Monday, June 13, 2016

The Lost Municipal Lodging House -- 432 East 25th Street

The Brickbuilder, September 1909 (copyright expired)

The problem of homeless and out-of-work New Yorkers was no doubt worsened when the recession of 1882 developed into the Panic of 1884.  “Tramps” who were removed from the streets were “compelled to seek accommodation in police station-houses,” as pointed out by the New Outlook later.   The magazine pitied the matrons charged with watching over the women.  “Police matrons of proper character could not endure the foul language of many of the abandoned and drunken women who are taken to the station-houses.”

The State enacted two laws, in 1886 and 1888, to “authorize the establishment of municipal lodging-houses for the shelter at night of such homeless people.”  Yet by the time of an article in The Christian Union’s on January 1, 1891 nothing had been done in New York City.  “The city can afford to pay for proper provision for the right treatment of criminal women, and the morals of the purest and best women will not be degraded by an endeavor to render womanly services to women who are the most degraded and depraved," the writer complained.

Five years later the first Municipal Lodging House was opened in New York City at No. 398 First Avenue near 23rd Street.  Despite the magazine’s focus on women, the facility provided accommodation to men, women and children.

Not everyone thought the Municipal Lodging House was a good idea.  There was a widespread opinion that by providing a free bed, bath and meal to the homeless, the city was attracting an even greater idle population.   On December 28, 1907 the New-York Tribune ran the headline “Tramps Overrun City” and complained “The fact that New York furnishes special attractions to the homeless is known far and wide and has proved a magnet to thousands of tramps all over the country.”  The article reported “From December 1 to December 23, 2,353 persons were turned away from the doors of the lodging house because of lack of room.”

The Charities Department was well aware of the overcrowding.  Two years earlier the Board of Aldermen had approved construction of a new building at No. 432 East 25th Street near First Avenue designed by architect Raymond F. Almirall. 

On August 26 The Survey described the proposed building.  “It is to be a six-story fire-proof edifice, of brick, trimmed with limestone and bluestone with terra-cotta ornaments.”  The article placed the men’s dining room at the rear of the first floor, the women’s dining room on the second, and dormitories in five of the floors.  “The roof will contain storerooms and a sitting-room for employees.” 

The basement (above right) held the fumigation room, showers and dressing rooms.  The 2nd Floor (below left) was reserved for women.  The Brickbuilder, September 1905 (copyright expired)

Construction began in September 1905.   The New York Times projected that the building, designed to accommodate 750 persons and a staff of 30 employees, would be completed by the winter of 1906.  The newspaper noted “There are to be open courts to the east and west and to the south, and the lighting system is expected to be excellent.”  Of course there would be separate entrances for men and women.  The Times reported the cost, including the land, would be $216,000.

The projected date of completion came and went following an unexpected snag.  On October 25, 1908 The Times explained “It would have been finished months ago, but for serious engineering difficulties caused by the presence of quicksand in the foundations, which made necessary the sinking of a pneumatic steel caisson before the work could proceed.”

The setback came at the worst time.  The Financial Panic of 1907 had brought the Stock Exchange to the brink of collapse.  Bankruptcies rose to the second highest volume in the nation’s history, banks failed, imports dropped by twenty-six percent, and employment rose.

A New York Times article entitled “Facing The Problem of the Unemployed” mentioned the nearly-completed Municipal Lodging House.  It promised the facilities would be “the best equipped and most efficient institution ever constructed for the care of the homeless, and will be a most important contribution to the sanitation of the city.”

The issue of “sanitation” was a major one for the citizens of New York.  The homeless, unable to bathe, carried lice and odors.  The Municipal Lodging House had been designed with enormous sterilization tanks to treat the vagrants’ clothing with steam and formaldehyde.

Dormitory cots (above) are arranged like a boot camp barracks.  Below is the fumigation area where all clothes were sanitized.  photographs from the collection of the Library of Congress

The general opinion that catering to the homeless was giving them a free ride continued.  In the same article, a city official remarked “While it may be true that vagrancy is not exactly a crime, it is equally true that men owe a duty to society not to allow themselves to fall into vagrancy, and that when they do reach that point society must protect itself against them, and against the results apt to follow the application of the doctrine that “necessity knows no law.”  He complained “’They toil now, neither do they spin’ but they are fed and clothed and sheltered just the same.”

The Municipal Lodging House finally opened in February 1909.  The cost had nearly doubled, to $400,000—a staggering $10.7 million in 2016.  The Evening World described it as “as fine a place as was ever built in the world for the housing of the broken men.”  As a matter of fact, the newspaper felt it was perhaps too fine for the homeless.
Hundreds of indigent men lined up to apply for accommodation.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
After describing the “bath tubs, patent sanitary arrangements, white enameled cots and snowy linen, besides a disinfecting plant for the garments of its lodgers,” the writer pointed out “But—here’s the not immaterial part—while the hotel of the mendicant has aroused the admiration of every philanthropist in the Greater City, the men for whom it was built feel out of the picture.”  The article claimed “The old broken men…find an embarrassment, they say, in dragging their greasy, frowsy rags and tags into the spotless bright work and marble and porphyry of the new municipal lodging-house.”

photo from "Broke" The Man Without The Dime," by Edwin A. Brown, 1920 (copyright expired)
On the night the facility opened 426 men and 29 women were accommodated (20 of the women brought children).  The Evening World had little compassion for the women.  “Each poor, tattered mother clings to her pale-faced, weak-chinned offspring with the pertinacity of an actress about to be separated by a hard-hearted hotel management from her dear little King Charles spaniel.  And the fathers of these children?  Oh, they are in other municipal lodging houses, or worse, all over the country.”

There were strict rules for those seeking shelter.  Each applicant was first sent to the showers, then to a physician for a cursory examination.  After receiving a meal and being assigned a cot, his clothing was removed to be disinfected overnight.  No resident could stay more than three nights.  An attempt at a fourth night within one month would result in being confined to the workhouse.

Every applicant received a shower (above) with no expectation of privacy.  Afterwards a modest meal was served.  from the collection of the Library of Congress
The rigid rules sometimes defied the compassion expected of the Department of Charities.  Not long after the facility opened Catherine Davis brought her three children, seven-year old Charlotte, eight-year old James and ten-year old Margaret here.  They were turned away because of a suspected exposure to scarlet fever.

On the night of April 4, 1909 word was received at the East 104th Street Police Station of a serious condition on the top floor of No. 311 East 100th Street.  Sgt. John England entered the apartment to find Catherine dying on the bed with an advanced case of scarlet fever and spinal meningitis.  The two little girls, both feverish, were curled up on a lounge.

When he arrived, England found little James heating broth for his mother.  The New York Times reported that the eight-year old boy “had taken up the father’s burden, and cared for the mother and sisters as best he could.  The little chap had eaten nothing for two days, serving what little food there was in the house to the sisters.  The mother was too ill to eat.”

The most heart-wrenching cases were the children.  Above mothers and their children enjoy a charity-provided Christmas. from the collection of the Library of Congress
The Municipal Lodging House was the refuge of a few charity cases who were not, technically, homeless.  Such was the case on November 6, 1909 when Josephine Wiznieska of Buffalo arrived at Grand Central Station with her new husband.  The woman had spent 10 years doing menial jobs to eventually save $1,800.  When she met handsome Michael Solomon, who was at least 10 years younger than she, he swept her off her feet.

After three weeks of courtship they married and Solomon promised her a life of luxury in Brooklyn.  Just before the train arrived in New York, he suggested that Josephine freshen up because his friends would be at the station to meet them.   In her absence he removed her life savings, including the small change, from her purse and abandoned her.  The sobbing woman was taken to the Municipal Lodging House until someone from Buffalo could send help.

About a week later a well-dressed elderly woman was found wandering along Broadway. She told a policeman her name was Barbara Benish and that she was 81-years old.  She said she could not remember where she lived.  Suffering from what today we would easily recognize as dementia, she said “I’ve got a son at Bound Brook, New Jersey, but I can’t remember his first name.”

Newspapers reported that she would be taken care of at the Municipal Lodging House “until she can remember her address of some one identifies her.”

The Municipal Lodging House continued sheltering those most in need, especially during the brutal New York winters.  On March 17, 1912 the New-York Tribune described its work with a romantic Edwardian flourish.  “To many a human derelict, battered by the eddies at the side of Life’s current, the Municipal Lodging House is the one bright spot in existence.”

But then something happened.  Stuart A. Rice noted in his 1922 The Municipal Lodging House—A Hybrid Institution, “From a census of nearly 2,600 inmates on a cold night of January, 1915, the number shrank within eighteen months to as low as 100.”

An inspection by New York State Legislature in 1921 tried to determine why the number of applicants had fallen so dramatically.  The report found that the facility was clean and was being appropriately managed.  An investigative reporter from the New-York Tribune disagreed.

On the night of September 20, 1921 he disguised himself as a “down-and-outer,” and gained entrance to the Municipal Lodging House.  He reported two days later that the food was “slumgullion,” empty dormitories were unused while men were crowded into others (“so concentrated…that their health is endangered”), and ventilation “is nothing short of a nightmare.”   The reporter accused employees of treating the homeless “with about as much consideration as is accorded by a Western cowboy to his cattle in the midst of a ‘round-up.’”

The Commissioner of Public Welfare, Bird S. Coler, was quick to react.  He insisted “It’s a lie.  Hoboes won’t go to the Municipal Lodging House because they are compelled to take a bath.  They would rather sleep in the parks than do that.  There is nothing the matter with the lodging house.”

As had been the case nearly two decades earlier, The Evening World questioned the concept of the lodging house.  On March 30, 1922 it reported that the cost to the city at an average of $1.50 per person per day to provide shelter and food, while at the same time other organizations like the Salvation Army or the Mills Houses were charging 40 and 50 cents.  The article quoted Stuart A. Rice who said “It is like running an expensive hotel for an occasional inrush of guests.”

The question of the necessity of the Municipal Lodging House was put to rest following the Stock Market Crash of 1929.   The main building was soon overtaxed and two annexes were opened.  Throughout the Great Depression the Municipal Lodging House and annexes were constantly filled.  In 1938 10,000 homeless men and women received Thanksgiving dinner, and a month later 7,500 were fed on Christmas day. 

The fare at the Municipal Lodging House was spartan during the Depression.  The homeless were served “meatless stew and eggless breakfasts.”  So when a motorist hit and killed a deer near Newburgh, New York in June 1939 and sent the carcass to the Municipal Boarding House to be dressed and cooked, anticipation ran high.  Hopes were crushed, however, when a Health Department inspector examined the 125-pound doe and found that it was ill before being struck.  He ordered the meat thrown away.

On December 21, 1948 a committee of the Welfare Council of New York reported on an increase in homelessness in the city and predicted a 600 to 1,000-bed shortage before the end of winter.  The Times reported “Public and private facilities for housing and care of indigent homeless men are ‘grossly inadequate.’”

With the report fresh in their minds, New Yorkers may have been surprised when the announcement was made just months later that the Municipal Lodging House would be demolished to make way for the new Veterans Administration Hospital.    Today the site is occupied by the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing.
photograph by

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