Danger! Keep Out! These were the ominous signs on a dilapidated outbuilding at Bartow-Pell in the 1980s. More than a century earlier, however, the air would have resonated with the clip-clop of horse shoes, an occasional whinny, and the smell of hay and manure.
This once-handsome carriage house and stable had been designed according to the best practices of the period at some point between 1836 and 1842. But years of neglect had turned it into a hazardous, unsound ruin. Luckily, the building was rescued by some generous preservation-minded donors and restored in 1992 by Jan Hird Pokorny Associates.
In the 19th century, the Bartow family’s country seat was about 16 miles from New York City in an area that is now Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. The 233-acre estate boasted a fine stone mansion and a stone carriage house and stable, along with a farm and a number of now-lost outbuildings. A detailed map from 1885 provides a view of the estate a few years before it before it became the property of New York City.
The carriage house was visible from the main house, so its appearance mattered. “Buildings of this sort are usually needed much nearer the dwelling than it is convenient or desirable . . . and for this reason they should have a better finish and a greater neatness of appearance,” advised J. J. Thomas in The Illustrated Annual Register of Rural Affairs (1856). Robert Bartow and his architect clearly agreed. Several common design features link the mansion and its carriage house: both are made of stone and have hipped roofs, symmetrical façades, and rooftop ventilation. The elegant mansion, however, has fine finishes such as dressed (cut and shaped) stone, a dentil cornice, ornamental ironwork, and classical niches. In contrast, the simply designed carriage house is constructed from coarse stonework and enlivened merely by some attractive brickwork around the front door and windows.
Bartow-Pell’s carriage house and stable represent a classic 19th-century hillside barn, also known as a side-hill barn or a bank barn. These structures were built into the side of either a natural or an artificial slope and allowed open access into both a basement level and the main floor. The vertical use of space also left a smaller footprint. Alexander Jackson Downing suggested barns of this type for “a farm of moderate size” in his well-known manual The Architecture of Country Houses (1850). Bartow-Pell’s slope is manmade, according to Daniel Hopping, Frank G. Matero, and Zachary N. Studenroth in Historic Structure Report: The Bartow-Pell Stable (1980). “A drystone wall on line with the south façade projects from the building to create an embankment which rises gradually in front to the main stable floor.”
The building consists of three levels, each with a different purpose. The main floor is divided into an area for carriages and sleighs, a harness room, and horse stalls. The basement floor housed livestock and a cistern. “Surviving finishes indicate that these interior surfaces were once whitewashed (where exposed) for sanitary and waterproofing purposes” (Historic Structure Report). The top floor held a hay loft surmounted by a ventilator.
On the main floor, a clean area was needed to store vehicles, which were best kept away from hay dust. A. J. Downing wrote:
It is a common practice, even in stables of large size, to place the flight of steps to the hay-loft in the carriage-house, or space where the vehicles are kept; but as this always effectually prevents the possibility of keeping either wagon, carriage, or harness clean, since the dust of the hay will find its way down the opening of the stairway, we would always place the access to the hay-loft, if it be only by a ladder, in a passage by itself, separated by a door from the room where vehicles are kept.
Well, then, if the Bartows wanted to keep their vehicles clean, why are there stairs to the hay loft in the carriage room? Easy answer. The staircase is not original. Just as Downing suggested, the loft was reached by a ladder as in many stables in the 19th century.
The harness, or tack, room also required a clean environment, or as J. J. Thomas put it in 1856, “a small room for hanging up saddles, buffalo skins, etc., where they will be secure from dust.” Our harness room has a chimney connection, indicating that it was heated by a cast-iron stove. It may have been occupied by a stable boy or by John Crowin, an Irish-born coachman who worked for the Bartow family in 1860.
The stables were separated from the carriage room by a wall. Like much of the building’s interior historic fabric, the original stalls disappeared long ago but were rebuilt in 1992. Mangers in each stall “were easily and directly filled from the hay loft through a space [in the ceiling] . . . [so that] the hay drops immediately into the manger or rack below” (J. J. Thomas, 1856). Gutters in the stable floor provided drainage for carrying away horse urine, which probably flowed into a tank in the basement. “Like the gutters attached to the roof eaves of the period to collect rain water, these are fashioned out of solid logs” (BPMM historic structure report). Horse urine was sometimes used as a fertilizer.
A wooden platform on the north side of the building—reconstructed in 1992—would have been used to lift hay and grain from a wagon into the loft. Good air circulation was important for the prevention of dangerous fires, since moisture in improperly cured bales of hay can lead to heat build-up and spontaneous combustion. A rooftop cupola for ventilation was recreated when the building was restored. Air flow was also good for the horses, as it “allows the impure air from the stalls to ascend and escape” (J. J. Thomas, 1856).
The New York Times published a tabloid-like series of articles about a hay loft on the Bartow property in October 1884, when a young German servant named Mary Grote, “a handsome, fresh-faced girl, always laughing,” caused a sensation after she disappeared from a nearby tenant’s farm for a couple of days. A search party finally found her hiding mysteriously “in one of three large barns on the Bartow estate” “under half a ton of hay,” wearing a blue calico dress. She refused to explain her peculiar “escapade” to the authorities. But Bartow was “in a ferment [tumult].”
A common practice in hillside barns was to keep livestock, such as cattle and sheep (but not pigs and poultry), in a basement level. In 1846, for example, L. A. Morrell wrote in The American Shepherd about “a side-hill barn with underground apartments, which are unquestionably warmer for sheep than any other.”
Our carriage house retains its 19th-century cistern, which provided a water source and is visible through a hole in the floor of the harness room. Bartow-Pell’s Historic Structure Report discusses evidence of the water collection system:
It is most likely that water was collected from the roof in “eaves-troughs” (gutters) and conducted directly into the cistern. The only evidence for such a point of entry is a cement-lined hole in the masonry of the south façade. . . . The water could then be pumped up inside the stable into the harness room.
A. J. Downing describes a similar arrangement elsewhere: “At the side of the door, on entering this apartment, is the pump . . . a large cistern, which takes water from this side of the roof, being built under the floor here. There is a spout running through the wall.”
Civil War-era inventories tell us that the Bartow family had two carriages, a buggy, a spring wagon, and six horses in the early 1860s. Their middle-aged bachelor son George lived at home, and when he died in 1875, his estate inventory consisted entirely of horse-related items and financial assets. A sleigh, a wagon, sleigh bells, harnesses, a wolf skin, blankets, and three horses were among his possessions.
The carriage house’s survival—which is a testament to the efforts of historic preservation groups—allows us a rare glimpse of life on a 19th-century country estate beyond the “big house.” Although the horses, carriages, and livestock are long gone, Bartow-Pell’s idyllic setting amidst the meadows, marshes, and woodlands of Pelham Bay Park makes it easy to imagine an earlier time.
Margaret Highland, Historian