Monday, January 23, 2012

The Lost Chapin Home for the Aged and Infirm - 66th Street and Lexington Ave.

The Home in 1876 -- print from NYPL Collection
Edwin H. Chapin was the pastor of the Fifth Avenue Universalist Church when his wife and a group of twenty church ladies began their project of what today might be called a retirement home.  On May 1, 1869 Mrs. Chapin applied for the Act of Incorporation for the Chapin Home for the Aged and Infirm.
In his 1882 biography of Chapin, Sumner Ellis noted that the act laid out the object of the business as providing “a home and support for aged and infirm persons.”  But then, “to the conditions ‘aged and infirm,’ the constitution adds ‘worthy,” since it was the purpose to gather into the Home a group of the needy ones in the afternoon of life, who could spend their remaining time on earth happily together, amid scenes more suggestive of home and social intercourse than of charity.”

That goal of creating “home” as opposed to institution was foremost in the minds of the women.  In 1871, having already collected over $75,000 in donations, they commissioned architect Stephen Decatur Hatch to design the Chapin Home.  Hatch was directed to create a homey, distinguished mansion where the elderly could feel at home.
Hatch would be remembered for his French Second Empire buildings like the grand Gilsey House Hotel on Broadway that was currently under construction.    His Chapin House would follow a similar design.

The land for the home had originally been part of the Alexander Hamilton estate, given to the city for a park.  In 1870 The Annual Report of the State Board of Charities noted that “Twelve lots of ground on Sixty-sixth, and Sixty-seventh streets, between Third and Lexington avenues, New York, estimated to be worth $100,000, have been leased from the city for [the Home’s] purposes, and it is proposed to erect buildings thereon in the course of the coming year.  The Report added that “its management is in the hands of energetic and active persons, and the buildings will doubtless be speedily completed.”  

Nearly an hour north of the city, it would be surrounded by fresh air and countryside.

On October 24, 1871 the cornerstone was laid.  The anticipated home, expected to cost $100,000, was described by The New York Times.  “The building will be of a mixed order of architecture, with a preponderance of the French style.  It will have a brown-stone base, with brown-stone trimmings, Philadelphia brick facings, with a French Mansard roof.  It will have two stories in the roof, and the whole building, embracing the basement, will comprise seven stories.”

As the building rose, various fund raising events were held such as a fair in the armory of the 22nd Regiment.  The fair, which began on April 10, 1871 and lasted for several days, netted about $10,000.  At the same time, over 50,000 subscriptions had been promised and the State Legislature gave a gift of $10,000.

The women’s dream became reality on March 3, 1973 when the mansion was finally completed and dedicated.  Hatch’s impressive structure was the last word in residential vogue with a roof line of various heights, elaborate two-story mansard caps – one rigidly straight, the other gently bowed—and a deep, arched portico.
The brick-and-brownstone home, which The Universalist Register called “a commodious and attractive edifice,” had sixty-five rooms and was capable of accommodating over 100 residents.   Sumner Ellis wrote “The rooms are all furnished handsomely, but not alike; the desire of the managers being to have them harmonious in color and comfort, but to avoid the painful uniformity that usually characterizes philanthropic institutions.”

On the third floor was the Sewing Room.  It included a smaller table "used principally for diverting games."  Whist was a favorite -- print from NYPL Collection

The Home boasted that it was “heated by steam and lighted by gas, each room having a heater and burner, and each floor hot and cold water.”

The writer went on to describe “The beautiful pictures on the walls have been mostly transferred from the parlors of the wealthy and benevolent.  Into the ample library have been gathered not a few of the choicest of books, better even than area found in the average home.”
Services were held every Sunday by "ministers of the various Protestant denominations." -- print NYPL Collection

Dr. Howard Crosby would later say “The Chapin Home is not like most charitable institutions, which are little better than prisons, but a true home in the full sense of that sweet word.”

To be eligible for admission, applicants had to be at least 65 years old.   An agreement was signed that transferred all their property to the institution and a down payment of $300 was made, along with a $50 burial fee, $5 physician fee, and vouchers of respectability.

Most of the residents were older than the minimum age.   Ellis noted, somewhat morbidly, that “the larger portion of the venerable group must have moved on to the eightieth milestone on the journey of life, and are here waiting in comfort and peace, as on the highest height of time, for their departure to the heavenly city.  Rescued from the cold and harsh waves which beat against the aged poor, here they find shelter and rest as in a sunny haven.”

In 1876 "inmates" gather for dinner and, apparently, some gossip -- print NYPL Collection

Residents were permitted to wear whatever they chose “to gratify their personal tastes, which gives a pleasing variety.”  Guests were allowed in the public rooms and the lady managers mingled among the residents “like kindly neighbors and friends”

Not every resident survived the probationary period.    In 1879 the widow Sophia A. Kingman was expelled.   The 80-year old sued, demanding to be readmitted.  Her lawyer, Edward Russell, complained to the court that her expulsion was “a gross outrage.”

The Home, however, saw things differently.  Management declared that Mrs. Kingman told “untruthful tales" about the Home, saying, for instance that it was a “free love institution.”  She had also, it said, misrepresented “the character of her property and her religious belief,” but worse yet, “by her conduct hastened the death of her room-mate.”

A similar case was heard a year later when Lucius W. Tilden sued to be let back into the Home.  After living there a year with his wife, he found the home less than Currier & Ives perfect and spread accusations and rumors about the managers.  Unfortunately for Tilden, the judge decided in favor of the Home and he was forced to find another place to fight the harsh waves beating against the aged poor.
On March 3, 1893 the Chapin Home for the Aged and Infirm celebrated its 20th Anniversary.  The Home was opened for public inspection, including the rooms of the residents.  “Every room was as neat as wax, and most of them were tastily decorated with fancy work,” reported The New York Times.

Well-dressed guests arrive for one of the open house celebrations -- print NYPL Collection

The oldest resident was Mrs. Ann Durand, 93 years old, who exhibited a “handsome patch-work quilt” she had made.  Other handiwork by the residents was displayed in the reception parlor.

The open house was repeated the following year and Mrs. Durant had completed a new quilt—“a large red and white quilt, made of innumerable tiny squares of print, adorns her bed, and she has another of a different pattern well begun.”

One resident, Mrs. Russell, boasted of her independence to a newspaper reporter.  “I was not sent here by my ungrateful children or grandchildren,” she said, “I paid my own way, and earned every cent of the money myself.”

The Times said “Each room has its little single bed, and is filled with the treasures and keepsakes of its  tenant.  In one room was a beautiful silk quilt, made by its owner, and on the bureau were silk covers made in the same log cabin pattern.”

A “comfortable and commodious” elevator was installed in the house in 1894, a gift by Mrs. Washington L. Cooper as a memorial to her father, George A. Dockstader.  Mrs. Cooper’s donation was no doubt greatly appreciated by the elderly residents, some of whom were saved a five-story climb to their rooms.

Elderly residents tackle the stairs before the 1894 addition of an elevator -- NYPL Collection
The Home continued to survive on generous donations and bequeaths.  In 1907 it purchased the land from the city for $5,000.  It was a brilliant move.
Within three years a new, modern Chapin Home for the Aged and Infirm was being planned in Queens, New York; what The Times called “splendid new buildings to be erected on the heights.”   By 1912 the great French Empire mansion sat empty.

On February 17 that year The Sun reported that “The Fire Department has obtained a year’s lease at a nominal sum of the old Chapin Home, opposite Fire Headquarters on East Sixty-seventh street.”   The building would be used as offices for the Bureau of Fire Prevention “until the municipal building downtown is completed.”

The article noted that John Wilson, who had been janitor in the house since 1884, was suddenly “thrown out of a job.”

In the meantime, the Chapin Home put the property up for sale.  The old mansion and the land which the Home had bought for $5,000 in 1907 was priced at $1 million.

On February 25, 1916 The Times reported on the sale of the old Chapin Home for the Aged and Infirm.  “A new nine-story apartment house will soon be erected in that residential centre between Lexington and Third Avenues.”

The old Home was not only a splendid surviving example of Stephen D. Hatch’s elegant Second Empire designs; it was a groundbreaking concept in the dignified care of the elderly.  The Chapin Home for the Elderly and Infirm, in striving to create “a home,” planted the seed of the progressive-thinking retirement homes of today.


  1. now that is what I am talking about

  2. Had no idea that Chapin Home had such a dignified history!