|photo by Alice Lum|
In his home country of German, educator Friedrich Froebel had seen that children as young as four or five received enormous benefit from organized classes. By exercising and learning basic colors and shapes and social behavior at this early age, they adjusted and performed better in primary school. The private schools, begun in the 1850s under Froebel’s lead, were nearly all conducted in German for German immigrants; and were quaintly called “the children’s’ garden.”
Robert Watson Gilder took up the cause in New York City, helping to organize the New York Kindergarten Association on November 22, 1889. Frustrated with the school officials’ opposition to kindergarten, he made his opinions clear to a reporter from The Critic.
”The kindergarten method of instruction, he said, is no longer an experiment, but a practical and established success. “Why was it, then, that in the list of fifty cities of the United States that have a least one kindergarten in connection with their system of public instruction, the name of New York did not appear?”
Gilder promoted the Association saying “Plant a free kindergarten in any quarter of this overcrowded metropolis, and you have begun then and there the work of making better lives, better homes, better citizens, and a better city.”
The first kindergarten was opened at No. 351 East 53rd Street on March 10, 1890 with a second opening on October 27 at 63rd Street and First Avenue. The New York Kindergarten Association operated solely on contributions and the first year received $2,334.60 in donations. The Association’s Secretary, Daniel S. Remsen noted in his first annual report that “nearly three-quarters of New York’s population live in the tenement houses, and when we realize the depth of hardship and demoralization this implies, it will be readily appreciated that the work of saving and educating the children is more important than anything else; for the child will be a man by and by, and experience has proved that unless trained in early life he may be a useless, and even a dangerous, element in society.”
Bessie Locke was an aggressive member of the Association, becoming its financial secretary in 1896. She was a brilliant organizer and fund-raiser, unafraid to approach the most intimidating and wealthiest industry titans. One of these would be John D. Archbold, President of Standard Oil of New Jersey.
Archbold was the second most important man in the oil industry after John D. Rockefeller. He generously contributed to public institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of National History, as well as holding a directorship in the St. Christopher’s Home and Orphanage. But personal tragedy would change his life and the fate of the New York Kindergarten Association.
On Valentine’s Day 1899 the oilman’s daughter Frances Dana Archbold was married in St. Bartholomew’s Church to Frederick C. Walcott. It was a significant social event, followed by a large reception at the Archbold mansion at No. 20 East 37th Street. The New York Times reported the following day “Mr. and Mrs. Walcott expect to sail on Saturday for Europe.”
Four months later the same newspaper published her obituary. The young bride died “in Yokohama, Japan, while on her wedding trip,” said The Times.
While the Archbold family was grieving, the New York Kindergarten Association continued to grow. By January 1901 it was supporting 19 kindergartens with an annual expense of $30,000. On December 9 of that year The New York Tribune pleaded the Association’s case.
“It touches life at its sources, creates the atmosphere of the home while it does the work of the school, and prevents the appalling moral waste of neglected childhood…Its work ought to be doubled; it is ready to multiply its facilities and extend its service indefinitely.”
Between 1901 and 1902 John D. Archbold gave the Association $40,000 to maintain a kindergarten serving 50 children at No. 244 Spring Street, renamed the Frances Dana Walcott Kindergarten. But what was desperately needed was an up-to-date, concentrated headquarters building.
When Bessie Locke approached John D. Archbold in 1905, he agreed to donate a new building in memory of his daughter. On November 5 it was announced that “a substantial fireproof building would be erected to serve as headquarters of the association work.”
The five-story Folsom Brothers stables at Nos. 522-524 West 42nd Street in the impoverished and sometimes dangerous Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood was purchased as the site. By the time of the annual report the following year, construction had begun.
“The building now being erected for the association at No. 522 West Forty-second street, by the generosity of Mr. John D. Archbold, is a striking evidence of the hold which this work of education among little children and in their homes has taken upon the minds of far-seeing men of affairs. ..It will provide for two and probably three model kindergartens.” The planned building included a two-story assembly hall and the integrated headquarters would make explaining the work of the association to potential donors much easier.
“All the work of the association will be under its roof; every visitor will have a chance to see in one place what the kindergarten does, why it does it, and how it does it, while an attractive assembly room will make it possible for the association to bring its friends together,” said the report.
Designed by architect Walter Cook, the new headquarters was completed in November 1907. Clad in Flemish-bond red brick with limestone trim, it rose four floors above an ample basement behind a deep light moat. The Outlook said it “combines in an unusual degree solidity, beauty, and adaptation,” and The School Journal praised it as “probably the most complete kindergarten building in the world.”
|Although the cornice has been sheared away and the red brick and limestone are covered in grime, the structure is largely unchanged -- photo by Alice Lum|
The School Journal noted, “Upon the roof is a garden, where, under the shade of leafy pergolas, the children may enjoy their milk and crackers provided at eleven o’clock.”
The pergolas were, indeed, “leafy” when dedication ceremonies were performed on November 22, 1907. Walter Cook revealed afterward that he had had the ivy planted when the building was only about halfway completed “so as to get a good start.”
|Extra touches include Flemish-bond brickwork, carved limestone details and a handsome iron balcony railing -- photo by Alice Lum|
Mothers and sisters were invited to the kindergartens here “to help them celebrate the Harvest Festival.” The 2,000 children who attended the 42nd Street building had spent weeks cutting out and coloring “miniature apples, pumpkins and ears of corn on which they wrote the invitations,” the article said.
The Festival was another means that the Kindergarten Association involved the mothers with their association’s efforts. By learning the school’s methods the underprivileged women “are led to try some and cooperate with the kindergartner in her efforts to develop the children,” reported Greeley-Smith.
|Hefty limestone entrance posts and the cast iron fencing survive. The doorway was less fortunate. -- photo by Alice Lum|
The following year the New York Hotel Trades Council announced the purchase of No. 522 West 42nd Street. Following renovations, the Council and the Hotel Association Insurance Fund planned to occupy the building as union headquarters.
The endeavor was short-lived, however, and early in December 1954 the interdenominational New York Port Society dedicated the building as its new headquarters. Founded in 1818 “to promote religious living among seamen,” it now also operated its Mariners Church here.
The former kindergarten building would be transformed again in 1988. That year the New York City Police Department took over the structure to become partial home to the Manhattan South Task Force. Today it sits grimy and somewhat abused, its cornice shorn off and its rooftop pergolas long discarded. But Cook’s restrained design still survives in the ornate French railing of the second floor balcony, the handsome cast iron fencing and the monumental limestone entrance posts which, a century ago, saw the comings and goings of untold thousands of impoverished 3- to 6-year olds.