Saturday, May 14, 2011

The 1838 Ralph Mead House (Isaac T. Hopper Home) -- 110 2nd Avenue

photo by americasroof
When the four elegant brick row houses were constructed on Second Avenue around 1838 for brothers Ralph, Staats M. and Benjamin Mead, the area was one of the most prestigious residential neighborhoods in the city. Nearby were the homes of the Stuyvesants, Alexander Hamilton, Jr. and other prominent families.

The four matching homes in the new Greek Revival style featured stately brownstone porticos supported by fluted Ionic columns and sheltering grand double-entrance doors. Long parlor windows opened onto cast iron balconies.

In 1839 David H. Robertson purchased No. 108 for his widowed mother, Margaret. Robertson.  A well-to-do ship broker and tradesman, he declared bankruptcy only three years later. The house was foreclosed and lost to auction in 1844. Ralph Mead took back the property.

Mead was the owner of a wholesale grocery business, Ralph Mead & Co. and rather than re-sell the house, he moved in the following year. In 1846 he married his second wife, Ann E. Van Wyck Mead and the couple lived here until his retirement in 1859. Although Ralph and Ann moved on, the house, along with the other three homes in the row, remained in the Mead family.

In the meantime, a group of women had met with abolitionist Quaker Isaac T. Hopper in 1834 and formed a committee to investigate the conditions of imprisoned women. The women visited New York City prisons and were shocked at the environment female prisoners endured and the lack of rehabilitation services offered. They reported back to Hopper that “a home needs to be provided for the homeless; other doors need to be open to them than those that lead to deeper infamy.”

The Female Department of the Prison Association was founded by leaders Abigail Gibbons (who was Hopper’s daughter) and novelist Catherine Sedgwick. Their goal was the “amelioration of the condition of female prisoners.” The Women’s Prison Association and Home (popularly called The Isaac T. Hopper Home, or simply The Hopper Home) opened on 4th Street which trained and attempted to rehabilitate women who had gotten in trouble with the law – mostly Irish immigrant women addicted to alcohol.

The Mead family sold No. 108 (which by now had been renumbered No. 110) in 1870 and four years later Women’s Prison Association purchased it as the new Hopper House. The 1890 Directory of Social and Health Agencies in New York City listed as the Home’s objectives “1st, the improvement of the condition of the female prisoners, whether awaiting trial or convicted or as witnesses; 2d, the support and encouragement of reformed female convicts after their discharge, by affording them an opportunity to obtain an honest livelihood and sustaining them in their efforts to reform.”  The home was supported solely by private donations.

Nearly 135 years later No. 110 2nd Avenue is still owned and used by the Women’s Prison Association.  In the 1960s it received its first governmental funding and in the 1980s, for about a decade, the house was used as a federal work release facility.

By the early 1990s women were the fastest growing population in the prison system. In 1992 the Hopper House was renovated and reopened as a residential alternative to imprisonment; usually for women facing substantial state prison sentences for drug offenses.

The neighborhood around No. 110 Second Avenue has changed over nearly two centuries from one of refined, stately homes to one of bars, neon and edgy shops. The house built by Ralph Mead is the last remaining of the row of four. But the interiors are nearly unchanged since he and his wife Ann walked out for the last time in 1859.

Despite modern ceiling fixtures, electrical conduits and fire sprinkler pipes that hug the ceiling and walls, the entrance hall retains its graceful, curved staircase with the niche in the wall just before the second floor landing that once held flowers or a classical statue. Carved woodwork frames the doorways which still house polished mahogany doors that slide quietly into the walls.

While the house shows decades of institutional use, it has amazingly preserved a wealth of architectural detailing – both inside and out – and is a rare and wonderful survivor of the early days of 2nd Avenue.

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