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Historical Places of Old Murray Hill: Sniffen Court

Historical Places of Old Murray Hill: Sniffen Court

August 23, 2018


Historical Places of
Old Murray Hill

It's not every day you get to walk past a 150-year-old architectural relic, let alone the site of an iconic album cover. For this week's historical landmark, we're turning our attention to a humble little alley that came to define Murray Hill's rich past.

 

Sniffen Court 

Originally built during the Civil War (1863 to 1864, to be exact), Sniffen Court is comprised of 10 two-story stables made of red brick. Named after local builder John Sniffen, this handsome cul-de-sac runs southwest of East 36th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues. Take a brief walk along the south side of East 36th Street, and you will easily be able to spot Sniffen Court by its Romanesque Revival design.

 

A converted carriage house in Brooklyn Heights.

Before the introduction of the automobile, a significant portion of real estate in New York City was dedicated to housing the horses that drew its many carriages. These carriage houses found popular use again during the 1920s, when affluent New Yorkers converted them into single family homes. In some cases, these former stables were even re-purposed as private garages-- a supremely rare amenity for modern Manhattan-ites.

In the case of Sniffen Court, several prominent artists and musicians bought out the stables and made them their home. These famous Murray Hill residents included singer-songwriter Cole Porter, as well as sculptors Malvina Hoffman and Harriet Whitney. At the end of the alley, Hoffman's sculpted plaques of a Greek horseman can still be seen today.

A view inside Cole Porter's townhouse at Sniffen Court.
It sold last month for $4.8 million.

But celebrity artists are not the only residents to have called Sniffen Court home. In 1918, stables 1 and 3 were bought by the Amateur Comedy Club-- a private social club that stages and produces theatrical plays exclusively for the enjoyment of its own members. The Club continues to operate in Sniffen Court today.

 

Album art for Strange Days, The Doors' 1967 record.

Sniffen Court may have been a pleasant local landmark among residents in Murray Hill, but in 1967 a photo by Joel Brodsky made it world-famous. The Doors' second studio album, Strange Days, is emblazoned with Brosky's iconic shot of Sniffen Court. In it, a group of street performers leap, dance, and juggle as if in a circus. As the story goes, Brodsky had difficulty finding performers to fill his shot, and so he used his own assistant to play the part of the juggler, and paid a random cab driver 5 dollars to pretend to play the trumpet. To the side of the photo, a poster for The Doors shows the band members' faces and announces the title of the album.

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