the unfortunate man struck the centre bar of the elevator could not be concealed.

The tragedy spurred Edward Kearney to rethink his recent retirement.  He had turned over his position in the firm to his son, Edward Jr.  Now, on December 22, The Spirit of the Times reported, "Notwithstanding the recent sudden death of Mr. Van Tassell, the extensive business of the firm will be continued just the same, and with the same firm name...and the addition of the return of Mr. Edward Kearney, Sr., to active business again."

New York Athletic Club Journal, December 1897 (copyright expired)

Van Tassell & Kearney continued as one of the city's largest outlets for vehicles and horses.  On December 22, 1891 The Sun wrote, "Messrs. Van Tassell & Kearney's place at 130-132 East Thirteenth street is a mecca for lovers of fine carriages.  The display of all kinds of vehicles it contains is so large that a purchaser is almost bewildered when trying to made a selection."  The article noted various carriage types like broughams, victorias, cabriolets, wagonettes, donkey and pony carts, dog carts and more.

As the business grew, in 1902 Van Tassell & Kearney purchased to property next door at 126-128 East 13th Street and brought back David and John Jardine, whose firm was now Jardine, Kent & Jardine, to design a striking two-story auction show ring building.   The plans included "two large openings in the wall of No. 130, large enough to drive a double team of horses through."  

An advertisement explained the uses of the two buildings.  Bit & Spur, October 1908 (copyright expired)

An article in The Saddle and Show Horse Chronicle on May 16, 1911 reflected the reputation of the firm.  It said in part, "Van Tassell & Kearney's auction sales, held every Tuesday and Friday, at No. 132 East Thirteenth street, New York, have long been resorted to by buyers from fifty miles around when in want of such horses as well as carriages, harness, saddles and all equipment for the stable."

But at the time of the article, motorcars were threatening the future of horse-drawn vehicles.  By World War I, Van Tassell & Kearney was adapting.  An advertisement on April 6, 1917 in The New York Times read, "Marmon--At auction, very fine town car; 1914; used by private family; to be sold today (Friday, April 6) by Van Tassell & Kearney, 130-132 East 13th St."

Nevertheless, the end of the horse era brought the end of the fabled auction house.  The building was offered for rent in March 1919, described as "suitable for storage of light manufacturing, etc."   Four months later the Record & Guide reported, "Van Tassell & Kearney's auction mart at 127 and 129 East 12th street, through to 130 and 132 East 13th street, is shortly to be improved with a candy factory, having been leased by the Kearney estate to the King Philip Chocolates Co."  The Sun said the building, "for many years the auction salesroom for horses and carriages of New York's fashionable residents," would be "entirely remodeled."  Architect J. O'Dell Whitenack's conversion from stable to factory cost the equivalent of $450,000 in 2022.

King Philip Chocolates Co. was newly incorporated at the time.  It was acquired in 1920 by the U. R. S. Candy Stores, which was renamed Happiness Candy Stores in 1924.   It remained here for another four years.

The cast iron base can be seen in this 1941 photograph.  via NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The building housed A. J. Siris Products, Inc. beginning in 1943.  The firm manufactured powder puffs.  Its management's plans to move the operation to Virginia in 1946 drew the wrath of labor unions.  The New York Times noted the firm's intentions "will become an international incident...if Local 65 of the Wholesale and Warehouse Workers Union, CIO, has its way."  The union did not get its way, and the firm moved South.

The entrance is now on the virtually identical East 12th Street side.

A conversion to residential use was completed in 1989, along with an additional two stories, mostly unseen from street level.  The entrance was moved to East 12th Street and all evidences that the original main entrance on East 13th Street were erased.  Happily, the architects treated the historic facade sympathetically, carefully cleaning and repairing it and its striking terra cotta decorations.

photographs by the author
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