New York Cab Company Stable
Updated: Oct 20, 2021
The New York Cab Company Stable in the Fall of 2018
The streets of New York City are notoriously crowded with all manner of vehicles, but none more iconic than the bright yellow taxicab. Despite having access to North America's single most used and most comprehensive public transportation system, New Yorkers are still heavily reliant on the city's cabs, or at least they were before the advent of ride-sharing.
The concept of the taxicab fleet as a ubiquitous, uniform service came to the city thanks largely to the work of the New York Cab Company, formed in 1876 with capital from some of Manhattan's most prominent citizens. In order to assure industry dominance, the Company built a strategic network of stables around the city in the last quarter of the 19th century, including the one seen above, at the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 75th Street on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Significant for its well-preserved Romanesque Revival architecture and its prominent role in the transportation history of New York, this former New York Cab Company Stable, which is now an automobile garage, restaurant, and comedy club, is a New York City Landmark.
A City Transforming
In New York, the years following the close of the Civil War were hectic and heady. The North had come out of the War ahead both militarily and economically, and large Northern states like New York were quickly reaping the benefits of the newly industrialized economy.
Economic and population growth was rapid, and the city itself had to move quickly to keep up. New forms of transportation, from horse-drawn streetcars to elevated rail, carried the working and middle classes further up Manhattan island than ever before, especially after Central Park was completed in 1876 and new development followed.
Lower-income workers crowded into tenements and flats built along the new Upper West Side's avenues, where the elevated rail tracks ran, while better-off families occupied the new rowhouses on the side streets. Amsterdam Avenue, running up the middle of the neighborhood, developed into a service corridor, home to the utilitarian buildings and businesses that kept the area running, like stables.
With over 70,000 horses serving the city by 1900, and each of them needing a place to eat, sleep, and otherwise be tended to, the stable business in the city at the time was a good one. Wealthy families built their own stables on their properties, while businesses used larger commercial stables where they could house their horses and carriages or rent the animals and vehicles by the hour.
Such commercial stables were usually multilevel, with separate floors to house horses and carriages, a blacksmith shop, other maintenance facilities, and a central area for the horses to be washed and groomed.
It was in this context, with plenty of New Yorkers needing to get places and plenty of horses to get them there, that the New York Cab Company was formed.
The New York Cab Company
The logo of the New York Cab Company featured
the three plumes of the Prince of Wales,
the heir apparent to the British crown
The New York Cab Company was formed in 1876 with $500,000 in capital from some of the most prominent New Yorkers of the time. Initial investors included William K. Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and one of America's wealthiest men. The younger Vanderbilt had a passion for horses and was the founder of New York's Jockey Club.
Two other horse enthusiasts were tapped to run the Company's day-to-day operations. William T. Ryerson & Ira Brown, who had both found great success as partners in the livery business before the Company was formed, served as Secretary/Treasurer and General Manager, respectively.
To stand out from the competition, the New York Cab Company did things differently, in the process establishing many of the key features of the modern cab industry. For example, the Company charged a fixed rate of 50 cents per hour to counter the wildly varying and often too high prices charged by various independent operators. All of the company's drivers were uniformed and carried company badges. NYCC also experimented for a bit with timed fares, a precursor to today's taxi meter.
But the Company's most enduring innovation was painting its fleet yellow. The iconic yellow streaks began appearing on cabs in 1883 along with the three plumes of the Company's logo. When other firms tried to mimic the action, the Company went to court and won protection for its trend-setting trademark.
The other key innovation that kept the New York Cab Company at the top of the city's taxi fleet heap was its network of stables, of which the building on Amsterdam Ave. was a part. While based at the American Horse Exchange near Broadway and 50th street in midtown, a site now occupied by the Winter Garden Theater, the Company had at least ten other offices in midtown near key sites like Herald and Times Squares, Fifth Avenue's shopping and hotels, and Central Park. The company later expanded to the Upper West Side and even as far afield as Coney Island in Brooklyn. Each office was connected to the telegraph (and later phone) network, allowing customers to request rides to and from nearly any important establishment they wished to visit.
While the NYCC employed nearly 200 drivers at its peak in 1896, the horse-drawn cab industry fell on hard times with the introduction of the automobile just after the turn of the century. The Company merged with some of its former competitors and closed down some of the stables in its network to consolidate costs, but the drumbeat of history kept up a tempo too swift for the company to maintain. By 1910, most of its operations had disappeared completely.
The Architect: Charles Abbott French
Not much is known about the early or personal life of Charles Abbott French, but it appears he was quite successful as an architect, practicing his craft at the precise moment the city needed it the most.
French had various partners in the architecture business, and while working with them he created an impressive collection of both commercial and residential buildings throughout Manhattan, from Romanesque Revival-style houses in the Carnegie Hill neighborhood to lofts and apartment buildings in Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and Harlem.
The strongest mark of French's success however may have been the home he designed for himself outside the city in Summit Ridge, New Jersey. A New York Times article from June of 1892 called the estate an “ideal country seat” and estimated the cost of its construction at over $100,000.
Through his work, French was able to harness the energy of the city's fin de siècle boom and prosper handsomely from it.
The building's arches are its most distinguishing
Romanesque Revival features
The New York Cab Company Stable is an example of Romanesque Revival architecture, a popular style in late 19th century America. Its master was the architect Henry Hobson Richardson, active from 1860 until his death in 1883. Richardson was so closely tied to the style that an entire American sub-genre known as Richardsonian Romanesque was inspired by his work.
Romanesque Revival was, as its name suggests, a 19th-century interpretation of the Romanesque style from medieval times. In the United States, Romanesque Revival drew particular inspiration from French medieval sources and the German Rundbogenstil style, perhaps explaining why it caught on in the post-Civil War years, just as large numbers of German immigrants were arriving on America's shores.
The most distinctive feature of any Romanesque Revival building is its rounded arch or, in most cases, arches. In the case of the New York Cab Company Stable, there are three monumental arches on the ground level of the 75th street facade. As seen above, they rest on a textured granite base and are trimmed with decorative brick and painted in various colors.
Above the ground level arches, a four-bay facade rises to the fifth and final story. Each bay of windows is divided by a brick pilaster which features a decorative brick pattern. The windows are topped with light-colored stone trim. The fire escape on the 75th street facade is historic, but the signage is not.
At the fifth story, the monumental arches of the ground level are echoed in a brick pattern. Just below them, the glass fanlights topping the fifth-story windows recall the Queen Anne or Colonial Revival styles. A common Romanesque Revival technique was the incorporation of elements from the era's other population styles. The addition of the fanlights here is an example of such practice.
The roof is topped by an elaborate decorative cornice, painted black with denticulated moldings and small scalloped arches.
The Amsterdam Avenue facade does not have ground-level arches but is otherwise identical to the 75th street facade. Together, they form a striking, if a bit utilitarian, example of Romanesque Revival architecture which graces this prominent corner location.
The identity of the stable's builder is not known, but that of its owner is. Dry goods store proprietor and Upper West Side resident William T. Walton had the structure erected in about a year, from May of 1889 to June of 1890, at a cost of $45,000. The New York Cab Company began its occupancy of the building in 1891.
As the horse-drawn cab business was gradually supplanted by the advent of motor vehicles, the stable building underwent changes to keep up with the times.
The NYCC left the premises in 1909, and the Walton estate began alterations the next year, renovating the Amsterdam Avenue facade to include a storefront, and rebuilding and strengthening the interior to support the weight of the hundreds of motorcars now being stored inside.
By 1924, the building was home to the Sherman Square Motors Corporation, which operated a garage and auto repair shop. At the time the building was designated a New York City Landmark in 2006, an old advertisement for Sherman Square painted on the bricks of the building's north facade was still visible, but it has been since covered by development on the land next door.
The Walton family sold off the building in 1946, whereafter it became the Berkeley Garage until the 1980s. A parade of retail tenants also rotated through the space on Amsterdam Avenue including the Graves Sales Corporation (an auto battery retailer), the Autopiano Company (which sold player pianos), and the Delce Hand Laundry.
Today, the garage is operated by Champion Parking while the Amsterdam Ave. retail space is occupied by Playa Betty's, a beloved Upper West Side spot for Californian and Mexican cuisine well known for its weekly "Taco Tuesdays" promotion. The basement level hosts the West Side Comedy Club.
Finely detailed and striking in its Romanesque Revival style, the New York Cab Company Stable has witnessed many changes to the Upper West Side over the years. Built to help the city keep pace with one of its most transformative periods, the structure has adapted well to New York's subsequent changes and stands today as a silent but noble reminder of an earlier era and a way of life gone by.
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