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Peter Kief
Gustav Dessecker Co. (estate of, Peter Kief only); 1904-1912; Peter Kief, 1904-1915; Peter Kiefe (estate of, Peter Kief Jr. mgr.), New York, New York.
Associated Firms
Hornthal & Co.

Gustavus Dessecker (b. Jul. 25, 1847 – d. Jul. 9, 1902) manufactured light carriages, doctor's coupes, hearses, invalid wagons and heavy trucks for his New York City customers from 1869 through the teens. Famous for his exceptional upholstery and drape-works, Dessecker also specialized in refurbishing tired coaches. Following Dessecker's passing in 1902, the firm was taken over by Pete Kief who leased the factory from Gustav Dessecker's widow. Kief brought the firm into the automobile age, initially with the use of heavy-duty chassis like Autocar and later on White commercial chassis. Shortly after Kief's 1915 passing, Dessecker's widow modified the structure into a parking garage, which remained in use for the next century.

The firm's founder, Wilhelm Gustavus Dessecker, was born on July 25, 1847 in Heilbronn, Wurttemburg, Germany to Christian and ?? Dessecker. In late 1853 he visited the US with his immediate family, leaving from Antwerp, Belgium onboard the SS Catharine and Cumbria, arriving at the Port of New York on January 11, 1854. The ship's passenger list included the following Desseckers: Johann (26-yo male); Regina (20-yo); Christian (48-yo male);Catherine (16-yo); Johann (14-yo male); Christian (10-yo male); Jacob (9-yo male); and our subject, Wilhelm (7-yo male).

How long the Dessecker family stayed is currently unknown, however our subject subsequently returned with his family to Germany, and in November of 1867 filed paperwork in Heilbronn preparing for his permanent emigration to the United States, which took place soon afterwards. He was naturalized on Sep. 15, 1876. According to the 1880 US Census, his wife Elizabeth C. (b.1855-d.1922) was a native-born New Yorker.

Much of his early work is undocumented, most of what we know is from ads he placed in the Manhattan directories, the text of his display ad in the 1879 Manhattan edition follows:

"Gustavus Dessecker, Carriage Builder, 114 Elizabeth St. bet. Broom and Grand Sts., New York. Light Carriages, Physicians' and Light Business Wagons, constantly on hand and made to order on the shortest notice. Coupes a Specialty. None but first class materials used in manufacturing. N.B. – Repairs of all kinds done with promptness and dispatch."

In the early 1880s Dessecker moved to two adjoining 3-story fire-proof brick structures located at the southeast corner of Elizabeth and Kenmare Sts., formerly occupied by carriage builder Thomas T. Donnelly, a display ad in the 1885 Manhattan directory providing his new address:

"Gustavus Dessecker, Carriage Builder, 152 & 154 Elizabeth St. bet. Broom and Grand Sts., New York. Light and Heavy Carriages, Hearses, Coaches and Physicians' Wagons made to order at the shortest notice. None but first class materials used in manufacturing. N.B. – Repairs of all kinds promptly done."

A Dessecker undertakers wagon was featured in the March 1893 issue of the Hub:

"FASHION PLATE No 69 represents an undertakers wagon recently built by Gustav Dessecker of 152-154 Elizabeth st., New York City. This gentleman has a wide reputation as a first-class builder of this class of wagons; he also makes a specialty of hearses, coaches, etc.

"The inside of this wagon is painted to represent natural wood. A floor is placed in the center of the body, on which camp chairs are carried. There are two doors in the rear of the body, to which are connected a patented device in the way of a spiral spring, which closes the doors and also keeps them open when required.

"There is also a handy device attached to the draw bar by which the shafts can be readily removed, as these are often an obstruction in stables.

"Dimension: of Woodwork—Width of body on top, 49 in.; and at bottom, 46 in. Length of body, 9 ft. 4 in. Height of body, 61 in. Height of wheels: front, 36 in.; and rear, 49 in. Depths of rim, 1 3/8 in. Size of spokes, 1 3/8 in. Hubs, 7 1/2 in. long. Front bands for hubs, 3 1/4 in. diameter, and 2 1/4 in. long. Back bands for hubs, 4 in. diameter, and 7/8 in. long. Distance between wheels, from center of axles, 64 in.

"Dimensions of Ironwork.—Front springs, elliptic, 37 in. long, from center to center, with 9 in. opening on main leaf. Width of steel, 1˝ in. Number of leaves, six, namely: Nos. 2, 2, 2, 2, 3 and 4 steel. Rear springs, 40 in. long, from center to center, with 11 in. opening on main leaf. Width of steel, 1˝ in. Number of leaves, five, namely: Nos 2, 2, 2, 2 and 3 steel. Rear cross spring, 43 in. long, with 4 in. set on main leaf. Width of steel, 1˝ in. Number of leaves, five, namely: Nos. 2, 2, 2, 2 and 3 steel. Axles, front and rear, 1 3/8 in. Tire. 1 3/4 x ˝ in. Track, front and rear, measured outside to outside on the ground, 4 ft. 10 in. Diameter of filth wheel, 20 in.

"Painting—Black throughout. Silver mountings."

The October 29, 1896 issue of the New York Times announced an addition to the Dessecker works:

"152 and 154 Elizabeth Street, alteration to two three-story brick factories, by Gustav Dessecker of 78 Second Avenue, owner; cost. $2.500."

The March 9, 1889 issue of the Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide provided evidence of a second addition, which added a fourth story to the two adjoining three-story structures:

"Elizabeth st. Nos. 152 and 154, one story brick extension, tin roof, walls altered, cost $1,500. Gustav Dessecker, 152 Elizabeth st., art's Kurtier & Robl."

1902 Trow Copartnership and Corporation Directory of New York City:

"Rex Cap & Cork Co. (Capital $500,000; Directors: Clarence S. McClellan, Charles L. Curtis, Gustav Dessecker; further Inf. unattainable) no address."

Soon after Gustav Dessecker's passing, Pete Kief took over the firm of Gustav Dessecker from his widow as executrix of his estate, the Dec. 3, 1904 issue of the Real Estate Record and Builders' Guide, reporting his 5-year, renewable lease on the firm's Elizabeth Street manufactory:

"Elizabeth st., Nos. 152 and 154, all Eliz. C. Dessecker, EXTRX, Gustave W. Dessecker, to Peter Kief, 5 years from Oct. 1 1904 with 5 years renewal. Nov. 20, 1904."

The 1906 edition of the Trow Copartnership and Corporation Directory of New York City lists the firm as follows:

"Gustav Dessecker (Peter Kief only) 152 Elizabeth"

For the next decade Kief continued to list the firm under both his name and Dessecker's as follows under the carriage makers heading in the Manhattan directories:

1911-1912 Manhattan Directory:

"Gustav Dessecker (firm of) carriages, 152 Elizabeth."

"Peter Kief, carriages, 154 Elizabeth"

Famous for their exceptional upholstery and drape-works, Dessecker did a good business in refurbishing tired coaches as well as furnishing new ones in the height of fashion. The firm supplied small numbers of motorized funeral vehicles to New York City livery firms such as Hornthal & Co.,starting in 1912. 

Many metropolitan funeral directors couldn't afford to own the sometimes large number of vehicles needed for the funerals of the rich and famous so they relied upon livery companies such as the Hornthal to supply them with extra vehicles. Other directors found that the excellent service offered by the numerous rental firms enabled them to operate without owning any vehicles at all.

With the sudden popularity of motorized funeral vehicles, large metropolitan liveries like Hornthal sold their old horse-drawn hearses to South American and Caribbean-based brokers who were eager to purchase the now-obsolete coaches. A fine Cunningham hearse, almost worthless in NYC, might bring as much as $1000 in Havana during the mid to late teens.

The 1914 edition of the Official Automobile Directory of the State of New York has NY plate #24297 (a Walters automobile - predecessor of the Walters heavy-duty 4x4 truck) registered to George and Peter Kief, Jr., 152 Elizabeth St., N. Y. City 

1915 Manhattan Directory:

"Gustav Dessecker (firm of, Peter Kief) carriages, 152 Elizabeth."

Classified listing under Hearse Builders in 1915 directory:

"Gustav Dessecker (firm of) 14-24 Kenmare, Tel. Spring 594"

The 1915 edition of the Trow Copartnership and Corporation Directory of New York City lists the firm as follows:

"Gustav Dessecker (Peter Kief only) carriages, 152 Elizabeth & 14 Kenmare."

The firm's factory was located on the southeast corner of Elizabeth and Kenmare Sts. The two addresses (152 Elizabeth & 14 Kenmare) refer to the same structure. The 1900 US census list the Kief family as follows:

Peter Kief (b. Dec. 1850 in Germany-d. Aug 1915) Spouse Dora (b. Aug. 1859 to German–born parents) occupation clerk (1900 census). Children include Peter Jr. (b. Aug. 1886-d. 1962); George (b. Jan. 1889) and Edna (b. Jul. 1897) Kief.

The 1915 New York State Census lists the occupations of Peter Sr., Peter Jr., and George Kief as "makers of auto bodies," their home address 1541 50th St., Brooklyn.

Peter Kief senior passed away in August of 1915 and the firm was taken over by his two sons George and Peter Kief Jr.

The 1916 Manhattan directory lists Peter Kief Jr. as manager of the firm's Elizabeth St. works:

"Peter Kief (est. of) Peter Kief Jr., mgr., carriages, 152 Elizabeth St."

The firm name was changed to Peter Kief Co. in 1912 although he kept a listing under Dessecker as late as 1916, as the 1916 Manhattan Directory evidences:

"Gustav Dessecker (est. of Peter Kief) carriages, 14 Kenmare."

Two years after the passing of Peter Kief Sr. the Kief family decided to withdraw from the carriage business. Peter Kief Jr., enrolled in the US Army, serving from Sep. 21, 1917 to May 10, 1919 as a musician and soldier, spending one year fighting in the European conflict. Peter Kief Jr. married and moved to Long Island where he became an auditor. His younger brother George remained in the auto body business for several years as a painter and later moved to Norwood, Ohio where he worked as a printer for Gibson Greeting Card.

Kief's largest customer, Hornthal & Co. (Jos. & Saml. Hornthal ) at 327 E. 53d St. was suddenly without a supplier of hearses, and subsequently opened up their own hearse manufactory, hiring former employees of the Kief/Dessecker works to handle the construction. The first Hornthal motor hearse where mounted on extended wheelbase Ford Model T chassis, but they soon experienced problems with the delicate conveyance, electing to go to the much sturdier White 140" commercial car chassis in 1916. The Hornthal hearse works were short-lived and by the early 1920s, they started buying complete funeral coaches from Sayers & Scovill and Cunningham, who both established a satellite sales and service facilities in Manhattan - Sayers & Scovill at 257 Broadway (rm.1409) and Cunningham at 231 W. 50th st.

Dessecker's widow, Elizabeth, subsequently renovated the vacant factory into a parking garage, the May 5, 1917 issue of the American Contractor announcing that architect Max Muller had been awarded the contract:

"Plans drawn - Garage (int. alt.) $18,000, 3 sty. 51 x 100. 152-54 Elizabeth st., Archt. Max Muller, 115 Nassau st., Owner E.C. Dessecker, 796 Sixth av., Brk., rig Plans drawn."

The 130-yo+ Dessecker carriage works buildings remain standing today at the southeast corner of Elizabeth and Kenmare. It remained in use as an automobile garage for close to a century (1917-2014). It's currently owned by Manhattan real estate developers Sumaida + Khurana (Nahla Capital) who have hired famed architect Tadao Ando to remake the building into 7 minimalist luxury condominiums which will sell for $7 to $35 million each.

© 2015 Mark Theobald for with special thanks to Thomas A. McPherson.







Thomas A. McPherson - American Funeral Cars & Ambulances Since 1900, pub. 1973

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