In the last decades of the 19th century the impoverished district just south of elegant Washington Square was dangerous and nearly lawless. Seedy saloons which reformer Jacob Riis called "vile rookeries," brothels and crowded tenements made the neighborhoods one of Manhattan's most notorious.
The brick-faced, Federal style house at No. 219 Sullivan Street had been an upscale residence in the 1830s; but by 1887 its rooms were home to a number of blue-collar tenants. Among them was tinsmith John Murray who was sitting on the stoop at 8:30 on the night of May 6 that year. But just sitting outside could be a risk.
According to The New York Times the following day John Hays, "a young negro, living at 11 Carmine-street, came along." He stopped in front of Murray, pulled out a revolver, and shot him apparently without any provocation or reason. The bullet struck Murray in right eye, blinding him.
At St. Vincent Hospital Murray said he had never seen Hays before and had no idea why he shot him. The New York Times had its own idea. "He appeared stupid from liquor."
Reformers descended on the rough neighborhoods, opening missions where they sought to rehabilitate the drunkards and "debased women." But one Protestant minister, Charles Loring Brace, was more concerned with educating the waifs and orphans. He recognized early on a strong connection between illiteracy and crime.
The Children’s Aid Society was founded by 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 industrial schools not only taught the children their A-B-C's, but skills they would need to survive as adults. Boys learned woodworking and shoemaking, for instance; while girls learned to sew and cook--abilities they would need not only as homemakers, but as servants.
Most often the school buildings were donated by philanthropists or their wives who were involved in some way with the Children's Aid Society. In 1891 Mrs. Joseph M. White and Matilda W. Bruce provided $90,000 (just under $2.5 million today) to erect a new building on the site of the old house where John Murray had been shot.
For nearly all its buildings the Society turned to the architectural firm of Vaux & Radford, which would eventually design 12 Children’s Aid Society projects. Calvert Vaux, best remembered for his work in designing Central Park, had partnered with George Kent Radford in 1872. The Sullivan Street School building would follow the same lines as their other Children’s Aid Society buildings—a blend of Victorian Gothic and Flemish Revival styles.
|The newly-completed building replaced a Federal-style house, much like the one surviving at the far right, next to the entrance to the playground. from the collection of the Children's Aid Society|
The Sullivan Street School was completed in September 1892 and formally opened on December 21. The delay may have been due to drilling the 420 children between 5 and 13 years of age for their parts in the event. They were "marshaled" into the audience room dressed in new suits of clothing provided by Matilda Bruce--no doubt the first new clothes they had received in a very long time, if ever.
The Times reported "The programme by the children was opened by the 'salute to the flag,' with piano accompaniment, and was performed with admirable spirit and effect." The older pupils then gave recitations and the entire group sang Christmas carols for the audience.
The room was decorated, Victorian-style, with bunting and flags. A large Christmas tree was in a corner of the room, "which contained a gift for every member of the school."
One year later the Society's Annual Report made note of the new school's progress. "This school was placed in one of the most depraved localities of the city and already an improvement in the neighborhood is visible. The street is more respectable; the children of the quarter have better manners and are more neatly dressed, and through them the parents have been influenced to a more decent manner of life."
|Boys learning woodworking in the Sullivan Street School. Annual Report of the Children's Aid Society, November 1893 (copyright expired)|
The items turned out by the boys were helpful at home as well. On July 26, 1893 The Evening World pointed out "In [the] Sullivan street school, where manual training is taught on a small scale, the boys make kitchen and toilet brushes for use in their own homes. One of the first pieces of work turned out of the class carpenter shop was a pair of crutches for a crippled child."
The Children's Aid Society had, by now, embarked on a program of sending orphaned boys to Midwestern farms. Their work as unpaid, indentured farmhands was intended to provide them with a wholesome environment, clean air and a bright future. The cruel fact was that, at least in some cases, it proved to be nothing more than veiled slave labor.
But one nine-year old boy named Jimmie was willing to take his chances in 1893. Although he was not an orphan, he was deemed by Principal Forman "worse than motherless." On a bitterly cold morning he came to her and pleaded, "Won't you send me away. My mother sends me for whiskey all the time." At this point he showered her a dime and pulled a bottle from his coat. "She makes me go beg for the money and then buy whiskey."
The involvement of Mrs. White and Matilda Bruce did not stop with their funding the building. They both were instructors in the kitchen-garden and cooking classes and Matilda paid for the manual training classes and the hot meals. Mrs. White paid for two "visitors" who checked on students and families at home. The visitors made 1,473 calls on the sick and poor in the 1897-98 school year.
An example of the piteous home conditions was evidenced when one of those visitors checked on why three children had been absent from classes for several days in 1898. The family, consisting of the parents, a grandmother, and the three children, lived in two rooms. The father, it was discovered, had been taken to a hospital. Two of the children were bedridden on a cot in a near-staving state.
The visitor reported "There were a few cinders in the stove which the mother had taken from ash cans during the day. Mother and children when able made flowers through the day and part of the night to help with the rent." The school sent food to the family until the children were strong enough to return to class.
That year the school announced it had added "Venetian ironwork" to its manual training classes, noting the boys were "greatly interested" in learning the craft. Other classes offered were "kitchen-gardening, cooking, darning, buttonholes, dressmaking and all kinds of plain sewing to the girls, and printing, modeling in clay, woodwork" to the boys.
A problem was that families needed their boys to earn a living and, therefore, pulled them out of school after the age of about 11. Some, however, realized that by suffering through a few years longer, the financial rewards would be far greater. The 1898 report gave the example of one family of six "who are depending mostly on the support of one daughter, whose salary is only $12 per month," but refused to take the other daughter out of the school.
That girl, named Nettie, had graduated in June and was now attending the free Normal College to receive her teacher's certificate. The base salary for New York City teachers was $600 per year at the time--$18,000 today--decidedly more than the family's current $144 income.
The work of the Sullivan Street School was ever-adapting. Art classes and the "Christopher Columbus" history club (aimed, according to the New-York Tribune in September 1909 at the "Italian children attached to the industrial school") were examples of additional features aimed at attracting and enlightening neighborhood children. Around the same time of the Tribune's comments a dental clinic was opened in the building.
In 1931 the Children's Aid Society gave up its role as educators, transferring its classes to the New York City Public School system. The facilities now focused on recreation and health. The Sullivan Street building was renamed the West Side Center. Neighborhood boys during the Great Depression years signed up for the Center's Yankee Sandlot League.
In 1937 the team voted on its favorite member of their namesake team. New York Yankee great Joe DiMaggio won the honor. To the boys' surprise and glee, the star athlete visited the center on August 2. Knowing that escaping from a score of hero-worshiping youths would be difficult, Joltin' Joe devised a clever scheme. As the visit came to an end, he tossed out a dozen autographed baseballs and slipped out while the boys scrambled for them.
Eagerly anticipated events at the West Side Center beginning in the early 1940s were the annual Pet Show and the Pigtail Contest. Although the families living in the neighborhood no longer suffered the brutal poverty of the 1890s, they were still low income. So children competing in the pet contest had to be creative in finding pets. In 1943 The New York Times noted that "Cats, insects and dogs of every description also competed."
That year a two-year old toddler, Alfred Pruzzin, was allowed to enter his turtle, Florence. While 200 children watched, Florence was given her chance. She pulled into her shell and refused to come out. Alfred, said The Times, was "puzzled and unhappy." The judges awarded Florence the award for "the most bashful turtle in the show."
A special attraction that year was the appearance of Saddler, a member of the War Dog Fund. His purpose was to recruit "4-F" dogs for the Army and to raise money for military canine training.
The Pigtail Contest was an opportunity for little girls to show off their dexterity in braiding and in decorating their hair. That event lasted until around 1960.
As the West Village changed, so did the West Side Center. Still owned by the Children's Aid Society, it was home in part to the Visual Arts Center by 1972. Alfred Alexander taught photography to small classes of students "all all levels of experience," according to New York Magazine on January 17 that year. The article noted "The darkroom facilities are less than ideal, but Alexander hopes to expand them in future months."
The Center was the site of the New York International Children's Film Festival in December 1997. No collection of cartoons and fairy tales, it was intended by Eric Beckman to "give kinds things to think about, and parents and children things to talk about." To that end films like The Boy, the Slum and the Pan's Lid, about an impoverished Brazilian boy, and the Swedish film Lucky Girl, about a 7-year old Guatemalan girl who took care of her siblings while her mother gave birth, were screened.
In the fall of 2007 Notes in Motion, a dance troupe, established the Outreach Dance Theater in the building, now known as the Philip Coloff Center, where artists offered children workshops in writing, theater, visual arts, music and dance. At the end of the courses, the original performances by the students were staged.
But the end of the line for the children's programs in the building was on the near horizon. In December 2010, after more than 115 years serving the area, the Children's Aid Society announced it was selling the building. The neighborhood, once described as among "the most depraved localities," was now middle class. The Society pointed out that the median income was more than twice that of the Morissania section of the Bronx, where its help was more needed.
Preservationists and locals worried. The building sat just outside of the Greenwich Village Historic District. Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation pointed out that without that protection the building would likely be demolished.
|The 1892 building is now part of the modern condo seen partially at the right.|
Perhaps surprisingly, it was not destroyed. Instead it was gutted and incorporated into the new residential building designed by Rawlings Architects, PC. The facade has been a bit over-restored, muting the contrast of brick and stone into a nearly monochromatic palette. Happily, nonetheless, the picturesque Flemish building where indigent children were offered hope survives.
photographs by the author