New Yorkers tend to fetishize buildings not made for living as places to live — firehouses, churches, hospitals, even a former lunatic asylum, but carriage houses, structures originally meant to house horse and carriage, are one of the most coveted, prized for their distinguished front entrances, interesting histories and often unique floor plans. In January, Sotheby’s International Realty listed a stunner, a 25-foot-wide Upper East Side, Beaux Arts carriage house at 165 East 73rd Street for $14.5 million. The 5,058-square-foot structure, built for Henry Harper Benedict, president of the Remington Typewriter Co., was designed by architect George L. Amoroux and has a notable limestone base.
Like many carriage houses on and off the market, the one at E. 73rd has drool-worthy interiors. Currently, the ground floor houses a five-car garage and a small apartment; the flowing second floor has five bedrooms, a large living room and a formal dining room. Although there are touches of history throughout, like the original hand-carved hitching post on the wall of the first-floor apartment, the design is modern; since carriages homes weren’t initially built out as fancy residences, owners often redesign the interior from scratch.
How did carriage homes, originally built to house horses, become such a popular place to live? The history behind the carriage house is just as unique as the residences are today. Here is a comprehensive look at the role of carriage homes in New York City, and five of the best uses of the buildings that still stand — definitely spaces no longer fit to house a horse.
Carriage houses were a necessity in the late 18th and early 19th century when traveling by horse-drawn car and carriage across cobblestone streets was a way of life. Back then, the city was lined with cobblestone streets. To get anywhere, New Yorkers traveled by horse-drawn car. The richest New Yorkers built private carriage homes to accompany their elegant mansions and townhouses, located primarily on the Upper East Side. Others built more modest carriage homes in the backyards of brownstone buildings. And in some parts of New York, entire blocks called “mews” were set aside to build rows of these buildings.
In the mid-1800s, steam locomotives began replacing horse-drawn cars. Electrified transportation — what we now know as the subway system — arrived soon after with the first elevated line opening in 1885 and the first underground subway opening in 1904. Cars became prevalent around 1910. Presented with faster, easier ways to move throughout the city, New Yorkers largely abandoned the horse as a main method of transportation. But what to do with all those carriage houses? In many cases, the buildings were demolished. But many others remained, and in the late 19th century, they became a housing option for the rush of immigrants arriving to New York City. They served as middle class housing — one historian quoted in The New York Times hypothesized that some New Yorkers built “back houses,” as they were then known, simply to get the lucrative immigrant rents. But developers soon realized that even more lucrative was to build hulking tenement apartments, causing the demolition of even more carriage houses and single-family homes.
It isn’t until the early 1900s that carriage homes became viable housing destinations. In particular, artists started moving into the surviving carriage homes of Greenwich Village, as the neighborhood itself became more bohemian. The trend culminated when Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, of the esteemed, wealthy Vanderbilt family, moved into a carriage house on Washington Mews in 1940. It was a shock to her family, more accustomed to extravagant Upper East Side mansions, but it marked a turning point in the life of a New York City carriage house. Here are five around New York City that are worth a closer look.
60 Washington Mews
Washington Mews, one of the few surviving “mews” in New York still lined with carriage homes, was built in the early 1800s. As noted, 60 Washington Mews become the home of artist Gertrude Whitney Vanderbilt in 1940, and she lived there until her death in 1942. It was here she sculpted and supported other artists who lived in the Village. Whitney established the Whitney Museum in 1930 around the corner from the mews, on West Eighth Street. In 1953, another artist, the documentary filmmaker Jean Bach, purchased the home. She lived most of her life in the carriage house, entertaining such greats as Miles Davis and Duke Ellington, and passed away in 2013. See photos of the home.
117 East 83rd St.
The New York Times featured this Upper East Side carriage house in 2012, when it was on the market for $14.9 million. The building was the longtime home of the fashion photographer Lillian Bassman, who used the carriage house as a backdrop for many of her shoots. Bassman even brought a horse back onto the ground floor of the building (now used as a garage) for a fashion shoot, another time she photographed a zebra here. The home remained in the family for more than 50 years, until Bassman died in 2012. It sold that year at its ask of $14.9 million.
149 East 38th St.
This gorgeous Dutch Revival carriage home in Murray Hill was originally known as the George S. Bowdoin Carriage House — Bowdoin was a wealthy banker who kept his horses on the first floor, while his coachmen lived upstairs. The building was gutted in 1984 and underwent a Miami-esque renovation, complete with skylights and a spiral staircase. (You may recognize the interior from Woody Allen’s film Whatever Works.) The space has housed an international art gallery and was listed in December of 2012 for $8.25 million.
22 Jane St.
This New York carriage house in the West Village has a haunted history. The original owner, the billiards champion Calvin Demarest, used this as a stable and a horseman’s carriage until he succumbed to mental illness, attacked his wife, and was sent away to a sanitarium. By 1910 the structure was repurposed as a garage and later became a plumbing supply shop. More recently, the artist Jim Dine picked up the home in 1997 for $775,000, undertaking a modernist makeover that included an entertainment center and a roof deck. It hit the market in 2013 for $9.1 million and sold at ask.
407 Vanderbilt Ave.
This Clinton Hill carriage house isn’t historic in the least, although you’d never guess it. The owners purchased a vacant lot surrounded by historic carriage homes and decided to build their own. Construction wrapped on the single-family home in just 2006, and it was the House of the Day in The Wall Street Journal in 2013 when it was on the market for $4.875 million. The interior is thoroughly modernized with a few historic-looking touches. The exterior blends in remarkably well with its neighbors — the owners view the design as a testament to the surviving carriage homes on the block that serviced the mansions on nearby Clinton Avenue.