The best way to encounter Sniffen Court is to stumble upon it by accident…which is exactly what I did the other day as I was walking up East 36th Street. From down the street, it’s nearly invisible…
…and then, halfway down the block, you come across this wonderful little alley lined with charming two-story brick residences:
This is Sniffen Court, though “mews” (“A row or street of houses or apartments that have been converted from stables or built to look like former stables”) is probably a more appropriate term:
Sniffen Court doesn’t cut all the way to East 35th Street, making it a very unique byway in Manhattan:
Sniffen Court allegedly got its name from one John Sniffen, who is said to have designed the ten carriage houses lining the court between 1850 and 1860 (these days, the only horses you’ll find on Sniffen are on the outer fence):
But was there even a John Sniffen? In 1991, the NY Times did some digging, and found that the carriage houses were built between 1863 – 1864 by James D. Smith, John E. Wylie, and Caleb B. Knevals – no mention of a Sniffen. In fact, John Sniffen only appears with a connection to the court in a single 1930′s article in the New York Sun, on which all future references are based.
The name remains a mystery.
As the NY Times points out, the off-street placement not only solved noise and odor issues related to horse stables, but the property owners were also able to build 10 units on what would have been approximately five house lots.
The stables were in use until the early 1920s, when automobiles replaced the need for horses and the buildings were converted.
Probably the most famous symbol of Sniffen Court can be seen at the far end: a pair of horseman plaques set into the brick (side note: could that be the only two-halved stable-style front door in Manhattan??):
These were created by sculptor Malvina Hoffman, who lived on Sniffen for more than 40 years. In fact, this is the front wall of her former studio:
Sniffen Court has a connection to rock’n'roll history – the cover of The Doors’ second album Strange Days was shot here in 1967.
After the band had decided on a carnival theme, photographer Joel Brodsky gathered the necessary performers, which included the doorman of the Friar’s Club as the muscleman, and a passing taxi driver paid $5 to play the trumpet. The rear of the album also featured Sniffen:
Sniffen Court even has its own theatrical troupe and performance stage, which are in the two buildings at the northwestern most corner of the alley:
According to a 1959 write-up, The Sniffen Court Players, also known as the Amateur Comedy Club, were founded in April 1884 and are now the oldest amateur theatrical group in the country (over 127 years!). At the time of the piece, the club was about to present their 857th show. I’d love to know if these whimsical designs above the door date back to those early days…
If not, what a great little ornament to the building.
Every once in a while, walking tours are offered of the space, and if anyone has any pictures (or can get me a tour!), I’d love to have a peek. In fact, er, how does this society actually work? Can anyone go to their plays? Or do you have to be a member?
In 1966, Sniffen Court was designated a historical landmark, though several battles have been fought over the years regarding facade changes:
A rare event, two Sniffen properties were put on the market a couple of years ago with asking prices in the few-million-dollar range. Anyone buying #9 not only got a beautiful converted carriage house and private courtyard, but a pretty amazing roof deck to boot:
Number 2 was also recently for sale – love the hanging lantern over the doorway:
What a great window – wish I knew the name for it…
Personally, my favorite buildings are those with design elements harkening back to their stable days…
Really though, Sniffen Court is in such amazing condition that it doesn’t take too much imagination to transport you back to a time when this wonderful bit of Manhattan was reserved simply for the horses: