Following the Civil War New York City drew throngs of young, unmarried women who sought employment in its shops and factories. The trend unnerved some strait-laced Victorian men, like Dr. Charles Cuthbert Hall of the Union Theological Seminary who deplored the “increasing migration of young women from the village to the city.”
He predicted only bad things. “Here come those hordes of bright young women to seek success in art led on by the iridescent dream that they will accomplish something great in a great city,” he said, adding “What a pity that these girls are infected with the idea that to be married and to settle down in a small village is below them.”
The conditions for these naïve young women were a concern to some Manhattan socialites as well. The girls made little money for which to pay for lodging, they were prey for evil and unscrupulous men, and their respectability was in jeopardy.
In February 1870 a group of prominent women established the Young Women’s Christian Association with the goal “to aid self-supporting young women by providing special training in such industries as were adapted to them; to assist them to obtain employment; and to provide opportunities for self-culture.”
The organization was incorporated in 1873 and the women set about finding a suitable home. At No. 7 East 15th Street just off fashionable Fifth Avenue sat the Brown House, an imposing 75-foot wide mansion erected in 1853. The house was purchased for $75,000 (an impressive $885,000 today). An additional $25,000 was spent to renovate it for the new group’s purposes. On March 31, 1876 The New York Times described the facility.
“The new building, just occupied by the association, is a spacious three-story edifice…On the first floor, which is divided by a wide hall, are the parlor and library on the right, and the reading-room and the employment-room on the left. On the second floor are two class-rooms, the sewing-room, in which there are ten- sewing-machines, and a room for the reading and writing classes. Above, on the upper floor, are studios.”
At the opening, Dorman B. Eaton addressed the YMCA’s leaders, giving them some direction of his own. The Times reported “After showing how large a number of women have been arrested during the past year for assaults, disorderly conduct, and intoxication, he said that he thought it was in the power of the association to do much toward ameliorating this condition of things.”
By 1884 the neighborhood had somewhat changed. Most of the lower Fifth Avenue mansions, as well as those along the side streets, had been razed or converted for business purposes. Within its new environment The Young Women’s Christian Association was going strong. There were more diverse classes now—“phonography, typewriting, coloring photographs and retouching negatives, crayon drawing, commercial arithmetic, writing and bookkeeping, choir music, machine and hand sewing, and cutting and fitting.”
685 women took instruction that year and the average daily attendance in the free library (which held 17,769 volumes) was 132. The employment office had placed 1,225 women. But success brought problems.
On November 14, 1885 The Times reported “This work was carried on very faithfully, but under serious disadvantages. The small and ill-ventilated class rooms were inadequate to the needs of teachers and pupils, and the library and reading room were usually so overcrowded as to turn away many who deserved the privileges. During the month of September alone nearly 600 applicants for instruction in the free classes were turned away because of lack of room.”
The association decided to demolish the old building and erect “an extensive building, which shall fulfill the demands for room as far as possible.” The proposed building was to be five stories high and to cover the entire plot. The estimated cost of the project, including furnishings, was $125,000.
The Young Women’s Christian Association had been the pet charity of Margaret Louisa Shepard, the daughter of William H. Vanderbilt, for some time. She and John Jacob Astor, along with other wealthy citizens and neighborhood businessmen, donated the necessary funds. Prominent architect Robert Henderson Robertson was commissioned to design the structure.
Construction was completed in 1887 and Robertson produced a solid-looking structure in the Romanesque Revival style for which he would be best remembered. A blend of red brick and brownstone, the hefty building most definitely did not reflect the feminine-based organization; but exuded permanence and solidity. The often acerbic Montgomery Schuyler approved, calling it “an interesting application of the style to a modern street front.”
The substantial base of rough-cut brownstone blocks was rhythmically relieved by a series of graceful arches, echoed at the fourth stories.
A year later Margaret Shepard personally donated an extension to the rear—the Margaret Louisa Home—that fronted onto East 16th Street and was connected by a corridor. The Home provided lodging for young women seeking employment in the big city.
Running the operation was not cheap. On August 30, 1898 Mary Watson, Chairman of the Library Committee, wrote to the Comptroller of the City of New York requesting $6,000 to subsidize the library. She explained that it had grown to 25,000 volumes and “also includes a reading-room for periodicals, a reference room, a collection of art studies to loan, and a collection of cheer pictures to loan among the sick.” She stressed that the free library was used by “self-supporting women and girls (and those preparing for self-support) without distinction of race, color or creed.”
The money would go to pay “the salaries of the Librarian and three Assistants, and for the necessary binding of books and periodicals,” and the purchase of books.
There were entertainments for the women here, as well. Well known singer Clara Clemens, the daughter of writer Samuel L. Clemens who lived nearby, gave a concert here. And girls in the sewing and arts classes looked forward to the annual Christmas sale when their goods were offered to the public. In describing the sale in 1904 the New-York Tribune shed light on the classes available.
“Not only is the needlework department itself represented by tables of charming stocks, exquisite baby clothes, bags and fancy articles, but there is a large and rapidly diminishing assortment of burnt wood and leather, painted china, decorated boxes in satin paper, etc., painted Christmas cards and calendars, dressed dolls—in short, all the dainty little artistic things, half necessity, half luxury, that modern New-Yorkers love to surround themselves with.”
Girls entering the building were expected to dress with decorum. In 1908 with the wide-brimmed Merry Widow hat all the rage, Bessie A. Losey outlawed the fashion accessory on the premises. Miss Losey taught girls “the gentle art of fashioning hats to millinery-mad members of the Young Women’s Christian Association,” said The Evening World on May 22. But the trendy hats were not the only prohibited apparel.
“Not only are Merry Widows tabooed,” said the newspaper, “but Dutch necks, peek-a-boo waists, and skirts of abbreviated length are also furiously frowned upon by decorous ladies.”
Ms. Losey accepted hats with a circumference up to forty inches. The Merry Widow hats measured from sixty to seventy inches. “Its exaggeration makes the ‘Merry Widow’ conspicuous, and it is bad taste to be conspicuous,” she told the reporter.
Worries about the circumference of hats would become insignificant in the building at No. 7 East 15th Street in 1917 when it was sold by the Association to the Society of the Commonwealth , Inc. Now known as The People’s House, it became home to socialist groups and labor organizations—many of which were viewed as radical.
Among the first groups to move in were the National Woman’s Suffrage Party and the Birth Control League of New York, headed by Margaret Sanger. The Rand School, formed by the members of the Socialist Party of America in 1906 took space here. It not only offered politically-biased classes to the working class, but provided a research bureau, publishing office, library and ran a summer camp for socialists and labor union activitists. Among the faculty was Dr. J. McKeen Cattell who was fired by Columbia University “for what may be charitably described as ultra-pacifism,” according to the New-York Tribune.
The ongoing war between the government and the socialists was now centered at East 15th Street.
On July 15, 1918 Scott Nearing lectured here, denouncing the America’s celebration of Bastille Day. “There is a far more democratic revolution going on this minute in Russia,” he insisted, “one which is really much more a revolution of the people than was the French revolt. Instead of celebrating Bastille Day, we should get busy and recognize the Bolshevik government.”
A year later, on July 21, 1919, the school was raided by state troopers, city detectives and investigators of the ongoing Senate Lusk Committee. A Lusk Committee member explained the purpose of the raid in one word “names.”
“That is what we want chiefly. Names of all the parlor Bosheviki, I.W.W.’s and socialists we can get hold of. They will be a real help to us later on”
The troopers strormed through the offices and library, then the publicity department and the third floor storeroom. Legal technicalities did not seem to be an obstacle. The New-York Tribune reported that “Although not designated in the search warrant, the troopers went through the papers and documents in the room occupied by Dr. Scott Nearing, a lecturer at the school.”
The socialists did not take it lying down. “The Committee of Eight” of the Socialist Party was organized and held an all-day meeting in the building on January 11, 1920 to devise legal retaliation. The committee prepared to attack the committee members personally.
“We have received offers from many persons willing to expose the gross misconduct of some members of the Assembly who are not Socialists,” said S. John Block, a socialist attorney. “These persons, who have offered to aid us, are ready and willing to give some startling evidence against some of the ery righteous gentlemen who are now posing before the public as the would-be saviors of the State, and at the same time hiding some of the things they are doing under cover themselves”
Public opinion, however, often ran counter to the socialists’ causes. The American Legion was offended when the Rand School flew its flat at half staff in memory of Nicolai Lenin. It drew up a resolution condemning the school as “un-American.”
Interestingly, the socialists were as hostile to communists as the capitalists were to them. On March 1, 1927 The New York Times reported that “Twenty-three members of the Bookkeepers Stenographers and Accountants’ Union, found guilty on charges of being Communists or members of W. Z. Foster’s Trade Union Educational League, or opposed to the principles of the American Federal of Labor, were expelled at a meeting of the union held last night at the Rand School of Social Science, 7 East Fifteenth Street.”
|The steep pyramidal roof, seen above in 1929,|
|appears to be gone in 1933 -- photos NYPL Collection|
The groups headquartered here were not all socialists nor politically-based. The Committee on Racial Equality, one of the organizations seeking social rather than political reform, was here. On July 25, 1948 twenty-two of its members were arrested “as disorderly persons” when they attempted “to have Negroes admitted to the Palisades Amusement Park swimming pool.”
In 1956 the the Society of the Commonwealth , Inc. moved out, turning the building over to the International Association of Machinists. The building was used for the next few decades as office space and a meeting hall.
Then in 1988 the time-worn building was purchased by Soka Gakkai International, a California-based Buddhist congregation that goes by the initials SGI-USA. The group initiated an exterior restoration, completed in 1994, that brought Robertson’s lusty building back to life. By now the interiors were almost totally obliterated, requiring new but historically sensitive renovations.
photographs taken by the author