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A 19th Century Stable Hidden in the Heart of Midtown Manhattan

A 19th Century Stable Hidden in the Heart of Midtown Manhattan

Some time ago, I was walking down West 55th Street in midtown when I happened to notice a peculiar building near Seventh Avenue…

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This three-story structure, nestled in between the towering brick pre-war apartments that line the block.

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There was almost an abandoned feel to it, with flaking paint giving way to the brick underneath…

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On the second floor, a row of arched windows with panes blacked out by soot and grime:

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On the third floor, the remains of this very strange door/hatch…

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A closer look. Note the plant life growing from the building:

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And beside it, this unusual skylight:

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Finally, if you look really closely, you’ll even find a few miniature dragons set into the facade:

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Yet from the ground floor, it seems almost like nothing more than a loading dock:

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As it turns out, this is the last remaining stable from a time when West 55th Street would have been lined with private carriage houses, built by Fifth Avenue’s wealthiest residents to serve their transportation needs.

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The stable at 154 West 55th Street was built in 1888 by Charles T. Barney, a wealthy banker who would later become president of the Knickerbocker Trust Company. Barney already had several stables across the street, and had had success in renting out the upper floors as studio space for artists. Known as The Holbein Studios, they were at times home to such artists as John Singer Sargent, impressionist painter Childe Hassam, and portrait artist Cecilia Beaux.

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The stable at 154 West 55th Street was the last to be built, and the only one designed specifically with artists in mind. The second floor apartment was reserved for the coachman, while the skylit third floor was divided into four studios.

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As time passed, the other stables were torn down to make way for apartment buildings. Miraculously though, 154 West 55th Street managed to survive into the late-1920s, when it was converted into a movie theater. By the 1970s, it was operating as the 55th Street Playhouse, showing art house movies and retrospectives. Andy Warhol in particular had numerous runs here over the years.

Then, in the late 1980s, the stable-turned-studio-turned-movie-theater found itself in danger of demolition to accommodate a truck entrance for the new hotel going up on West 54th Street. Though it had been suggested as a candidate for landmark protection, it had never received the designation (and still hasn’t).

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Ultimately, the developers decided to just gut the first floor for use as a truck entrance, leaving the rest intact. As I mentioned, these pictures were taken some time ago; the property has since been given a fresh coat of paint and looks in somewhat better shape.

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But I’m still wondering: what the heck is this strange arched doorway on the third floor…

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…and what’s in those two upper floors today?

-SCOUT