Saturday, February 15, 2014

The 1907 Volunteers of America Bldg -- No. 34 West 28th Street

The exuberant cast cornice sits like a tiara on the beautiful, if abused, building -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

As the 19th century drew to a close, the social reform movement gained unprecedented momentum.  The focus of helping the poor was turning from merely providing charity to teaching skills and a means of improving their desperate conditions.  Among the leaders of the movement were Ballington and Maud Booth who in 1896 founded the Volunteers of America.  Booth was the son of William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army.

Ballington Booth poses in his Salvation Army uniform -- photograph Library of Congress

The couple organized volunteers who worked in the squalid tenement districts.  Initially the Volunteers provided housing for unmarried men and women, and organized day nurseries so mothers could work and earn money for food and rent.  The group would expand to providing summer camps for needy children and residences for newly-released prisoners until they could get on their feet.

Within a decade the Volunteers of America had spread to several major American cities.  General Ballington Booth described its organization to The World Almanac.  “It is organized in military style, having as its model the United States Army, but in conjunction with military discipline and methods of work it possesses a thoroughly democratic form of government.”

In New York the organization bounced around; starting in the Bible House at the corner of Fourth Avenue and 8th Street, then moving several times until, in 1905, Harry L. Toplitz purchased Bartholomew Ward’s five story house at No. 34 West 28th Street.  The old residence had been in the Ward family since 1858; but the once-quiet residential street was now anything but.  Commercial structures had taken over the block and newspapers announced that Toplitz “will erect on the site a six-story store and office building.”

The “store and office building” would be the permanent headquarters of the Volunteers of America.  Although The New York Times noted on April 20, 1907, upon the building’s completion, that “The vendor was Harry L. Toplitz, who built it;” it was an anonymous donors who paid for it. 

Coincidentally, the building was completed exactly two decades years after Booth and his wife arrived in New York.  He told reporters “Oh, it just comes to me—it is most interesting, most interesting.  Do you know, gentlemen, that it was just twenty years ago yesterday, at 10:45 in the morning, that Mrs. Ballington Booth and I sailed up New York Harbor to take up our work in America?  To think that it was at the same hour twenty years later when I took title to this magnificent building for the Volunteers!”

Architect Adolph Mertin had put his designs on the drafting table a year earlier and the resulting structure was up-to-the-minute.  Art Nouveau influences revealed themselves in the railings and cornice along with wonderful Vienna Secession piers.  An angled, three-story bay culminating in a railed balcony was entirely clad in gleaming copper.  Not only did the projecting sides of the bay provide for optimum light into the structure, they captured the slightest breezes on stifling summer days.

Art Nouveau piers flank the cast metal bay -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

The Times remarked that “The new building of the Volunteers is a very up-to-date affair both in design and construction…Expense was apparently not spared in its decoration, and it has all the modern devices for fire protection.”  The newspaper added that it “furnishes about as great a contrast to the present headquarters, in an old rookery at 38 Cooper Row, just off the Bowery, as can be imagined.”

Despite the debilitating Financial Panic of 1907, the $250,000 structure (an outlay of about $6 million today) was completely paid for.  The Volunteers of America would use the second through fifth floors for its offices and headquarters; renting out the store and basement as well as the three studios in the sixth floors.  General Ballington Booth’s private office was on the second floor, along with a board room large enough to accommodate 200.  It was here where the meetings of the executive heads of the Volunteers would be held.

photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

The financial offices of the organization were housed on the third floor, as well as the offices of the trade department.  The fourth floor was dedicated to the editorial department.  The New York Times reported that the fifth floor, “the lightest in the building, will be the headquarters of Mrs. Ballington Booth and her Prison League, which is now cramped up in a little room in the old shack on Cooper Row.”

Mrs. Booth’s Prison League had already placed 2,860 former prisoners in steady jobs and had 43,000 convicts still serving their time on the waiting list.  In the past year the Volunteers of America had cared for 3,933 “unfortunate women,” and provided lodging for 31,487 women.

Among those renting the top floor space was the architect himself, Adolph Mertin, who moved his offices here.

At the official opening of the building, on October 27, 1907, William Cullen Bryan spoke.  He noted the Volunteers of America’s focus on rehabilitation rather than hand-outs.  “No doubt the first duty to the hungry man is to feed him, but to do him permanent good one must give him high ideals and a nobler conception of life.”

He recognized, too, the more pragmatic and economic side of their work.  “It is cheaper to reform a man than to protect society against him.  A vicious man is an expensive luxury.  While Gen. and Mrs. Booth are doing work which costs money, I venture to say that it is worth to the people of the United States far more than is spent upon it.”

Two months later the Volunteers were busy fulfilling what would be one of their most widely-recognized deeds—the annual Christmas boxes for the families of jailed convicts.  “Two hundred boxes of substantial clothing, groceries, and toys had been sent out to the wives and children of imprisoned men up to the last night by the Volunteers of America,” reported The Times on Christmas Day 1907. 

The group obtained the foot measurements of every child and mother in the families who were brought to its attention.  “To every boy we give a warm overcoat and to the girls a cloak of some heavy material,” said Maud Booth.  “The grown women receive dresses.  Underclothes are pretty generally distributed, while everybody gets a pair of stout new shoes.  Each box is packed with a particular family in view, so that there is no chance of our gifts proving inappropriate or misfit.”

In order to guarantee this, volunteers visited upwards of 80 families each, returning with a detailed report.  Mrs. Booth provided detailed examples of the conditions of the recipients. 

“I had a box for a girl at one house, and when I knocked at the door it was opened by what seemed to be a tiny little woman, who held her broom in her hand, while her sleeves were rolled up for work.  She was very small, but her face was marked with care and toil.

‘You have children,’ said I, thinking the box was for her child.

‘I am the only child,’ she answered, and I gave the things to her.  I found out afterwards that she was only 15.

Heart-breaking letters from the needy arrived at the offices of the Volunteers.  A month before the following Christmas Mrs. Booth received a letter from a little girl.

Dear Santa Claus:  Won’t you please come to see us this year?  Last year you did not come, and we were very sorry, because we did not get a single thing.  Please do not disappoint us this year.  Papa is not working, neither is mother.  We are nine children, running in ages thus:  Girl, 16, the only one working; boy, 14; girl, 12; boy, 10; girl 6; girl, 7; girl, 5; girl, 3, and little baby, 1 year and 3 months.  Dear Santa Clause, please make us happy.  Do not disappoint, or we shall be very unhappy.

The Volunteers of America worked diligently from its new headquarters in attempts to relieve the suffering of the endless list of the destitute.  Ballington Booth documented cases in 1909 that included “A poor woman whose husband is in Sing Sing, and who lives with her three little children and her father, who has a cancer, and has had to have his arm amputated, in an uptown tenement, has been supporting herself and these on $3 per week.  They had absolutely nothing in the house, and were living on stale bread and milk.  The Volunteers have taken this case, and are caring for them” and “A woman who was a janitress and worked until faint and worn out was finally taken to the hospital.  The children, aged 2, 9, 16, and 18, were in dire need.  Through the instrumentality of our officers, the girl of 16 and the boy of 18 found employment, and the little children are being cared for.  Their condition was woe-begone and pitiable in the extreme.”

In the meantime, artists leased the sixth floor studios, providing extra income for the group.  In 1913 artist Lewis Stone had his studio here when he gave up on his foundering marriage.  He explained to the Supreme Court on January 9 of that year that “sex antagonism” was responsible for his failed marriage.

“You may personally love each other—man and wife—but be opposed sexually,” he said.  Stone and his wife had married in Paris in 1896 where they were both studying art.  But after 14 years “My wife began to show a passion for wine and did not seem to love our last child.”  When the artist prepared to go to their summer home in Hastings in 1912, his wife refused.  So he left with the children.

When he returned in the fall he discovered his wife was having an affair with two men.  “He says that he does not ask for the divorce in a spirit of vengeance, but because he feels that he can no longer live with his wife,” explained The New York Times.

Downstairs at No. 34 West 28th Street the Volunteers of America continued with their good works.  The same year that Stone filed for divorce, the Volunteers of America was busy procuring funds for its summer camps.  Writing about the program to send city children “to the fresh air,” Ballington Booth wrote on July 21, 1913 “It would be difficult to adequately explain the rapid benefit and lasting good those children have derived.  It means so much to them to be moved from the hot-roomed and ill-ventilated tenement to the fresh air and breeze-swept camp.”

With the outbreak of World War I another branch of the Volunteers of America was organized.  The Booth’s daughter, Theodora, was president of the National Honor Guard of America; 6,000 girls and young women “who are prepared in case of a national crisis to replace men in many different occupations.”

On February 6, 1917 The Sun reported that the girls came to the aid of the navy militia who were tasked with keeping watch on sensitive bridge piers during the frigid winter nights.   Several times the military men received “visitors.”  “The visitors were girls of the National Honor Guard of America, and they came in automobiles, bringing sandwiches and coffee,” reported the newspaper.

The following year the “gray-uniformed girls of the National Honor Guard” were seeking $3,000 for their work in the remote military camps.  “Also they would welcome baseball hats, vases, jigsaw puzzles, phonographs, games of all kinds, book and anything else that would help to pass a solder’s time,” reported the New-York Tribune on May 12, 1918.  The appeal promised “We see that every dollar is spent to its greatest capacity, and often with $5 we can bring happiness and cheer to a camp of 300 or 400 men…We need flower vases for the flowers we give to our sick sailors and soldiers in the hospitals…We need new games, checkers, jigsaw puzzles for convalescent patients, dominoes, all kinds of games…We want flowers and fruit for our boys here; we want new magazines, tobacco.”

The Depression Era and the poverty and unemployment it brought meant even more work for the group.  But thirty-five years after the Booths had organized the Volunteers of America the pair was still going strong.  On August 1, 1931 The New York Times reported on the telegrams of congratulation that poured into the headquarters at No. 34 West 28th on Ballington Booth’s 74th birthday.  Five years later officers and workers of the organization gathered in the headquarters building to celebrate the Booths’ 40 year anniversary of the founding.

“In a modest, sunlit room where many flowers had been placed in their honor the General, who is a brother of General Evangeline Booth of the Salvation Army, and his wife, known as ‘The Little Mother of the Prisons,’ received pledges of renewed loyalty from scores of followers,” reported The Times on March 17, 1936.

On the same day that The Times printed its report of the celebration, Pittsburgh was struck with what became known as The Great St. Patrick’s Day Flood.  Between March 17 and 18 flood waters rose to 46 feet, devastating the city and destroying about 100,000 buildings.  As expected, the Volunteers of America charged into action.  Approximately 20 truckloads of bedding and clothing provided by the Volunteers left New York City for the West Pennsylvania flood areas.  Each of the trucks contained 1,100 blankets and 95,000 garments.

On September 13, 1940 Maud Ballington Booth celebrated her 75th birthday by going to work, as usual, in the Volunteers of America headquarters.  Her six hours of work were interrupted by the need to acknowledge congratulations from well-wishers like President Roosevelt; Major General James G. Harboard, chairman of the board of Radio Corporation of America; and General John J. Pershing.

A much younger Maud Ballington Booth posed in 1905 -- photograph Library of Congress

Nevertheless, The New York Times said “Mrs. Booth showed no signed of relaxing her zeal for work.  She insisted there would be no personal celebration of her birthday.  She wanted the anniversary noted only to ‘carry again to the world my message on prison reform.’”

A month later, on October 5, Ballington Booth died.

After 34 years, almost to the day, in the building he designed, architect Adolph Mertin moved his offices out of the building on October 20, 1941; going to No. 101 Park Avenue.  

Maud Ballington Booth lived on until August 26, 1948.  The position of commander-in-chief of the Volunteers of America passed to son Charles Brandon Booth until 1958 when he was succeeded by John McMahon.

Change came to the Volunteers of America after nearly a century when Raymond C. Tremont stepped into the position of general in 1980.  His reorganization did away with the traditional blue uniforms, the military ranks were replaced with more corporate titles, and the organization moved from New York City to Louisiana.

In the half century that the Volunteers of America had been in its building the 28th Street block had changed significantly.  The handsome headquarters was now broken up into small offices and manufactories and at some point the storefront was essentially obliterated.  Today the once-gleaming copper bay is covered with peeling brown paint and a tawdry advertising awning stretches above the retail store.  But overall Adolph Mertin’s wonderful 1907 design survives intact.

Pedestrians who rush by, not bothering to look above the tawdry store level, miss the magnificent details of the former Volunteers of America headquarters -- photo by Nicolas Lemery Nantel /

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