The Real Deal New York

Sellers harness carriage houses’ appeal

November 27, 2007
By Melissa Dehncke-McGill

Relics of New York’s horse-drawn heritage, the approximately 75 remaining carriage houses of Manhattan are among the most coveted properties in the city.

In Manhattan, true carriage houses belonged to Old New York’s wealthy families, with wide entrances for large horse-drawn carriages and servants’ quarters upstairs. Many of these were located on the Upper East Side and unlike the cottages scattered around Downtown, they were built of brick or stone a few blocks from the mansions of their rich owners who lived on the other side of Park Avenue. (Some Downtown “carriage houses” are more accurately described as backhouses.)

Though they once dotted the city, they are now scarce and rarely come on the market. East 73rd Street is one stretch where the city’s garages of yore have become hot commodities — there are nine remaining carriage houses on that street between Lexington and Third avenues, according to broker Jed Garfield of Leslie J. Garfield, who has one listed at 167 East 73rd Street.

There are more than 30 additional carriage houses sprinkled throughout the rest of the Upper East Side, a few in the low 30s and the remainder in the West Village, Garfield says.

Filled with interesting architectural details, carriage houses are usually massive two-story buildings, traditionally 25 feet wide and 100 feet deep, built full to the lot with no garden and with windows only at the front and back. Ceilings are often 13 or 14 feet but the middle of the buildings get little light. Since they were built to support horses and carriages, most of them don’t have basements, but tend to have a small utility room at the front of the building.

“The ones on 73rd Street are landmarked with lovely stonework,” says Elizabeth Spahr of the Corcoran Group. “A third story can be added that’s set back, as long as it’s not seen from the street.”

Carriage houses have become more desirable in the last few years due to great renovation possibilities, including the addition of skylights and staircases in the middle of the building, and the lure of easy parking in the existing garages with curb cuts.

“Because 73rd is such a prime block, houses have gone through the roof in the last year or so,” says Spahr.

Garfield says the houses have become more desirable “because 5,000 square feet on two floors is more attractive than 5,000 square feet on five floors.”

The high ceiling heights and open spaces have been very attractive to artists, art collectors and galleries over the years as well. The artist Jasper Johns owned a carriage house on 63rd Street between Lexington and Third avenues. “Now they are also popular with doctors and people involved with hedge funds,” says Garfield.

The house Garfield is selling at 167 East 73rd Street was owned by the late Henry Wolf, a prominent designer and Vogue photographer of the same school as Francesco Scavullo and Richard Avedon. The building contains Wolf ‘s studio and two-bedroom apartment, and an art gallery is a first floor tenant, above a large basement. The house is listed for $7.45 million.

Artists and art collectors have and had a big presence on 69th Street — collector Larry Gagosian owns two; Scavullo, who died last year, had a carriage house at 147 East 69th Street; Mark Rothko used to have his studio on 69th Street and the contemporary American artist Jacob Collins also has one on 69th Street, according to Garfield.

Garfield recently sold a carriage house with a garage at 35 Cornelia Street, and says others can be found in Brooklyn.

“There are around 45 in Brooklyn Heights between Love Lane, Grace Court, Grace Court Alley, and Hunts Lane,” he says. “When developers originally built, they built on the nicer streets of Remsen and Joralemon, and traditionally the carriage houses were built behind single-family mansions on secondary lanes into what were gardens or lots behind.”

Carriage houses can also be found in Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, Prospect Heights, and Park Slope, says Peggy Aguayo of Aguayo & Huebener. “And in Cobble Hill,” she says, “they are all along Veranda Place from one end to the other like diamonds.”

Carriage house buyers in Brooklyn have usually been artists or sculptors, and more recently architects, but the trend in buyers is now anyone who can get their hands on one because having a place to park a car is so attractive, Aguayo says.

In Harlem, there are hardly any carriage houses to be found, but developer Robert Kafarski is transforming a four-story brick and brownstone stable at West 146th Street into eight loft apartments called The Bradhurst Carriage House Loft Condominium.

The building was probably part of a private club and housed horses and carriages used in racing before the completion of the Harlem Speedway in 1897. The horses and carriages were moved by elevator, and some ceiling heights in the building are 14 to 16 feet. The building will be finished next February or March.

Backhouses dot the irregular streets of Greenwich Village

Nineteenth-century backhouses, the Downtown version of the classic carriage house, are mainly located in the West Village and Brooklyn Heights.

They’re distinguished by the narrow alleyways that afford access and hide them from the view of passersby and harken back to early 19th-century America, when they were built for use as stables or servant quarters. As great family homes were compressed in a more densely settled city, those that survived were used first as workshops and stores, and the few remaining specimens are now coveted residences.

Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, believes there are at least several dozen in the Village, including houses on MacDougal Alley, inside the Washington Square Mews, and many others scattered throughout the neighborhood.

“Their existence is generally known only by their owners or immediate neighbors, so it is difficult to catalog all of them,” says Berman. “Some may have been outhouses or other buildings that have a less pleasing history, so it’s really a gray area as to whether some of them started out as carriage houses. In general, it’s hard to know the records on a lot of these structures. The best we can do is an educated guess. We do see them pop up for sale from time to time but they are so valued, it’s fairly rare that people want to part with them.”

Although they are often very charming, they are rather small and no more than two stories. One possible drawback is the proximity to the house in front of it.

“In front of the [back]house there is privacy because you are hidden from the street, but you are exposed to the house that it is connected to by its part of the backyard,” says broker Debra Kameros, who heads a firm bearing her name. “Very often, it is not delineated other than by landscaping or a little fence. They also tend not to have a lot of light, but there are a lot of variations.”

Most backhouses are on the same tax lot as the property they are behind, and the owners rent out the house. There are only a few that have individual tax lots. A few years ago Ralph Lauren’s son David bought a small two-story cottage on its own tax lot at 17a Charles Street for $2.225 million. It’s only 25 feet by 20 feet and is behind a rental apartment building.

At 10 Bedford Street, Roger Erickson of Sotheby’s said he recently sold a free-standing 1,200-square foot townhouse in the back of a garden, owned by drummer Max Weinberg. Weinberg, of Conan O’Brien and E Street Band fame, used the place as a pied- -terre and has his main residence in New Jersey. He bought it for $1.5 million in 2003 and reportedly sold it for $2.45 million. “The woman who bought it walked in and instantly connected to it,” Erickson adds. “It’s a little gem.”

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