The unmarried Elizabeth Davenport Wheeler had dedicated her relatively-short life to the betterment of the poor. When she died on May 3, 1890, she was the manager of the Society for the Relief of Half-Orphan and Destitute Children.
In her memory, her widowed mother and two sisters purchased the former home of the recently deceased William Bigley, at No. 307 East 12th Street. The women donated it to the Children’s Aid Society, with the stipulation that it be used as the site of a girl’s shelter—the Elizabeth Home for Girls—which they would also pay for.
The Children’s Aid Society had been founded by Charles Loring Brace along with a few other concerned men in 1853. Brace had been, according to King’s Handbook of New York City, “engaged in teaching some of the little arabs of the streets.” The Society was incorporated in 1856 “for the education of the poor by gathering children who attend no schools into its industrial schools, caring and providing for children in lodging houses, and procuring houses for them in the rural districts and in the West.”
The lofty goals of the Society were clearly laid out in an address in 1857 by the group’s secretary:
“How many idle hands will be made useful, how many petty thieves become industrious laborers, how many vagabonds turned into steady householders; how many vagrants, how many robbers, how many housebreakers, how many despairing girls and vile women, how much laziness, how much vice, how much crime, how much poverty and hunger will be saved to society in this number! What friends to temperance there will be among these; what haters of vice, what lovers of good order and virtue, what virtuous women and strong men, who will remember the ‘pit’ in our cities from which ‘they were dug!’"
As the Society had done for its eleven earlier structures--lodging houses and industrial schools—it commissioned the architectural firm of Vaux & Radford to design the Elizabeth Home. It seems that Calvert Vaux, best known for his co-designing of Central Park, was the leading hand in the designs.
Construction began in 1891 and was completed in December the following year. Like Vaux’s other Children’s Aid Society buildings, it was a blend of Victorian Gothic and Flemish Revival. Its asymmetrical red brick façade featured a multi-paned arched opening nestled deeply with the hefty stone balcony that sprouted over the entrance, a prominent stepped gable and two charming dormers with copper hoods.
Upon the formal opening of the home on December 13, 1892, The New York Times noted “The handsome structure was designed as a home and training school for destitute girls, and is well adapted to the needs of the inmates.” In the basement were two dining rooms, the kitchen, the girl’s laundry and drying room, “together with a large ironing, washing, and drying room for custom work, two bathrooms and closets.”
The goals of the home were evidenced not only in the laundry rooms downstairs, but in the “typewriting and sewing-machine” classrooms on the first floor. On this level were also the office, a reading room, a waiting room for applicants and “fitting room for the dressmaking department.”
Even on the upper floors where the dormitories and bedrooms were located, the girls were not far from instructional areas. On the third floor was the dressmaking workroom. The roof space was not overlooked, either. The Times said it was “so arranged as to be available for gardening purposes or as a lounging place on Summer evenings.”
The girls who would take up residence in the Elizabeth Home for Girls were under the close scrutiny of the matrons and Superintendent Elizabeth S. Hurley. Mrs. Hurley, whose physician husband was killed in the Civil War, had worked for the Society since 1855 on East 40th Street in the “shanty district” then known as Dutch Hill. The Times noted that she was given the supervision of the Elizabeth Home because of “her skill in training unruly girls and her sympathy with and affection for her charges.”
The often street-wise and difficult girls received no free rides. In the year prior to the Home’s opening 22 girls had been training in dressmaking, 99 learned to use sewing machines, two dozen were trained in the laundry and 35 “in housework. The New York Times reported that “108 had been sent to situations, 28 to employment, 44 returned to friends, and 4 to various institutions.” The distinction between “situations” and “employment” was not explained, nor was the meaning of “various institutions.”
During the dedication ceremonies two society women spoke on the areas they felt were most important in molding the girls. Mrs. Bainbridge “made a plea for spiritual training;” while Grace Dodge argued that the “geometry and physiology of dressmaking” and the “methods and management of the housewife” were prime essentials.
Residency in the Elizabeth Home for Girls was not intended to be anything but temporary. A few years later, in 1902, Children’s Aid Society agent R. L. Neill commented that the Home was “used only until a child is fitted to become a member of a private family and until a suitable home for it presents itself.” Becoming a “member of a private family,” of course, meant finding a job as a servant.
Wealthy New Yorkers paid for Thanksgivings and Christmases at the Society homes. In most cases a single family chose its favorite location and annually donated the funds. In the case of the Elizabeth Home, it was millionaire W. Bayard Cutting who year after year provided Thanksgiving feasts.
For girls who rarely received small gifts or tasted gravy, Christmas was a special day. The day after Christmas in 1897 The Times described the holiday in the Home. The girls, it said, “assembled early in the evening, and until supper was served they spent the time in singing Christmas carols, and when they marched into the dining hall and saw the long rows of tables covered with snow white cloths, and smelled the aroma from the well-prepared dishes, giggles and exclamations of ‘Oh, isn’t this just too lovely for anything,’ were heard all along the line. Then after grace had been said, the clatter of knives and forks and merry conversation began. After supper there was more singing.”
In 1901 the success of the Elizabeth Home was praised by the New-York Tribune. “The present commodious building on Twelfth-st. has accommodations for fifty inmates, and is usually well filled. It is well equipped with rooms for sewing and cooking lessons, a flourishing laundry, where girls may receive thorough and practical training, and pleasant rooms for evening classes in the rudimentary English subjects.” The newspaper added “Intended from the first for the purpose of affording shelter to girls under eighteen years whose means of livelihood are precarious, it is always open to respectable girls.”
On August 14, 1901, the Tribune reported that the building next door had been purchased as an annex. The newspaper explained that more space was needed to house “a larger number of homeless and orphan children.”
The girls in the laundry did their work in the Home; while as the other girls became proficient they were sent out into the city to work in, for instance, dressmaker shops where “meager wages are paid.”
Girls still under training lived in the Home at no charge. Once they earned wages, they paid $1.50 per week for their “comfortable bed in the dormitory,” as described by the New-York Tribune. The annex allowed the Elizabeth Home to accept temporary residents who were not rescued off the streets. Young women looking for work in the city could rent a bed at 10 cents a night and receive meals for six cents. A few lucky working girls were housed here as well. The newspaper noted “Six small rooms, daintily furnished, are rented to those obtaining fairly good wages for $1.50 a week.”
By 1906 even the girls receiving training were asked to pay for their board. The Department of Social Welfare’s annual report that year noted “Homeless girls are received and are expected to pay five cents each for meals and lodgings; but no one is refused shelter or food because of inability to pay.” There had been 324 girls cared for that year, and the Home was just breaking even. The report said the receipts were $10,942.05 and the expenses were, to the penny, the same.
After serving the Children’s Aid Society for 55 years, the 84-year old Elizabeth S. Hurley died of a heart attack in the Elizabeth Home in November 1909. She had cared for as many as 20,000 girls and it was estimated that every year she had sent about 300 of them to various positions. Officers of the Society announced that her influence and training were responsible “for the fact that 12,000 women have led useful lives who might otherwise have gone to evil ways.”
Elizabeth’s funeral was held in the Home on the night of November 17, 1909. Coincidentally, above her obituary in the New-York Tribune was that of Charles N. Crittenton, “widely known as the millionaire founder of the Florence Crittenton Rescue Home for Girls.” The two institutions would cross paths on East 12th Street within a few decades.
One of the working girls who found lodging in the Elizabeth Home for Girls in 1911 was Gertrude Williams. She had come from Birmingham, Alabama and found work in New York as a cashier in an uptown restaurant. She was keen to the evils of the city facing a single working girl and had no intentions of being accosted by a wolf.
She was on her way to work on the evening of April 25. When she exited the subway at Times Square and headed down Broadway, she was aware that a man had followed her. As she reached 39th Street she was uncomfortable enough to turn back.
Charles Stewart, described by The Times as “a dapper-looking Englishman,” said “hello!” That was the last straw for Gertrude Williams and she slapped his face, causing his hat to fall off. As he bent over to pick it up, a policeman nearby arrested him.
Stewart explained to the court that he had mistaken Gertrude for someone else. “You know, Judge, it is very easy to be mistaken for some one else in this country. Why, a woman stopped me in Fifth Avenue the other day and said she thought I was a friend. I didn’t have her arrested.”
The judge replied “I should think not.” Nevertheless, he did not accept Stewart’s excuse for assaulting Gertrude with a too-familiar “hello.” “I’ll fine you $10.”
The ordeal was all too much for Gertrude. “As Miss Williams left the court room she fainted,” reported The Times. “She was taken to an ante room and revived.”
The Children’s Aid Society operated the Elizabeth Home for Girls until 1930. The building was sold to Benedict (who also went by Benjamin and Benard) Lust who opened his American School of Naturopathy and Chiropractic here. Lust had purchased the word “naturopathy” from Dr. John Scheel to promote his approach to healing by the power of nature.
His sometimes quackish medical practices included his “water cures,” one of which included standing under a running shower for eight hours without eating. Ardently against the use of drugs, he had written the Universal Naturopathic Encyclopedia and published Nature’s Path magazine. He also espoused the Indian concepts of Ayurveda and Yoga.
Lust’s practices did not always sit well with the law. In 1935 he and the school’s dean, Sinai Gershanek, and its secretary, Mark B. Thompson, were led out of No. 307 East 12th Street by police. They were charged with “unlawful granting of degrees in chiropractic.”
On November 1, 1946 the building once again became a home for homeless or troubled girls. Two hundred persons attended the opening of the Florence Crittenton League’s Barrett House. The shelter would house girls between 16 and 21 years old, “some of them runaways, some under the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Aid Bureau of the courts, others detained as witnesses” while trained workers “arrange for their future,” said The Times. The newspaper described it as “designed and equipped essentially as a home, with colorful, comfortably furnished rooms.”
The Florence Crittenton League’s Barrett House remained here for decades; but the troubled girls proved more unruly those supervised by Elizabeth Hurley at the turn of the century. On July 12, 1980 The Times reported that neighbors “say they have lost patience with the noise, violent behavior and sexual activity inside and outside.” Even the residents and “house parents” had to admit there was a problem with some uncontrollable girls. The newspaper said “the house parents and girls said many of the residents were lesbians” and “there were many complaints among the girls of cursing, stealing by their housemates” and even “hitting staff members.”
House parent Mary Bradley assured “But there is something good here, and there are plenty opportunities for the girls. They just have to want it.” Nevertheless, she admitted “A girl comes in here confused and leaves worse off in terms of respect for herself.”
Frustrated neighbors would not have to contend with the problem much longer. In 1983 the building was converted to co-operative apartments. While the original interiors were essentially gutted; the exterior of Vaux & Radford’s Elizabeth Home for Girls is largely untouched.
photographs by the author