A Look Back At … Carriage Houses of Ithaca

By Charley Githler
Tompkins Weekly

Photo provided by The History Center in Tompkins County
A view of an old carriage house in Ithaca; a notation on the back of the image indicates it may have been at 408 N. Tioga St., but that has not been confirmed.

One of the many charming aspects of living in Ithaca is that sizable tracts of the city’s residential neighborhoods retain the look and feel of the 19th century. Many traces of the past survive. The presence of dozens of old carriage houses, tucked away behind residences and in various states of repair, is a reminder of a bygone era of horses, carriages, wagons and sleighs.

When Ithaca was incorporated as a city in 1888, with a human population of 14,000, it was likely also home to at least 1,000 horses. Hitching posts lined downtown streets. There were watering troughs and carriage blocks (“upping stones”).

Horses were a ubiquitous element of daily life. In the 1890 Ithaca city directory, there were nine blacksmith businesses, employing dozens of people. There were also many more who were curriers, carriage and wagon-makers, teamsters, draymen and harness-makers. There were also six separate ‘hack and livery’ businesses downtown, an important enterprise in the 19th century, where horses and vehicles were kept for hire and where stabling was provided.

An excellent resource, when researching a city’s past, are the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. The Sanborn maps were originally created for assessing fire insurance liability, and include detailed information about buildings in thousands of American towns and cities. The maps themselves are large-scale lithographed street plans at a scale of 50-feet to 1-inch (1:600) on 21-by-25 inch sheets of paper. The Sanborn maps of Ithaca in 1893 show scores of sheds, barns, outbuildings, stables, carriage houses and other accessory structures throughout the city. More than a few of these were dedicated to the care and maintenance of horses and horse-drawn conveyances.

Depending upon personal taste or financial status, a carriage house could be very simple or very fancy. Many were built according to the design of the main house or a then-current architectural trend. Generally two stories high, carriage houses were built to store horse-drawn vehicles such as carriages, wagons and sleighs. Common until the early 20th century, many also stored vehicle maintenance equipment and accessories. Some included living quarters on an upper floor or adjoining space for household or carriage staff. They often included stables. Some served as urban barns.

Of course, apart from the odd team of draft horses at the Ithaca Festival, downtown horses are an exceedingly rare sight now. Gone are the hitching posts, carriage blocks and watering troughs. What can still be seen, though, in the backyards of houses, especially in the historic districts, are some of the old carriage houses. Some have been re-purposed into garages, a few made into residences, and some are abandoned and falling into ruin. One’s a restaurant.

Photo by Charley Githler / Tompkins Weekly
A view of the back of a carriage house in downtown Ithaca, as it looks today.

Horses did not disappear from cities overnight, but the first two decades of the 20th century saw a remarkable transformation. In Ithaca, it was the coming of the automobile that dealt the death blow to the ubiquity of the horse, and the tipping point came about a hundred years ago.

With each horse depositing several gallons of urine and 20 pounds of manure each day, an equine population had an impact on sanitation, which was a problem in no way unique to our city. To a lot of people at the time, the stench produced by the manure piles seemed a serious health hazard, and cleaning was a constant and expensive chore. Manure also produced huge numbers of flies, in reality a much more serious vector for infectious diseases such as typhoid than odors. By the turn of the century, public health officials and public opinion came to accept that the most effective way to eliminate these health issues was to eliminate the horse, and to many people, the automobile seemed to be the answer.

It was a rapid changeover. In 1899, the first automobile came to Tompkins County. By 1911, New York state would issue 300 auto licenses to people in Ithaca. There were advertisements in the 1919 Ithaca newspapers for tires, auto repair shops and car dealerships.

Woodrow Wilson rode in an open black carriage drawn by four horses to his inauguration in 1917, the last president to do so. Four years later, Warren Harding rode to the Capitol in a 12-cylinder Packard Twin 6 automobile. By the early 1920s, when cars had become less of a luxury item and more available to middle class families (in 1923, a Model T Roadster had come down in price from $825 to $269), the horse was well on its way out.

While Ithaca’s carriage houses are vestiges of a time gone by, it is a testament to the staying power of the past that so many are still standing. More imposing than mere garages, the carriage houses come in all shapes and sizes, and some are impressive indeed. Peer down the driveways of older houses downtown and on East Hill and catch a glimpse of the past.