MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org

From automobile maintenance to aeronautical engineering

Sara Krucwich. [Traffic on 2nd Avenue, looking north from 50th Street], 1983. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.4190

Sara Krucwich. [Traffic on 2nd Avenue, looking north from 50th Street], 1983. Museum of the City of New York, X2010.11.4190

New York City traffic jams have long been the source of iconic scenes in movies and television, as well as real-life frustration, perceived near death experiences, and a whole lot of noise and engine  exhaust.  It’s difficult to image New York without its sea of yellow cabs, buses, delivery trucks, and private vehicles; though of course we all know this wasn’t always the case.  Around the time New York was transitioning from horse drawn carriage to “horseless carriage,” William Stewart started paying attention to the automobile.

The Stewart System of Automobile Instruction, 1918, in the Stewart Technical School course bulletins and promotional material collection.  Museum of the City of New York, 99.136.3

The Stewart System of Automobile Instruction, 1918, in the Stewart Technical School course bulletins and promotional material collection. Museum of the City of New York, 99.136.3

The Stewart Automobile School was founded in 1909 by William Henry Stewart, and was originally located at 231 West 54th Street. Stewart wrote a syndicated newspaper column for the New York Globe, in which he answered readers’ questions about automobile maintenance. The Globe prided itself on its early recognition of the importance of automobiles in America and boasted of maintaining an “automobile department” since 1899 (The New York Globe, December 18, 1918). Stewart recognized the significance of the “horseless carriage” himself, and anticipated the demand for skilled mechanics.

Byron Company, Warren-Nash Motor Corp., Interior, sales room, Broadway & 58th Street, 1927. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.442.

Byron Company, Warren-Nash Motor Corp., Interior, sales room, Broadway & 58th Street, 1927. Museum of the City of New York, 93.1.1.442.

By 1914 Stewart Automobile School had outgrown its original space and moved to 225 West 57th Street, where it existed for the next twelve years. Between 1900 and 1920, more than 50 automobile companies had businesses in New York City, and the school’s new location was in the heart of the automotive district, with showrooms and offices  for B. F. Goodrich, Ford, General Motors, Fiat, Lincoln, Willis St. Claire, and Smith and Mabley within blocks of each other and the school.

The Stewart System of Automobile Instruction, ca. 1923, in teh Stewart Technical School collection, 99.136.4.

The Stewart System of Automobile Instruction, ca. 1923, in the Stewart Technical School collection, 99.136.4.

A course bulletin from ca. 1923 grandly predicts “20,000,000 cars by 1930,” but this chart  shows reality far outnumbered Stewart’s predictions, with roughly 35,000,000 cars in use by 1930. It was during the 1930s that car owning households began to outnumber home ownership rates.  Stewart offered instruction in auto construction, steering systems, axles, transmissions,  and engine repair, as well as business management.  The school not only offered classes in automotive maintenance, but also driving lessons, boasting “If you can drive well in New York, you can drive well anywhere in the world,” serving as a forerunner to Frank Sinatra’s famous lyrics  “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”

School of Aeronautics, Stewart Technical School, 1940, in the Stewart Technical School collection.  Museum of the City of New York, 1940.

School of Aeronautics, Stewart Technical School, 1940, in the Stewart Technical School collection. Museum of the City of New York, 1940.

In 1926, with space again growing tight, the school commissioned the construction of a new fire proof building with state of the art equipment at 253-257 West 64th Street, which was dedicated in 1927. Shortly following this move, the School recognized the growing interest in aeronautical engineering and began offering courses in airplane mechanics, construction, and drafting, in addition to the existing automobile courses.  To reflect the additional curriculum, the School changed its name to the Stewart Technical School. The school continued to prosper and was contracted by the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II to train mechanics to service planes engaged in combat.

Excerpt from School of Aeronautics, Stewart Technical School, 1940, in the Stewart Technical School collection.  Museum of the City of New York, 99.136.7.

Excerpt from School of Aeronautics, Stewart Technical School, 1940, in the Stewart Technical School collection. Museum of the City of New York, 99.136.7.

Edmund V. Gillion. Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, 1971.  Museum of the City of New York, 2013.3.2.1716.

Edmund V. Gillion. Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, 1971. Museum of the City of New York, 2013.3.2.1716.

In the years following the end of World War II, the school fell on hard times.  Stewart’s instructors began to organize with the goal of forming a union and, unable to financially support the prospect, the school closed. The Stewart Technical School building was rented for other purposes, until it was demolished in order to make way for the Lincoln Center urban renewal project begun in 1955.  For more information about the Stewart Technical School, you can take a look at the finding aid for the collection here.

About Lindsay Turley

As the Museum's Director of Collections, I oversee projects involving the stewardship and access of the Museum's collections objects.

2 comments on “From automobile maintenance to aeronautical engineering

  1. Karen
    March 17, 2015

    Interesting article Lindsay.

  2. Don Ludington
    January 4, 2017

    Very nice article. My grandfather graduated from Stewart in 1926. His diploma hangs on the wall in my office of my automotive business. He always spoke highly of Stewart Tech. He worked for GM Truck div. until after the war, then worked for NYCentral RR (later Metro North) until 1980.

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