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Where Vanderbilts Traded Horses

Thursday, October 1, 2015
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For all the controversy surrounding Mayor de Blasio’s proposed ban of horse-drawn carriages from Central Park, the passengers who climb aboard the quaint conveyances nowadays are far more often tourists than New Yorkers, most of whom are about as likely to take a carriage ride as they are to don a dopey green Statue of Liberty crown. But in the late 19th century, with the park still in its youth and automobiles not yet in ascendance, being seen in a handsome equipage pulled by a high-class team of horses was the height of fashion among the city’s elite.


In 1893, a reporter for The New York Times stood near the park’s East Drive and watched in amazement as “hundreds of society’s best rigs” clattered past, these “splendid turn-outs” meeting a “public demand for quality in horses and perfection in vehicles.” The following driving season, very high traps on carriages came into vogue, assuring, as the Times noted, that “the owner of the very latest thing for use in the parks or on the country roads will, perforce, look down upon the commoner.”


For those aspiring to such heights of equine fashion, one of the top shopping destinations was Van Tassell & Kearney, a carriage emporium and horse auction center at 130-132 East 13th Street, a five-story structure adorned with terra-cotta castings of horseshoes, riding crops and spherical motifs reminiscent of carriage wheels (the building survives today).


Catering to the upper crust was good business, and in 1903–1904, shortly after the newly founded Ladies’ Four-in-Hand Driving Club began meeting at the Colony Club, Van Tassell & Kearney expanded their facilities with the construction of a horse auction mart at 126-128 East 13th Street, adjoining their old building.


Elegantly utilitarian, the new structure, designed by Jardine, Kent & Jardine, was a grand Beaux Arts barn with a curved cornice and a red-brick façade enlivened by ornamental  limestone flourishes. A great central window, surrounded by a coved limestone arch, admitted generous quantities of light into the open interior, which featured balconies from which prospective buyers could view the parade of horses in the auction ring below.


The building was recently put on the market for $16,750,000 with James P. Nelson and Matthew Nickerson of Cushman & Wakefield, the aftermath of a local preservation campaign that averted the structure’s planned demolition for replacement by a seven-story condo.


“It was built as a horse auction mart for the Vanderbilts and the Delanos and the Belmonts, and as far as we know it’s the last surviving horse auction mart building in the city,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, which spearheaded the structure’s rescue.


The building was landmarked in 2012 and is currently being leased by a dance center, the latest iteration in the structure’s rich and varied history. After horses gave way to cars as the favored mode of transport in the early 20th century, the former auction barn was used by a candy manufacturer, according to a city landmarks report, and then by the Delehanty Institute of Civil Service, which prepared prospective firefighters and policemen for civil service exams. During World War II, the school opened a branch there to teach women the sorts of defense-industry assembly work performed by the proverbial Rosie the Riveter. In 1978, the building was bought by the prominent artist Frank Stella, who used it as his studio until 2005, creating major sculptures and other works beneath its skylights.


“The building has these three distinctive layers of history,” Mr. Berman said. “Taken together, they really reflect the arc of change in the life of New York City, but particularly of Lower Manhattan, across the 20th century.”


The opening of the Van Tassell and Kearney Auction Mart in 1904 provided society with a prime new show ring for the buying and selling of horses and polo ponies of distinction. That fall, when Foxhall P. Keene placed a selection of American-bred and imported hunters under the auction hammer, the sale was notable as much for the posh crowd it attracted as for the loftiness of its prices.


“Nearly all the prominent clubs in this city, Boston, and Philadelphia were represented, while the women, who outnumbered the men by two to one in the reserved seats in the balcony . . . were attired in dainty evening costumes and their escorts were in the regulation evening dress,” the Times noted. “With the exception of the horses, as they were led up to the auctioneer’s block, and the knot of horsey men grouped around the selling ring, one might easily have imagined he was at some fashionable entertainment.”


The following year, twenty-two head of coach horses belonging to Alfred G. Vanderbilt, including a team said to be the best four ever driven together in a public coach, attracted “a representative jot of buyers of high-class horseflesh,” The New-York Tribune reported. At a carriage sale a month later, the auction house was thronged with “a distinguished crowd” of at least 2,000 people, “including many handsomely gowned women,” the

paper noted. “The coaches and opera ’buses and victorias were scattered in profusion everywhere and made a brilliant showing.” Of special note among the items auctioned was a black-and-red pony coach, originally built in Paris for James Gordon Bennett, publisher of The New York Herald.


Before long, however, the horse-and-carriage business began to hear the rumble of the motor car coming up fast behind it. In 1908, Ford popularized the automobile with the introduction of the Model T, and within two years pressure from the auto industry compelled many leading carriage builders to dispose of their large supply, leaving Van Tassell & Kearney with the largest stock of new carriages in the city.


For a while, the firm hung tough with the horse and carriage, even as its competitors pulled out of the business and stables around town were converted into garages. Sometimes the auction house even profited from the

cannibalization of its own industry. In 1916, Van Tassell & Kearney helped dismantle a signature component of the horse era in New York when it auctioned off the entire stock and equipment of the esteemed Knickerbocker Stables on West 54th Street. “The building is about to be converted into a fireproof Garage,” explained an ad in the Times, “and every horse, vehicle, set of harness, and everything else used in . . . this high-class stable must be disposed of.”


When Van Tassell & Kearney finally bowed to the inevitable and got into the “horseless carriage” business themselves, they did so only gradually, with one hoof still in the past. In 1916 and 1917, the firm took out unprepossessing little confidential ads in the Times to announce car auctions, even as they were still buying big display ads in the trade magazine Bit and Spur to trumpet their 50-year tradition of Tuesday and Friday horse-and-carriage auctions.


Indeed, the horsey set did not abandon its customs overnight, and exceptional animals could still turn out an elite crowd. “The special sale of Miss Constance Vauclain’s harness and saddle horses at Van Tassell & Kearney’s on Wednesday afternoon was worthy of being chronicled as a society event,” The Saddle and Show Horse Chronicle declared in 1917, “so many were the men and women of social prominence who occupied chairs in the balcony or mixed with the horsemen surrounding the auction box.”


The event proved to be something of a last gasp. The following year, Van Tassell & Kearney took a big step towards auctioning itself right out of existence when it put on the block its prodigious stock of over 500 fine carriages. Although the firm continued auctioning cars into the 1920’s, its high-class days were in the rear-view mirror.


By the late 1930’s, the auction-mart building was being used by the Delehanty Institute, which reconfigured the interior for classrooms. In 1978, Mr. Stella bought the structure and a low-rise mixed-use building at 123 East 12th Street, which had also been built by Van Tassell & Kearney. The two structures were attached, allowing the artist to walk directly from his home on 12th Street to his studio on 13th, according to Joe Sabbagh, the chief executive of Ultimate Realty, which bought both buildings from Mr. Stella for $10 million in 2005.


The former auction mart is currently occupied by the Peridance Capezio Center on a lease that runs until 2028 with a renewal option. Before opening in 2009, Peridance undertook a major renovation of the building’s interior to create six dance studios, the 142-seat Salvatore Capezio Theater, a Capezio dancewear boutique, and a café. The work included a 14-foot excavation to allow for basement studios.


“At about ten feet down we ran across some structures which looked a bit like corridors made out of brick,” said Igal Perry, the artistic director of Peridance. “It may have been some way of walking horses underneath before bringing them to the top for auctions.” Φ

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