Saturday, May 26, 2012

The 1923 Webster Apartments for Women -- No. 419 W. 34th Street


At the turn of the 20th century, the main shopping district in Manhattan stretched from 14th Street to 23rd Street along 6th Avenue and along Broadway—the area known as The Ladies’ Mile.  Rowland Hussey Macy ran his successful department store on 14th Street, just below 6th Avenue where palatial emporiums filled entire blocks.

But in 1902 Macy took a brave gamble.   He leap-frogged the district and built the largest store of them all ten blocks north at 34th Street.   Near the mansions of Fifth Avenue, the new Macy’s was set so far apart from the other dry goods stores that a steam-powered omnibus was provided to shuttle shoppers back and forth.

The move was a success and before long the other grand department stores would one-by-one abandon The Ladies’ Mile to follow Macy’s.  It was around this time that Roland Macy’s cousins, Josiah and Charles Webster, moved to New York to become partners in the firm.    Before long the Webster brothers took note of a disturbing situation.

Until the late 1800s the roles of women in the United States were uncomplicated:  most were house wives whose duties were simply to run the household and bear children; some were nurses or teachers (although most teachers in the 19th century were still male); and others earned a living as domestic help.  But with the technological advancements after the Civil War, opportunities for women exploded.  Suddenly there was office work in the big cities along with other respectable positions—like the many clerks needed to service the shoppers at R. H. Macy’s.

In 1923, the soaring building was attention-grabbing.
Unmarried women flocked to New York to take advantage of the new opportunities; yet their meager incomes made finding reputable and affordable housing difficult.   The now-wealthy brothers intended to do something about it.

When Charles died in 1916, his will called for the establishment of a residential hotel for working women—nearly his entire fortune was left to the cause.  The New York Times reported that “The apartments are to be operated without profit, meals at nominal price are to be served, and a library and other conveniences are to be provided.”

Webster was clear in his intentions.  “I direct that the said apartments shall not be conducted for profit, but solely for the purpose of providing unmarried working women with homes and wholesome food at a small cost to them.”  

It would take a while before the venture was up and running.  Land was procured at No. 419 West 34th Street, a few blocks to the west of Macy’s.   In 1922, as construction of the massive red brick hotel with limestone trim was nearing completion, the City of New York sued the corporation regarding its designation as a “charitable organization” and therefore tax-exempt.

The City doubted that women who were earning an income were really needy.  It demanded that the Webster “should show that the recipients of its alleged charity are persons in need of assistance and proved objects of charity.”

Flemish-bond brickwork and deeply-carved limestone trim implied respectability.
Supreme Court Justice Lehman struck down the City’s allegations on February 1, 1922 in clear terms.  “It may well be presumed that the working women who will be received in these apartments will in the main be self-supporting women who would not be willing to be ‘recipients of charity,’ in the ordinary meaning of that term,” he said, “yet the State has a distinct interest in the physical, as well as the moral well-being of this class of citizens, and the purpose of providing for them homes or wholesome food, at or below cost, is not only a purpose which is ‘benevolent’ in the sense that it appeals to kindly hearts, but is ‘benevolent’ in that it serves the public welfare.”

He closed his opinion stressing that “Judges cannot close their eyes to conditions which every member of the community must know exist, nor to considerations which appeal to every right-thinking citizen.”

The Webster opened  on November 15, 1923 with Josiah Webster as president.    Retail clerks, secretaries, school teachers and millinery workers moved in.  For $8.50 a week they received two meals a day in addition to a room on a lower floor.   For $12.00 they were entitled to a room on the upper floors where sunshine and air circulation were better.  In addition the Webster provided sewing machines, an infirmary, a roof garden, and a library with books “selected by a trained librarian,” according to The Times.

The Webster (center) towers over a row of 19th century row houses in 1934 -- photo NYPL Collection
Josiah W. Webster died in 1942, leaving the bulk of this $2 million estate to The Webster. 

Times changed and the lives of working women changed with them.  Yet The Webster remained a residence hotel for women starting out in life on their own.  On August 9, 1974 The Times remarked, “Residences for young women. Aren't they passe, or just too, too quaint? Who wants that kind of shelter in the city these days? A great many girls and young women, that's who. What's more, only a few of them want their dormitory-like existence to be coed.”

Four decades later it is still true. The Webster remains an affordable residence hotel, as the Webster brothers envisioned, for thousands of women studying or working in New York.  Most “guests” stay at The Webster for about three months.

What would seem to be an anachronism in the 21st century is not. The Webster continues the work of Charles and Josiah Webster – providing “homes and wholesome food” to hundreds of young women at an affordable price.

Many thanks to Elissa Desani for requesting this post.  Non-credited photographs taken by the author.

4 comments:

  1. Great highlight of a very New York experience. I am a real estate agent, and every so often I get a call from a young woman who needs to be in New York (typically a college grad or intern) and when I realize they simply cannot afford it or it's too complicated, I always introduce them to the Webster and the other all-female residences (there are three I suggest, I wish there were more). Everyone complains about the food, but at the price they can eat out like everyone else in NYC does! Great choice for today -

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    1. It is amazing that so few people know about The Webster and similar places. Thanks for the input.

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  2. I had visited a friend there in the mid 1980's. Men were not allowed above the first floor but were allowed, escorted, to the basement cafeteria. The lobby floor had a library/ballroom with a piano but the really amazing thing were the "beau parlors". These were a row of open -front, three-sided rooms - stalls, really - that were fully furnished to look like living rooms, and where a resident could receive gentleman callers in semi-privacy. I wonder if they still exist.

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  3. Wow, so interesting. I had no idea places like this exist in the city. And I agree with anon, too bad there aren't more.

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