|Youth Magazine, in 1840, called the above print "an exact and beautiful representation" of the new Orphan Asylum Society building.|
It was a dismal outlook at best.
But the writer gave hope. “No city in this country—and that is equivalent to saying no city in the world—provides more abundantly, in proportion to its magnitude, for the claims of the poor.” It was the journalist’s roundabout way of introducing the reader to the Orphan Asylum Society.
Over half a century before the article was published, Scottish immigrant Isabella Marshall Graham took note of the plight of the less fortunate. Graham had established a highly successful school in the city and in 1797 founded the “Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children.”
Her daughter, Joanna, married the well-to-do merchant Divie Bethune in July, 1795. Bethune's profitable business made it possible for him to support his mother-in-law and the newly-weds joined in her charitable cause.
Although the Society was able to provide help for many indigent widows; when these women died their children were most often left on their own. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, orphans often fended for themselves, joining in ragged packs to survive. Called “street Arabs,” they existed through begging and stealing.
Joanne Bethune was moved to do something about it. In 1806 she recruited some of the most influential and wealthy women of the city for her Orphan Asylum Society. Taking the position of treasurer herself, she convinced her mother’s friend Mrs. Sarah Ogden Hoffman, a woman “of commanding social position,” to become first directress—a position we would now term “president.” The Society’s second directress would be Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, the widow of Alexander Hamilton.
For three decades the Orphan Asylum Society operated from a small frame house on Bank Street in Greenwich Village. During the period 765 children passed through its doors. Of them 411 boys were apprenticed to mechanics or farmers and 273 girls either entered a trade (such as flower or hat making) or became employed as servants in private homes. The other 81 children died.
As the need for a larger facility became evident, contributions were solicited. Wealthy citizens were contacted and advertisements were placed in newspapers such as the Observer. Not only did substantial donations result, but small ones as well. One young man who had been taken in by the Orphan Asylum Society sent one dollar, saying in his letter “I throw in my pence, in hopes it may aid you in adding one stone, at least; but take it—it is all I have to give, but I give it with a cheerful heart.” The letter was signed “Your Orphan Boy, Wm. C.”
By 1836 the contributions were such that a new building could be planned. On June 9 the cornerstone of the new Asylum building was laid in an impressive ceremony about five miles north of the city on Bloomingdale Road.
The Bloomingdale area was a favorite among wealthy New Yorkers for erecting fine summer residences where the breezes of the Hudson River cooled the rolling landscape. Three years later on Independence Day the orphans were brought to the grounds to celebrate with “some speeches and dialogues…with alternate singing by the children, after which they partook of an excellent entertainment provided for them by their kind neighbours, Mr. and Mrs. Perrit,” according to Youth’s Magazine.
On November 19 the chapel was opened for religious worship to “a highly respectable and apparently gratified audience." Finally in 1840 the new building was completed.
|The Nation published a print of the Asylum in 1853|
|To the rear, the wings stretched beyond the central section, creating a courtyard -- print NYPL Collection|
Carroll’s New York, New York City Directory was more florid in its description. “This noble institution designed for the care and culture of the tender plants of misfortune riven from the parent stem by death, is delightfully situated on the brow of a gentle slope, on the banks of the Hudson.”
Queen Victoria was married to Prince Albert the year the new building opened. The British consul invited the 45 British-born orphans to a celebration where “every attention was paid to them.” The children received an “excellent dinner” then each had “a slice of the largest wedding cake probably ever made,” according to Youth Magazine. The orphans repaid the British dignitaries by singing “Home Sweet Home.”
The youngsters were still naive regarding class and social proprieties. That first year when two of the boys were walking along the road on an errand, a gentleman passed in his elegant carriage. Unaware of the violation of etiquette, the boys asked for a ride. The gentleman, in good humor, agreed.
Upon discovering that the boys were from the new Asylum, he asked how they liked their new home.
“Very much, sir,” they replied.
“Why do you like it?”
“Because we have not heard any one swear since we have been here.”
The gentleman subsequently used the story as an indication of the high moral character of the Bloomingdale area.
The Asylum continued to care for up to 200 children at a time. Here, said The National Magazine in 1853, they received “every necessary comfort of life, good food and clothing, protection from the corruptions of the world without, and excellent training in physical, intellectual, and moral education. No sectarianism corrupts their religious instruction.”
Elizabeth Hamilton was, as her son James Alexander Hamilton would remember, “incessant” in her involvement with the Asylum. One little boy named McKavit became her special project. Mrs. Hamilton found the boy “in the arms of a fireman whose parents had been destroyed by the burning of their house,” according to James Hamilton’s autobiography.
She instructed the fireman to take him to the Asylum and gave him the money for a carriage along with her card as introduction. The boy grew and at 16 years old, when orphans were “at the proper age” and turned out, Mrs. Hamilton arranged entry for him at the Military Academy. With some academic difficulty, he was finally graduated.
Elizabeth Hamilton stepped in again, obtaining a commission for McKavit as Second Lieutenant of Infantry. The young man was promoted to captain, served in the Mexican War, then was tragically killed at Monterey leading his company in battle.
McKavit had contributed to the Orphan Asylum Society every year after leaving and the day before he died he wrote his will, leaving all he owned to the Asylum; about $1800.
Joanna Bethune died in 1860 at the age of 90, ending over half a century of charitable work. Two years later the Society’s annual report showed there were 180 children in the institution. Over the past year 70 had been admitted, 20 were discharged and four had died. It was noted that, with the onset of the Civil War, that several boys had left to join the army. “There are several youths, formerly here and who had not yet completed their terms of service, who have enlisted in the volunteer army with zeal and strong patriotism.”
|print NYPL Collection|
Meanwhile the city was filling with German immigrants; the Lower East Side neighborhood around the Bowery becoming known as Kleindeutschland, or “Little Germany.” The influx of German orphans caused the Asylum to institute an early example of a “You’re In America Now” attitude.
In 1873 a volunteer for the New York Bible Society dropped off 25 pocket Bibles and noted “They now take into the institution half orphans and German children. Mrs. Pell said they do not need German books as the new rule is that the German children shall be taught English only.”
In 1889 the Asylum augmented its instruction. The New York Times noted that “The teaching of singing and the drilling of the boys by a Police Sergeant had been introduced and found valuable additions to the curriculum.” By now property values along Riverside Drive were increasing as wealthy New Yorkers began moving northward.
Where, earlier, country estates had been, architects like Clarence F. True were building rows of fashionable rowhouses for well-heeled residents. The Orphan Asylum Society’s quaint Gothic Revival orphanage was not only out-dated, it was sitting on extremely valuable land.
In 1901 steel magnate Charles M. Schwab purchased the property for an astronomical $865,000—the highest price ever spent to date on a building site. Before long the Asylum was demolished, to be replaced by Schwab’s gargantuan French chateau.