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The New York City Work Horse

New York City was powered by horses for almost three hundred years. At its peak, well over 150,000 horses and by some estimates up to 200,000 lived in the city. Related businesses such as blacksmiths, carriage manufacturers, feed suppliers, stables, auction houses, and more were a huge part of the local economy. There are many links to and vestiges of this not-so-distant past throughout our neighborhoods.

Although outnumbered by cars and trucks by the 1910s, workhorses were prevalent throughout NYC until the 1940s. This horse-drawn snow plow in Washington Square Park was photographed by Ruth E. Cushman in the 1930s. See more of her collection documenting the rapid change occurring throughout New York City in the early to mid-20th century on our Historic Image Archive here.

Mass Transit

New York City mass transit emerged in 1827 with the omnibus, a large stagecoach pulled by horses. Five years later, the streetcar took a huge leap forward. The world’s first streetcar line (horse-powered, of course) ran on the Bowery between Prince and 14th Street. Click here to read more about how this new invention spurred the growth of NYC.

The era of the horse-drawn streetcar ended on July 26, 1917 with the closure of the Bleecker Street line.

Washington Mews

There are a few street names in New York with the word “mews” attached, indicating that many, if not all, of the buildings were originally developed as horse stables for nearby townhouses.

Washington Mews looking towards University Place, from the late 1950s or later. From the William Eppes Collection in the Village Preservation Historic Image Archive

The Washington Mews, one block north of Washington Square Park, dates to the era when horses played a pivotal role in transportation. The collection of two-story buildings at Washington Mews is actually a mix of purpose-built 19th-century horse stables on the north side constructed between 1829 and 1833, six additional stables built on the south side of the mews by 1854, and several 20th-century residences on the south side meant to look like converted stables which replaced the rear gardens of the Greek Revival townhouses (famously known as “The Row”) along Washington Square North. Click here to read more about the Washington Mews and its reputation for being the home of artists and writers through the 20th century.


131 Charles Street (see horsewalk at left). Image via Landmarks Preservation Commission application.

Many Federal and Greek Revival homes built in the early-mid 19th century included a “horsewalk”, which was a side door alley connecting the public street to a stable in the rear of the building. Many of these have been lost over the past 200 years but some can still be seen. 131 Charles Street is one of the most intact New York City examples of a modest Federal-style house including a horsewalk and was one of our city’s very first individually designated landmarks in 1966, and included in the Far West Village expansion of the Greenwich Village Historic District enacted in 2006 which included this house and dozens of surrounding structures, for which Village Preservation advocated.

131 Charles Street horsewalk with door open showing passage to rear former stable 

Throughout 2023, a new owner has sought permission to make significant changes to this property including deep excavation of the property including the elimination of the historic horsewalk. Click here to read more about our efforts to protect 131 and 131 1/2 Charles Street.

Horse Auction Mart

The former Van Tassell & Kearney Horse Auction Mart at 128 East 13th Street was landmarked in 2012 following a six-year Village Preservation campaign to preserve this remarkable building.

Of the 4,500 stables that existed in 1903-1904 when the Van Tassell & Kearney Auction Mart was built, this building is one of the few remaining in New York City. Some of the country’s most prominent families, such as the Vanderbilts and Delanos, purchased horses here.

c. 1910 (courtesy Museum of the City of New York)

In 2021 Village Preservation placed a historic plaque on this building, which was also an assembly-line training center for women during World War II and the long-time studio of Frank Stella. Click here to read more about the history of this building and how we helped prevent its demolition.

Interested in learning more about horses and our neighborhoods? Watch our “Horsewalks, Stables, and Mews Lecturehere.

Click here to read more about the equine history of our neighborhoods.

It is incredible to discover just how many structures originally built as stables survive in our neighborhoods. These charming survivors provide a link back to a much different time and way of life in our city – even when some of them may not be immediately recognizable as former stables to the passerby. Ranging from modest to grand, these buildings are found throughout the historic districts we helped secure in the Far West Village, South Village, and NoHo. Click here to read more about two purpose built stables here.

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    One response to “The New York City Work Horse

    1. Why are you erasing from NYC 19th century history the inhumane treatment of workhorses? In fact some 40 horses died every day on the streets in the later part of the century; pulling the trolly cars packed with people on cobbled streets was torturous work for typically two horses in all kinds of weather. These conditions and more gave rise to the passing of an animal welfare law and the formation of the ASPCA by Henry Bergh. Just to focus on the outside of buildings that have been transformed into beautiful townhouses and not to acknowledge our city’s full history with horses is a missed opportunity to connect with the feelings of other sentient beings and to realize the impact of our ancestors’ ways.

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