Two years after the well-to-do merchant Henry Dexter built his wide brick home at No. 49 West 9th Street in 1855, the Ladies’ Christian Union was organized. Concerned with the plight of unmarried women who fended off the evils of the great city, wealthy women established a boarding house on fashionable Washington Square.
The Ladies’ Christian Union was the world's first such association, offering shelter to 85 self-supporting women at affordable rates. All the receipts were put back into the operational expenses and any shortfalls were made up by the founders. The concept of supplying aid to women who were not indigent but merely needed respectable housing was groundbreaking in 1857.
Forty years later the initiative had firmly taken root and already there was a branch home at No. 308 2nd Avenue. Now the organization sought to expand again. In 1897 Sarah F. Kraemer owned the 28-foot wide house at No. 49 West 9th Street. Four stories tall it had a tall brownstone stoop. Its location and the general size were what the women were looking for.
In May 1897 The Sun reported that Judson S. Todd had purchased the Kraemer residence and immediately turned it over to the Ladies’ Christian Union. The women wasted no time with their new property and three months later, on August 7, The New York Times reported on extensive alterations. The Union spent $20,000 (donated by “interested friends,” according to The New York Times) to have architects Howard & Cauldwell strip off the front and rear facades and remake the house into their new Young Woman’s Home.
Residence hotels specifically for young working girls was, by now, a near necessity. The city teemed with businesses that hired unmarried girls—hat factories, artificial flower workrooms, garment factories, and department stores. The girls made little money to spend on housing and--as important as finding a home--they needed to safeguard their reputations.
On April 29,1898 the grand opening was held. Howard & Cauldwell had transformed the old brick house into a showplace. Although the architecture is now termed Louis XIII French Classic, The New York Times dummied it down to “Colonial.” While the residents within had little spare money, the exterior did its best to hide the fact.
The rusticated first floor burst forth with a dramatic yet dignified arched pediment over the entrance with a richly-carved panel of spilling cornucopias. Above, three stories of variegated Flemish bond brick were contrasted with limestone trim. Finally a slate-covered fifth story in the form of a high mansard roof provided an additional touch of elegance and class.
Inside the residents would find a homey atmosphere. Mrs. Joseph Milbank furnished the parlor, located on the second floor. Here too were the Superintendent’s room, a large room used both as a library and sewing room, and a few sleeping rooms. The first floor housed the dining room, kitchen, office, a reception room and a “room for transient guests.”
To live here the girls would spend $4, $5 or $6 a week, depending on their rooms (one, two or three beds per room), which would include meals and “everything save laundry,” according to The Times. Transient guests paid $7.
The 48 residents slept on iron beds and each had her own washstand, rocking chair and private clothes closet which was locked. There was a bathroom on every floor and Victorian modesty was a top concern. “Screens are also provided to place around the beds and give absolute privacy,” assured The Times.
The newspaper applauded the decorative amenities. “Hardwood floors are used throughout the house, with pretty rugs in all the rooms, sash curtains at the windows, and muslin splashers back of the washstands.”
The Times said that the opening was done with “appropriate exercises,” described addresses by the Rev. W. H. P. Faunce and the Rev. C. Cuthbert Hall and noted that “there was music, and tea was served.”
For generations the house saw the comings and goings of young girls struggling to make their way in the world. In 1921 The Lyre of Alpha Chi Omega reported that Grace Griffith was living here while “completing a cooperative course in Salesmanship at New York University and has recently accepted a lucrative position as educational director at Saks & Company.”
By the time of the Great Depression the name of the building had been changed to Sage House, most likely in response to substantial support from the Russell Sage Foundation. In 1932 the economic climate was being felt. The Times reported that “the Ladies’ Christian Union turned to the opera for the first time to meet a financial need due to ‘overwhelming pressure of unemployment.’”
The Metropolitan Opera responded and on the afternoon of December 14 maestro Tullio Serafin directed “La Traviata” starring Rosa Ponselle, Lauri-Volpi and Tibbett. The charitable event resulted in $4,000 for the Ladies’ Christian Union.
In 1942 the Union updated the aging structure, while keeping the prim façade untouched and in keeping with the still-upscale neighborhood. The group’s decades of help to working women who needed a little support would not last forever on West 9th Street, however.
In the summer of 1975 the Ladies’ Christian Union began plans to accept children who were abused by their parents. Alan Pilikian, a member of the executive committee of the West 9th Street Block Association told reporters that residents on the block were “outraged and frightened when they got wind of the organization’s plans.”
The Block Association asked the local community planning board for Greenwich Village to stop “institutional encroachments.” It protested that often when similar institutions were introduced on residential blocks “resident neighbors are afflicted with unbearable noise, obscenities, shouted insults, loitering, harassment of passersby, litter, vandalism, destruction of public property.”
Pilikian said “We wanted to nip the plans in the bud.” Some 9th Street residents researched the names and addresses of the trustees of the Ladies’ Christian Union and wrote to them, “arguing that their block was not suitable for such a project,” said The Times.
The Ladies’ Christian Union responded to the residents. The plans to take in abused children was abandoned, and after having operated its home for women here for 77 years it decided to close. On September 21, 1975 The New York Times reported that “a spokesman for the Ladies’ Christian Union said that the disposition of the facility was now being reconsidered.”
The building was sold and within two years had been converted to seven expansive cooperative apartments. The building where young shop girls spent $4 a week to sleep on an iron bed behind a privacy screen was now called home by millionaires and celebrities.
Melanie Lazenby, the daughter of James Bond actor George Lazenby, paid over $1.3 million for a four-and-a-half room apartment here in 2005. The same year actress Keri Russell bought the two-story penthouse with two terraces. And in 2006 actor Matt Dillon, using the name Kevin Dillon was in Unit 5-B. When Keri Russell married in 2007, she sold her duplex for $1.5 million.
The dignified façade of the old Young Woman’s House is unchanged. That the building’s tradition of serving those in need was cut short not by prudish Victorian neighbors, but by prudish 1970s neighbors, is at the very best remarkable.
photographs taken by the author