Friday, May 18, 2012

A 1930 Experiment in Socialized Housing -- No. 433 West 21st Street

photo by Alice Lum
In 1844 in Rochdale, England, a group of consumers had an idea.  By purchasing their own store, they could avoid the costs of a proprietor and save money on necessities.   In 1911 The Saturday Evening Post would call that idea “a commercial mustard seed.”  By the early 20th century the cooperative store concept had spread to America.

Called the Consumer Cooperative Movement, cooperative stores spread throughout the Chicago area and New England.   Many of them were part of the Rochdale Cooperative Society.   While in Europe the Russian monarchy fell to communism and Karl Marx’s revolutionary ideas about society and socialism were more widely accepted, Edwardian Americans were wooed by the siren song of shared wealth and affordable goods.

In 1913 W. M. Stickney, chairman of the Local Board U.S. Cooperative Company in Chicago wrote of the movement.  His words sound uncannily like those uttered by the Occupy Wall Street protestors of today.

“Much has been said and written in regard to the high cost of living…Out of it all, however, will soon come some workable plan that will enable consumers to get together in a spirit of helpfulness and organize for mutual protection.

“[The average consumer is] hampered by a clumsy, antiquated, wasteful system of distribution.  It is this entire system that we are warring against, and it must eventually be stored away in the world’s garret among other second-hand and discarded methods of commerce.”

By the 1920s the cooperative concept had spread to housing.    Between 1925 and 1927 the Worker’s Cooperative Colony was built in the Bronx under the sponsorship of the United Workers Cooperative Association, one of the two largest cooperatives in the country.    Designed by Springsteen & Goldhammer, the project furnished housing, for the most part, to Eastern European Jewish garment workers—this particular group having a decidedly left-wing political viewpoint.  For $125 down and $20 a month, single men or childless couples received small apartments and use of the library, reception room, gymnasium and restaurant.

In the meantime, Mary Ellicott Arnold was deeply entrenched in the cooperative movement.  She managed the “Our Co-operative Cafeteria,” that had three New York City branches and 1,000 members, mostly women.   In 1922 Mary stressed the goal of the cafeterias to the Third Congress of the Co-operative League in Chicago.  “Co-operators believe that no motive of private interest or greed must interfere with our main purpose—service.  Therefore our aim is that private profit must be eliminated from industry.”

About a month after the stock market collapse that no doubt further steeled Mary’s aversion to capitalism, she was ready to take the giant step from cafeterias to housing.   On December 1, 1929 titles to five four-story houses at Nos. 429 through 437 West 21st Street were transferred to the Consumers’ Cooperative Services.    The New York Times reported that “After ten years of cooperative purchasing of food and meals the members of the Rochdale Cooperative Societies and the Consumers’ Cooperative Service, inc., with nearly 3,500 members in New York, have extended their ideas of mass buying to the apartment house field.”

Probably due to the architects' work in the Bronx, the cooperative commissioned Springsteen & Goldhammer to design the 12-story and penthouse structure.    There would be apartments for 66 families ranging in size from one to four rooms.  The main source of funds for the project came, initially, from the cooperative cafeterias and food shops managed by Mary E. Arnold.

“Members of the tenants’ organization will purchase bonds of their company,” reported The Times.  “The tenants will manage the building and control expenditures, pay taxes, mortgage interest and depreciation charges at the rate of about 2 per cent a year, and will share any profits.”

There would be a communal dining room on the first floor.  In an odd reversal of tradition the cornerstone was laid on September 13, 1930 to mark the completion of the building, rather than the beginning of construction.  Mary Arnold placed the cornerstone that afternoon and a new page in socialized housing began.  At the time 80 percent of the apartments had been sold with the remainder slated for rental, with the option of buying.  Apartments rented for $25 to $35 per room per month.

Expansive, multi-paned windows flood the apartments with sunlight  -- photo by Alice Lum
What emerged from the drawing tables of Springsteen & Goldhammer was a red brick, no-nonsense structure that could, perhaps, been easily mistaken for an factory building instead of a residence.  In keeping with the socialist convictions of the cooperative, the façade was starkly unadorned, its flat surface interrupted only by the modern and expansive many-paned casement windows.

Mary Arnold’s list of tenants were a bit more prosperous than the garment workers in the Bronx “Coops” (the name rhymed with “hoops”) with a large percentage working in the newspaper or library fields.   Among the first tenants was newspaper reporter and advertising man Romolo A. Fanciulli.   When he moved in, the 45- year old writer was editor and advertising director of The Winged Foot, the newspaper of the New York Athletic Club.  He had covered the flights of the Wright Brothers for the New York World, worked for the New York Evening Post and the Washington Post and was for four years the financial advertising solicitor for The New York Times.

Only a month after the building was completed and he moved in, Fanciulli died in New York Hospital after a short illness.

Angled walls at the entrance and short bands of brick are among the few decorative touches on the spartan facade -- photo by Alice Lum
Thomas R. White was another journalist living here.  The World War I vet had served on the staffs of The Birmingham (Alabama) News as sports editor, The Fort Worth Record where he was city editor, The Montgomery (Alabama) Advertiser and the Mobile Register and other Southern newspapers.  In 1926 he joined the staff of The New York Herald Tribune.

For some reason the building attracted librarians.  During the 1930s there were at least six of them living here.  But not all the tenants had literary professions.

Frank C. Eaton and his family lived here at this time.  The retired industrialist had been the treasurer of the Kilbourne & Jacobs Manufacturing Company in Columbus, Ohio.   Jules Friedel, sales manager of the S. Gumpert Company, manufacturers of food products lived here as well.

The no-nonsense architecture associated with the cooperative system had a decidedly industrial feel - photo by Alice Lum
And the Joseph P. Ryan family was here in the 1940s.  A union boss, Ryan was the president of the International Longshoremen’s Association.  In 1945 the Ryan’s daughter Margaret Mary Ryan was married in the nearby Church of the Guardian Angel on 10th Avenue to James Brannigan.   A decade later things would go downhill for Ryan.

In 1953 Ryan resigned from his union position after having been president for 25 years.  He was elected president emeritus for life with an annual salary of $10,000; an attractive income for doing essentially nothing.

The Longshoremen’s Association had long been associated with mobsters and the same year that Ryan resigned the American Federation of Labor ousted the union “because it was alleged to harbor racketeers,” according to The New York Times.  Two years later Ryan was indicted by a Federal grand jury for income tax evasion.

The jury charged the 70-year old with failing to report income of $81,123, thus evading taxes of $32,777.  The ailing Ryan, whom The Times called a former “waterfront boss” was convicted in 1955.  Although he called the bribes he garnered from stevedoring and trucking companies “Christmas gifts,” the jury saw it differently.

Despite an industrialist and a racketeer or two, the cooperative continued to be involved in reform work.  In October 1934 the “Our Credit Union” was authorized to change its location to No. 433 West 21st Street, and in 1938 the American Women’s Committee for Republican Spain was spearheaded from the apartment of Dorothy Kenyon.   The committee intended to provide relief to children in the Loyalist area of Central Spain.

Two long-time tenants who were passionately active in reform efforts died in 1961.  Ninety-one year old Elisabeth Roemer came to the United States in 1901, joining the New York Child Labor Committee.   She investigated child labor in factories, in homes and the street trades.  A year later she was a working in a settlement house among the poor in Greenwich Village.  When the Russell Sage Foundation opened—an organization focusing on bettering conditions for indigent women, workers and children—she joined the mostly women-run foundation as a researcher.  The indefatigable Miss Roemer worked throughout the decades with the Carnegie Corporation’s Americanization study of foreign groups, the Vocational Advisory Service in 1922, and during World War II as special consultant for the War Jobs Training Information Unit of the United States Employment Services.

Six months after Elisabeth Roemer died, so did Cordice V. Hallett.  Like Roemer, Hallett dedicated her life to helping the less fortunate.  She graduated from the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy before working with the Westchester County Child Welfare Division.  In 1935 she joined the Emergency Relief Bureau, eventually becoming a supervisor in its Bureau of Child Welfare.  A member of the National Association of Social Workers, she was director of the Division of Foster Home Care and Adoption Service of the Department of Welfare when she retired in 1958.

As 21st century protestors in Zuccotti Park decry the fortunes of a few and the conditions of the many, we tend to forget the socialist and reform movements of a century ago.  Mary E. Arnold’s utopian vision of a truly cooperative residential building eroded over the years (a two-bedroom apartment now rents for about $4,800 a month here), but No. 433 West 21st Street stands as a testament to those lofty ideals.

many thanks to reader Steve Hopley for requesting this post.


  1. Wow! I live in this building and had no idea of such history. Thank you so much for this post!

  2. Hi Daytonian-
    It's quite a coincidence that you posted an article on a Chelsea co-op today. Tomorrow (5/19)happens to be the 50th anniversary of the dedication ceremony for the Penn South Houses, between W 23rd and W 29th. The ceremony included several bigwigs of the time - Eleanor Roosevelt, Mayor Wagner, etc - and was actually led by President Kennedy. Some pictures of the ceremony can be found on their website - more inside the lobby of their management office at 321 8th Avenue.

    1. Penn South is an incredible project with an interesting history. Thanks for the information on the anniversary. It is another example of far-reaching ideas in cooperative housing

  3. Elisabeth is my great grandmother. I found my calling in child protective services. Must be in my blood. Any other books or resources on Elisabeth Roemer?

  4. I also live in this building and it is a great history. Long time residents have said that Amelia Earhart lived in the penthouse when she departed on her last journey in her effort to fly around the world.