Friday, January 15, 2010

Murray Hill Carriage House

Click photo to enlarge.

149 East 38th Street (between Lexington and Third Ave.)

This two-story stable building was constructed in 1902 for William R. H. Martin, a businessman and real estate developer active in the Murray Hill section of the city. Architect Ralph S. Townsend designed this small building in a distinctive Dutch Revival style, with an elaborate stepped gable and oversized white granite quoins and voussoirs, which set off the Flemish brickwork. Oval inset panels of horse heads allude to the building's original function, while a bulldog near the top of the gable adds a whimsical element.

The stable was purchased in 1907 by George S. Bowdoin, who lived nearby at Park Avenue and East 36th Street. Bowdoin was a partner in the banking firm of J. P. Morgan and Co. and lived close to Morgan's residence, which was at the corner of 36th Street and Madison Avenue. In an arrangement typical of private carriage houses, Bowdoin's stable housed his horses and carriage on the ground floor, and had living quarters for the coachman on the upper floor. Bowdoin's daughter Edith inherited the building from her father, had it converted to a garage in 1918, and held ownership until 1944. As a rare surviving stable structure in Manhattan, this building serves as a reminder of the period of New York’s history when horses were an important part of daily life and their care and housing had to be taken into consideration; when this carriage house was built, there were approximately 4,500 stables in the city, accommodating more than 70,000 horses.

At the time the carriage house received historic landmark status in 1997, it served as a single family residence. Now owned by the Gabarron Foundation Center for the Arts since 2002, this unique space serves as a meeting place for organizations, corporations, government and individuals. The sun-lit contemporary interior is in striking contrast to the period facade. Recent bookings at the carriage house include product launches, culinary events, cocktail receptions, fashion shows, film shootings, private dinners, weddings, lectures and seminars. When not leased for special events, the Gabarron Foundation promotes Spanish and Latin American culture by producing public concerts, art exhibits, lectures, tastings and film screenings.

Trivia: A few doors down, at 133 E. 38th St., detective novelist Dashiell Hammett lived at this address in 1931, when he was writing The Thin Man. Across the street, near the corner of Third Ave., Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, lived at No. 166 from 1901-12.

Note: While many carriage houses faced the street, the vast majority were located in mews, off an alley (street front property being too valuable for a carriage house). Of course, most of the present day survivors have been converted into coveted private homes, a pleasant alternative to high rise living. A notable example is Sniffen Court (photo below), off 36th Street in Murray Hill, also between Lexington and 3rd Ave., where the former Civil-War era stables, designed by architect John Sniffen, were converted to ten residences during the 1920s. These homes are in high demand. Until she died while working in her Sniffen court studio, Malvina Hoffman (1887-1966), a New York City born student of Rodin who became an important American sculptress, kept a salon here, at the far end of the alley, where a hand pump once supplied water for the thirsty horses; Hoffman’s decorative plaques of Greek horsemen can still be seen flanking either side of the former studio's entry (bottom photo). Another American female sculptor, Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (1880-1980), also a student of Rodin, lived at Sniffen Court until 1937. The homes are privately owned, except for two that have entrances directly on 36th Street: The Amateur Comedy Club (now a private membership club not open to the public) and the exclusive showroom of habersasher Henry Jacobson (to the left of the gate). The Sniffen Court Dramatic Society, an amateur theater group, used to perform plays in a theater located within the court.

Trivia: the cover for the Doors 1967 "Strange Days" album was shot here. But you knew that.

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