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Cable Cars, Cable Buildings, and Multiplexes

New York City has a long history of ground-level mass transit. One bygone form of this type of transit came to the city in 1827 in the form of the omnibus, a large horse drawn stagecoach. In 1832, the first horse-drawn stagecoach that ran on iron or steel tracks embedded into the street began to run along Bowery and Fourth Avenue, transporting people from the Lower East Side to Union Square. These stagecoaches provided a smoother ride than their predecessors. However, concerns about the health and safety implications of relying on horse drawn transit began to rise, especially following an outbreak of horse flu in the 1870s, which meant that horses could no longer perform their jobs. The city began experimenting with other forms of technology that could create street level transport without the use of horses. And in 1883, the first steam powered cable car ran across the Brooklyn Bridge.

Map of Manhattan Street car lines form 1899. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress. View entire map here.

By the early 1890s, these cable cars were being installed around the city, including a cable car line that ran up Broadway, operated by the Broadway and Seventh Avenue Railroad Company. Steam powered cable cars required a space to house mechanical equipment. Those that already crossed the Brooklyn Bridge were operated by a powerhouse on the Brooklyn side of the bridge. The Broadway line was no different, and a large space to house the wheels that would power this rail was needed. In 1892, the Broadway and Seventh Avenue Railroad Company began construction of a new headquarters and powerhouse at the corner of Houston Street and Broadway. They hired prominent architectural firm McKim, Meade & White to design the powerhouse and office building, which would be named the Cable Building.

1892 drawing of the Cable Building. Image from our Historic Images from Landmarks Applications Collection.

The building is located at 611-621 Broadway and stands at eight stories tall with an additional attic level. It was designed in the Beaux-Arts style with a brick, stone and terracotta facade, on top of a steel frame. Notably, it is considered to be McKim, Meade & White’s first use of a complete steel frame in a commercial building. The upper floors held offices, while the basement housed four 32-foot wheels that powered the Broadway line.

Powerhouse in the basement of the cable building, image from our Historic Images from Landmarks Applications Collection.

The building was completed in 1894, and the following year the Broadway and Seventh Avenue Railway company became the Metropolitan Traction Co., which continued to use the building’s basement as a powerhouse until May 21, 1901, when the final steam-powered car ran its route and the Broadway line switched to electric power. The Metropolitan Traction Co. continued to own the building, renting space to various commercial tenants. After going into receivership in 1911, it was reorganized as the New York Railroads Co., who sold the building in 1925. By the 1930s, the building’s upper floors were occupied by different small businesses and manufacturing companies. In the 1980s they returned to their original use as office space.

In 1989, the basement that once housed the powerhouse was turned into a multi-plex cinema for the Angelika Film Center, which remains in the space to this day.

The Cable Building in 1910, image from our Historic Images from Landmarks Applications Collection.

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