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