Thursday, February 12, 2015

The 1916 Barbour House -- No. 322 W 36th Street

The fashionable Brick Presbyterian Church had a tradition of helping the poor.  In the 19th century it established a Sunday school in the wretched Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood which, in 1888, became Christ Church.   In 1905 Brick Church erected a new church building on West 36th Street with an adjoining parish house that provided the tenement dwellers recreation and, more importantly, instruction in sewing, carpentry, and other areas that would help to improve their lives.

On the opposite side of the church building at No. 322 West 36th Street was a tenement building.   Apparently to save rent, at least in once instance several unrelated people shared a single apartment.  The lifestyles of the struggling residents was evidenced here on November 15, 1914 when Alexander Evanoff, a Bulgarian immigrant, showed up at the door of that flat.

Evanoff had shared the apartment with Rosie King and her sister, Mary Kenniker, and an Italian Rocco Postorino.  When he left, his place was taken by a Greek immigrant, Mickle Stronnglous.  Somewhat smitten with Rosie King, Evanoff now envisioned the Greek as a rival for her affections.

The following morning The New York Times reported “Sounds of quarreling, followed by four pistol shots, brought the people of the tenement at 332 West Thirty-six Street to their doors at 6 o’clock last night in time to see a man dash downstairs from the third floor, brandishing a revolver.”

The man was Alexander Evanoff and as he bolted down the stairs, men and boys from the tenement ran after him.  By the time he reached Ninth Avenue “a small army was at his heels.”  He turned the corner towards 35th Street where “he was downed by Policeman Allen of the West Thirty-seventh Street Station.”

Back at the overcrowded apartment, Mickle Stronnglous lay dead on the floor with a bullet wound in the head.  Rocco Postorino was bleeding from the wrist and the two terrified women cowered in another room.

They were able to tell police that Evanoff stood in the doorway and fired directly at Stronnglous.  As he fell to the floor the Bulgarian aimed at the two women; but Postorino grabbed his arm and the shot went wild.  As the two men grappled on the floor, Rosie and Mary fled screaming into another room.  “For more than a minute the two men wrestled.  Then Evanoff succeeded in tearing himself free, but not until two more shots had been fired, one bullet wounding Postorino in the wrist, the other piercing Evanoff in the hand.”

Evanoff denied that he had started the fight.  He said he was out of work and stopped by to borrow money.  He insisted the others had opened fire on him the moment he entered the room.  Police were not so sure.  He was held on murder charges.

At the time another social problem concerned New Yorkers—that of safe and respectable housing for single working girls.  The West 36th Street neighborhood was not far from the developing retail area of Herald Square where massive stores like Gimbels and Macy’s hired hundreds of “shop girls.”   With the opening of Pennsylvania Station two blocks to the south of Christ Church in 1910, businesses flooded the area.  Every unmarried girl who moved to New York for a job needed a place to stay.  But meager wages made finding respectable housing difficult.  The solution was the hotel for working girls.

William Sloane Coffin controlled the properties at Nos. 330 and 332 West 36th Street in December 1915 when The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that Christ Church intended to erect a “7-story dormitory” on the site.  The projected $95,000 project was to be designed by Hill & Stout.

Frederick P. Hill and Edmund C. Stout had recently completed the skinny Gothic-inspired office building at No. 299 Madison Avenue, and the triangular German-American Insurance Co. building on Liberty Street.  For the “Barbour Dormitory” they would again turn to the Gothic motif, handsomely blending with the Christ Church and Parish House next door.

A month after the announcement, on January 17, 1916, the Brick Church announced that “Nearly the entire $150,000 Barbour Memorial Fund has been subscribed.  It is for the erection of a dormitory on the west side.”   The figure would translate to about $3.25 million today.
The working girl hotel would be named in memory of William D. Barbour who, as recorded in the 1943 Brick Church History “for over fifty years was the teacher and devoted friend of the children of the West Side.” 

The book would remind its readers that Barbour House (as it was quickly renamed) was erected “through the enthusiasm of William Sloane Coffin.”  Indeed, on August 23, 1916 The Times reported that Coffin had “conveyed as a gift to the corporation of Brick Presbyterian Church title in the two properties at 330 and 332 West Thirty-sixth Street.”

On January 23, 1916 The New York Times reported “One of the most interesting and what will doubtless prove to be one of the most beneficial improvements in the rapidly growing industrial centre immediately adjacent to the Pennsylvania Station is the home for wage-earning girls now under construction…in the centre of the biggest retail district in the country.”

The design of the Barbour House complimented Christ Church, center, and the parish house to the right -- The New York Times, January 23, 1916 (copyright expired)

The newspaper pointed out the lack of housing for the enormous population of working girls in the area.  William S. Coffin further explained “A large number of employes of these stores and lofts are girls whose wages range from $6 a week up.  Now, if a girl can walk to her work six days a week instead of taking a car, this is equal to an increase of 10 percent in her wages.  If one hour each day in the subway be counted as a working hour, which it certainly it, living near the store makes an eight-hour instead of a nine-hour day.  A dormitory for these girls is certainly one of the greatest needs of the district.”

A balcony over the entrance was planted with shrubs -- Architecture & Building  April 1917 (copyright expired)

The Times described the “attractive” façade as “of red brick and white terra cotta, relieved by an artistic balcony for flowering plants over the main entrance.  It will be seven stories in height with a roof garden.”

The term “dormitory” was perhaps more appropriate than “hotel.”  The architects lined up single rooms—most of them 7.5 by 12 feet--to accommodate 120 regular female lodgers.  But life in the building was not intended to be Spartan.  In the basement was a large kitchen and a “clubroom” for entertainments.  The main floor contained a large entrance hall, two reception rooms “where young men and other visitors may be put at ease,” and a large lounge with an open fire place.  The main dining room, also on this floor, could accommodate 130 at a time.  The Times mentioned that the dining room “will be one of the great features of the building, for it is intended to establish a girls’ lunch club which will be restricted under certain conditions for the benefit of girls working in the neighborhood.”

A lunch club would further reduce the girls’ expenses.

Rooms lined up along the hallways with a central communal restroom in the center --

All six of the upper floors were relegated to sleeping rooms; along with scattered trunk rooms.  On the roof was a glass-enclosed conservatory and an open roof section.

Girls staying at the Barbour House could expect to pay $4.75 a week on average.  Considering that most of them made about $6 a week, they would still be strapped for spending money.

Two years after the building opened, New-York Tribune writer Elene Foster made a tour of working girl hotels.    She wrote on January 20, 1918 “It’s a problem which dates back to the time that the first shy little country maid descended from the old Bouwerie stagecoach, carpet bag in hand, to seek her fortune in the great city—this problem of the housing of the working girl!”  Foster said that while times and girls had changed, “the problem is there just the same…the problem of the safe and proper housing of the thousands and thousands of young women who come each year to live and work in the  biggest city in the world.”

Foster started out at the Barbour House “one of the newest and most attractive of the organized houses for girls, over in West Thirty-sixth Street.  The applicant with whom I went was a salesgirl in a department store, earning $10 per week.  She had been ill in the hospital for several weeks, and she had her doctor’s bill still to pay, so that she couldn’t afford to pay $6 per week for her room and two meals (breakfast and dinner) in the boarding house where she was living.”

So the girl was desperate to find a room in the Barbour House.  Foster recounted the girl’s description of the place, including her vernacular and less-than-refined diction.

“I’m just crazy to get into Barbour House.  I’ve got lots of friends there.  It’s perfectly elegant.  They treat you white, too; course they have rules, but ain’t what you’d call ‘nosey’ about your affairs so long as they know you’re respectable.  And they don’t mind your gentleman friend comin’ to see you neither.  They’ve got reg-lar ‘Beau Parlors’ fixed up real class, where you can see him without a lot of other girls buttin in.”

Apparently the reporter showed confusion for the girl continued, “You ain’t never heard of a ‘Beau Parlor’?  Some call ‘em ‘spoon-holders.’  All the new houses have them.  Wait till you see them.  They’re grand!”

Foster agreed that the Barbour House was “perfectly elegant.”  She described the long reception room with chintz draperies and “big chintz covered chairs, books and lamps and a hue fireplace with a broad leather covered fender.”  The reporter was impressed that there was nothing “institutional” about the hotel.

The women rode the elevator to look at the vacant room.  “It was a large room, with two big windows hung with white curtains, and in it were three comfortable cots with brown covers, three chests of drawers with mirrors, three rocking chairs, and along one side three clothes closets fitted with poles and hangers, and with doors that could be locked.  The applicant’s face fell when she saw the three cots.”

The girl had hoped for a single room rather than a shared one.  But by sharing she would be paying only $3.75 a week including breakfast and dinner.   In the basement the women were shown the laundry, “a room equipped with ironing boards, electric irons and a row of porcelain tubs.”   For the use of the room girls paid 5 cents an hour.

Next came a trip to the sun parlor on the roof where girls could seek relief on hot summer nights.  “Here were wicker chairs with bright cushions, tall, shaded lamps and gate-legged tables and a phonograph.  A conservatory with tropical plants and a big tank of goldfish opened from this sun parlor.”  Also on the roof was a kitchenette where girls could make tea or light meals.

Adding to the attraction of Barbour House at the time were the dances for sailors hosted every Wednesday night by Christ Church next door.  Sailors, either returning from war or headed overseas, were told they “may bring their dancing partners with them or attend singly and be introduced to some of the girls of the neighborhood who will be there.”

There is little doubt that a great number of the “girls of the neighborhood” walked over from the Barbour House.

Girls who could barely make rent could definitely not afford to spend money on vacations; but in 1922 the Barbour House leased a summer house at Far Rockaway, Long Island, for the girls.  On October 10 the girls opened a two-day bazaar in the building “to raise funds to replenish the sums spend for their summer house,” reported The Times.

The residents need not have collected huge amounts, however.  The congregation of Brick Church was wealthy and Brick Church History mentioned “The gifts and contributions of the people rose to unprecedented figures.  Until the depression of 1929, the annual budget was in the neighborhood of $130,000, the larger proportion being devoted to missions and benevolences.”  A significant supporter of the hotel was the wealthy and unmarried Eleanor Cuyler.  Not only did she single-handedly pay the salary of a foreign missionary, but she was nicknamed by Brick Church members “the fairy godmother of Barbour House.”

The Depression obviously worsened the lot of working girls, many of whom lost their jobs.   The Association to Promote Proper Housing for Girls opened its two-day conference at the Hotel Pennsylvania on November 18, 1930.  The organization intended to address “problems of unemployment among girls, consideration of mental adjustments in the allocation of positions, and the social trends of modern times.”   The first night’s session was an oratorical contest in which girls spoke on “What I Know of Unemployment.” 

Barbour House did well for itself.  Resident Dorothy Barry received the first prize, a gold medal; and the House received a silver cup “which will become the permanent property of the club whose representatives attain first place for three years,” reported The Times.

Interestingly, unlike most hotels for women, Barbour House accepted older single women as well.  Former European opera singer Marie Van Gelder was 55-years old when she checked into the House in July 1935 with her two sisters.  A native of The Netherlands, Marie was a naturalized American citizen.

Marie Van Gelder now made her living as a private vocal coach.  She sprang from a musical family—her father Gerardus M. Van Gelder was a prominent Dutch musicial and her brother, Dr. Martius Van Gelder, was a pianist, violinist and composer living in Philadelphia.   Marie had been first dramatic soprano at the Royal Opera House in Amsterdam, and sang with the Berne, Zurich and Metz opera houses.  She gave command concerts for Queen Wilhelmina and Kaiser Wilhelm II; and wrote the book Artistic Singing.

On October 13, three months after she moved into the Barbour House, Marie Van Gelder attended the 11:00 mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  She was seated in a pew about half-way toward the front and just as Rev. T. Lester Graham started to preach, she collapsed.  Ushers carried the women to the vestibule where she died 10 minutes later of a heart attack.

In July 1943 the Brick Presbyterian Church sold Barbour House to Benjamin Winter.  In reporting the sale The New York Times noted that the building “provides living quarters for working women of modest income.  It contains 100 rooms and will continue under its present management.”

The new owner made one major change.  As noted in Brick Church History it now “extended its privileges to young men also.”  The book admitted however “It still renders a most important service in providing a home-like atmosphere for young people whom study or business has brought to the city.”

Changes in society more than neighborhood eliminated the need for hotels like the Barbour House.  Surrounded by Garment Center factory buildings on a still-gritty street, Barbour House became the Barbour Hotel when it was taken over by Praxis Housing Initiatives in the late 20th century.  Under contract with the city’s Division of AIDS Services and Income Support, the “transitional housing facility” serves people with HIV/AIDS.   According to its website, the hotel “provides services on site, including harm reduction, counseling, and programs for substance abusers and the mentally ill.”

In 2015 plans to demolish Christ Church and its parish house were announced.  When the high-rise hotel is completed on the site, The Barbour house will be the lone survivor of the charming Gothic Revival complex.

photographs by the author

1 comment:

  1. Noooooo! Why demolish such a gorgeous historic building?!? Such a shame.