|photo by Alice Lum
In the middle of the 19th century, orphans and the children of criminals and alcoholics roamed the street of New York City. They were trapped in a socioeconomic situation from which there was little hope of escape. Although some of the grimy urchins earned a few cents as newsboys and bootblacks; most turned to petty crime.
In his 1880s "New York by Gaslight," James D. McCabe told how such boys were recruited by older criminals. “The pickpockets are largely recruited from the newsboy class. These boys grow up in such constant association with criminals, that their moral sense becomes so stunted that they step readily into lives of crime. They are utterly cut off from any saving or refining influence, and their lives throw them into the companionship of thieves and abandoned women, whose influence over them is all-powerful.”
Charles Loring Brace, in 1853, attempted to stop the pattern by forming The Children’s Aid Society with a few other concerned men. 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!’ “
Eventually the Society would provide summer outings to the country, job placements as household servants or minor workers in stores or manufacturing shops, medical aid, and industrial schooling. But the lodging houses would be an important and visible part of its work.
The 1884 Annual Report of the Society said “These have become ‘life saving stations’ for young humanity, not for their permanent shelter, but as paces of rescue from surrounding misery and vice, from which, after very temporary care and culture, they may step into better circumstances. Here they are humanely cared fore, and come into contact with exemplary and sympathizing friends and teachers, and are imbued with a desire for a higher life.”
Robert L. Stuart made his fortune in the sugar refining business. In the 1880s it was expected that the wives of such moguls were involved in at least one significant charity. Mrs. Stuart was no exception. In 1885 she placed in trust $50,000 for the construction of a fine new building to replace the 11th Ward Lodging House for boys which was sorely outdated and cramped. In 1883 the Society’s annual report had noted that those working with the children there did so “at the risk of life and health.”
It was a princely sum, equal to a little over $1 million today.
A year later the Society reported that “the generous lady, Mrs. R. L. Stuart…will soon have the satisfaction of seeing the new building in course of erection. Two lots, the best adapted in the eastern part of the city for our work, have been purchased on Tompkins’ Square, Nos. 127 and 129 Avenue B, on the corner of Eighth street. It is a situation unusually open to air and light, and directly in the midst of the class we desire to benefit. The price was $35,860, which sum is to be paid by the society.”
The announcement went on to note that “the designs for the building, from Messrs. Vaux and Radford, were accepted, and the contract given to Mr. Richard Deeves, builder.”
The architects mentioned were the esteemed Calvert Vaux, who had recently completed his monumental task of designing Central Park with Frederick Olmstead, and George Kent Radford, partners in Vaux & Radford. This would be the third of around a dozen buildings the firm would design for the Society.
The Society termed the resulting building “picturesque” and, indeed it was. The architects melded the currently popular Queen Anne style with Victorian Gothic elements to create an imposing, substantial structure with a series of sharply-protruding dormers, tall clustered chimneys and pyramidal caps to towers.
|photo by Alice Lum
After construction was delayed by some legal wrangling with existing tenants on the building lots; the East-Side Boys’ Lodging-House and Industrial School opened in 1886. The house had including innovations such as a Reading Room stocked with newspapers and periodicals and, according to the Society’s Annual Report “we are also seeking to interest the boys in a larger variety of games, and are striving to afford them better opportunities for such sources of amusement. There are books, of course, for those who may be willing or who can be persuaded to read them.”
The purpose of these was, “to make the lodging-house sufficiently attractive to offset, in some measure at least, the allurements furnished by the streets and those places which line so many thoroughfares, bright, with many colored lights but loathsome, because of the vileness of those who may always be found there.”
|Harper's Weekly printed a view of the new Boys' Lodging-House in March, 1886 (copyright expired)
The building was designed so that the boys could not enter without being subjected to an obligatory washing. Harper’s Weekly wrote in March 1886 that the “grimy little newsboys and their rivals in trade, the bootblacks, will be compelled to descend a flight of steps leading from the street into a little courtyard, from which they will gain access to the basement of the building, passing first into a large reception-room , and thence into a spacious and very useful wash-room adjoining, which is to be supplied with foot-baths, plunge-baths, and all necessary appliances for removing the traces of toil from the boys and fitting them to enjoy society.”
By 1891 there were 1,147 boys registered in the Lodging House with nearly 20,000 hot meals being served. That year the enrollment in evening classes dropped off, leaving social reformer Jacob Riis unimpressed with the capabilities of its management.
|St. Nicholas Magazine printed a sketch of "the large, airy dormitory, clean as a ship's deck, with wire-beds arranged on iron frames" at a similar Children's Aid Society Boys' Lodging House (copyright expired)
“In the Tompkins Square Lodging House the evening classes are thinning out,” he wrote, “and the keeper wails: ‘Those with whom we have dealt of late have not been inclined to accept this privilege; how to make night school attractive to shiftless, indifferent street boys is a difficult problem to solve.’”
Riis remarked simply “Perhaps it is only that he has lost the key.”
|Vaux & Radford ornamented the building with fanciful finials, elaborate cresting and terra cotta detailing -- photo by Alice Lum
Present-day critics have accused the Children’s Aid Society for forcing young boys into a type of slavery by sending them to farms to work, essentially, for free. Yet when one reads letters from some of the boys and takes into consideration what the crowded metropolis was like for these youths; the opportunity to get away seems less onerous. George Fink wrote back to the Lodging House on December 19, 1890. Among his updates were:
“I can say that I am as well satisfied as anybody would be. I can eat until I am satisfied, I drink cow’s milk all I want I go a hunting when I want to—there are plenty of opposums, rabbits, squirrels and birds.”
The boy related that he was now attending school and working the farm with its owner. “There are two little mules on the place of which I like to play with there are also two colts and a mare. There are three cows and one calf. I have all the milk I want. There is ten head of hogs outside. We have plenty of hog meat…Wheat bread is gone out of fashion with me. I want corn bread every meal. Corn bread and butter-milk and butter is my choice for these late days.”
George ended his letter with “I am satisfied with my home’ I do not want to live in the city any more.”
As social handling of needy and orphaned children changed, so did the function of the Boys’ Lodging House. In 1910 it was used only as a school; then until 1925 it was the Children’s Aid Society’s Tompkins Square School for Cardiac Children.
The Talmud Torah Darghei Noam purchased the building in 1925. After renovations it established its Talmud Torah school here in 1928. Children attended the Hebrew school after public school classes every day and on Sunday mornings. In 1950 the East Side Hebrew Institute’s yeshiva was here and the institution also ran a non-denominational food and clothing charity for the poor.
|A stone panel was added in 1925 when the building was renovated -- photo by Alice Lum
Tompkins Square in the 1970s was a notorious nest of drug dealers, users, and criminals. Parents became fearful to send their children into the hazardous neighborhood and in 1974 the Institute abandoned the building. It sat empty and neglected for three years.
Filmmaker and poet Roland Legiardi-Laura purchased the building and began a restoration and renovation of the building in 2003. Layers of paint that had encrusted the brick and terra cotta were removed, revealing the polychrome design so typical of Calvert Vaux. The roof regained its slate tiles, as originally designed.
|To thousands of indigent boys who passed through the building's doorway, the Lodging House offered a stunning difference to the squalor they knew -- photo by Alice Lum
Now, where indigent street urchins found shelter, millionaires rent luxury apartments. Actor Matt Dillon reportedly lived here, and in 2011 a 2,300 square foot, two-bedroom space rented for $8,900 per month.
The remarkable brick building is a wonderful example of Vaux’s architecture and a rare surviving page from a shabbier and sadder part of New York’s social history.