Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Rainsford House -- Nos. 208-210 East 16th Street

photo by Alice Lum
The Reverend Francis James Lundy was educated at Oxford and, after living with his wife Louisa and daughter in Canada for years, they moved to Newburgh, New York.   On Sunday, April 7, 1868 the pastor was celebrating mass at St. Paul’s Church.  As he placed the collection on the communion table, he collapsed.

Within 36 hours the preacher whom The American Quarterly Church Review deemed “of more than ordinary ability,” was dead.

Louisa and her daughter moved to New York City within the year, eventually purchasing a four-story brick and brownstone house at No. 208 East 16th Street in the stylish Stuyvesant Park neighborhood.  The women earned extra money by renting the bedrooms they did not use.

The house was conveniently near St. George’s Episcopal Church where the Lundy women dutifully worshiped.   Then, on October 5, 1899, the 90-year old Louisa Lundy died in the house from an apparent massive stroke.

All the while the Lundy women were living in No. 208 a group of women connected with St. George’s Church, the deaconesses, were administering to the sick and poor.   The women were both “trained and consecrated,” as Henry Anstice’s History of St. George’s Church in the City of New York pointed out.  There were not only essentially nurses, but “junior clergy.”

The eminent pastor of St. George’s, Dr. William S. Rainsford called their work in the tenement houses “the very stay and backbone of all that we do.”  But Rainsford was dissatisfied that the deaconesses were forced to live in the rented building on East 16th Street where they had been since 1892.   Using, in part, a $3,000 from an anonymous donor, the determined pastor obtained the Lundy house and the matching home next door at No. 210 in 1901 to be converted into the new Deaconess Home.

The church commissioned architect George Wood to redesign and combine the two structures.  Completed a year later, the transformation was remarkable.  Wood created a near-whimsical and definitely romantic concoction of styles with joyful abandon of strict historical discipline. 

The first floor, clad in brownstone, leaped from the pages of a romantic Tudor legend.  Deep many-paned bay windows flanked the arched entrance, forming balconies at the second floor.   The building rose in brick with brownstone trim until it reached the roof line where it decided it was tired of being Tudor and would rather be Flemish.  Three picturesque Dutch gables hide the pitched roof, flanked by heavy carved brownstone ornaments.   Lancet windows, useful for archers in earlier centuries, pierced the end gables—perhaps in case of attack.

The brownstone-clad ground floor was Tudor in style -- photo by Alice Lum
In February 1902 the senior warden presented the deed to the two lots to the vestry.  Rainsford called the structure “the most beautiful deaconess house in the United States, adequate in every way, charming and comfortable.”  The residents of the neighborhood staged a show and fair that netted $600 towards the new house and the ladies of the church donated $5,000 “for the proper furnishing.”

Lancet openings that pierce the Flemish gables add a picturesque, romantic touch -- photo by Alice Lum
The bishop conducted the dedication service on April 10 after which the deaconesses moved into their new home.   While Wood had been lighthearted in his exterior design, he was serious on providing the necessary internal features.  On the fourth floor was the infirmary where patients who had been released from the hospitals yet were not strong enough to fare for themselves were given better nourishment and a happier environment than they would receive in the tenement houses.

Girls and women, worked to the point of exhaustion and near sickness, were welcome to stay until they were feeling stable again.

The greatest health threat to the poor of New York City at the time was tuberculosis.    When the Deaconess Home opened, 100,000 people were dying of the disease every year.   On January 8, 1903 Virginia Young, one of the deaconesses, expressed to a New York Tribune writer “Tuberculosis is the Juggernaut of the tenements.  Fully seven-eighths of the deaths on our list are from tuberculosis.”

photo by Alice Lum
Contemporary treatment of tuberculosis entailed providing fresh air and sunlight.   These were luxuries unavailable to the poor of the city.   Doctors recommended erecting tents in backyards for patients; but there were no backyards in New York.  Dr. N. Gilbert Seymour noted in The Medical Record,  “Back yards large enough to serve this purpose are beautifully lacking in most of our New York tenements, and, when present, are  preempted by everything from stray cats to the week’s wash.  It is often only by moving an entire family into light and sunny quarters, and providing a window tent for the patient, that we have been able to solve the problem for some of our class patients at St. George’s.”

The “light and sunny quarters” at St. George’s to which the Medical Record referred was the ingenious idea of a “roof camp.”  In February 1909 the top floor and the roof were converted to include a “bedroom” (used as a dressing room, since no patients were permitted to sleep indoors), a bathroom, private hall, dining room, and diet kitchen.  The roof was partly covered in glass and open on the south end.  Dr. Seymour stressed that “The bright colored awnings and window boxes gay with flowers make a cheerful picture on sunny springs days; but, summer or winter, rain or shine our patients are required to be out.”

The patients were required to take certain responsibilities for their own improvement.  They took and recorded their own temperatures and weights.   Hot meals were provided from the house kitchen, after which all utensils and dishes were sterilized by boiling.

It was an ambitious and commendable venture; but the size of the roof limited the project.  “As the roof space is limited,” wrote Seymour, “not more than twelve patients by day and five at night can be accommodated, and only women and children are thus provided for at present.”

The cost of running the roof camp was about $18 a week in 1910—or about 28 cents per patient per day.

One of the staff, Deaconess Young, decided that year to donate a tree to the church that would be planted along the street in memory of her father.  It seemed like a nice idea.  And the rest of the parish thought so too.

Deaconess Young’s idea of a single memorial tree spread throughout the congregants.  Before long the Sunday School,  choir, the Mothers’ Club, the boys of the Trades School, the Girls’ Friendly Society and other groups decided to gather up $20 to purchase a tree as well. 

On April 23, 1910, St. George Day, a massive festival and ceremony took place as 20 Norway maple trees were planted along East 16th Street.   St. George was there along with a scary dragon whose slaying was reenacted to the terror of some of the little children.

“The dragon had the real great success of the day,” reported The New York Times, “for he was so realistic that the little children were terribly frightened at first and there were unexpected April showers before they could be reassured and know that the dragon had really been killed.”

The work of the deaconesses in improving the health and lifestyles of the tenement residents was increased when nutrition classes were instituted in February 1919.    Two of the large sunlit rooms of the first floor were used—one as an “assembly room” for children and the other for examinations and treatment.  The assembly room had desks, scales, filing cabinets and a height gauge.   The other room was outfitted as a clinic with a screened bed for examinations, a desk, and emergency medical and surgical supplies.

Ivy, as romantic-looking as the architecture, clings to colorful brickwork and deep stone carving -- photo by Alice Lum

To make the atmosphere more appealing, the deaconesses attempted to avoid a doctor’s office environment.  Hospital Social Service noted “The plain human interest of the volunteers, combined with the fact that the rooms are sunny and usually full of flowers, has made the class really a ‘health class’ rather than a necessary and frankly disagreeable place associated with sickness.”

The problem for the deaconesses was how to lure the children to nutrition and health classes.  Their solution was ingenious.   They approached the mothers and quietly let them know that only a select few, favored children were being invited to be examined and attend classes.

Human nature did the rest.

Not only did the invited children show up, but some uninvited came as well.  Over 200 children enrolled in the classes which met three times a week from 3:00 until 6:00.   “The unsuspecting little tots don’t realize that their pet pastimes are being used against them,” said the Hospital Social Service, “and they listen with the greatest interest to stories depicting the dark deeds of the Coffee Witch or the adventure of Prince Lolly Pop never knowing that they are being painlessly taught all sorts of disagreeable data about Nutrition.”

In 1938 the church decided on another use for the Deaconess House.    It was renovated and dedicated on October 31 by Reverend Elmore McNeill McKee as “Rainsford House,” named in honor of the former rector.   The building would be used as a residence for young single business men who were required to devote part of their time in community service in the neighborhood.

The Times reported that “Fourteen recent college graduates representing various professions will live there with the Rev. Brank Fulton as senior president.”  The men agreed to work at least one night every week at the Henry Street Settlement, the Flanagan Youth Center, Greenwich House or another similar institution helping the poor.

photo by Alice Lum
Rainsford House continued to house single, professional men for decades.  In 1950 when the male members of St. George’s Church vied one another for a bake-off for charity, the men of Rainsford House joined in.  The Times reported on their utter failure.  “Judged the worst cake from every angle and awarded the ‘Also Ran’ prize was the product concocted jointly by the young men of Rainsford House.  Anticipating the award, its bakers attached to the cake an inscription that read: ‘Why woman’s place is in the home.’”

In the 1960's Rainsford House enjoyed social gatherings twice a month with the Henry Hill Pierce House, St. George’s women’s residence across the street at No. 209 East 16th Street.  The church openly admitted that “romance is officially encouraged” and the gatherings resulted in an average of two weddings a year.
photo by Alice Lum
The building was used for a time in the 1970's by Odyssey House—a facility offering treatment to drug and alcohol abusers and the mentally ill and later by Olmstead Hall where St. George’s soup kitchen served a free hot meal to around 140 people each week, continuing the work the deaconesses began over a century earlier.  Olmstead Hall operates from the Henry Hill Pierce House today.


  1. Wonderful building, history and purpose.

  2. The residence at 208 E. 16 St. is NOT a soup kitchen. It is a residence under the auspices of AHRC.

    1. Perhaps the sentence is perhaps badly worded. It says the Saint George's soup kitchen was in the building at the time of writing; not that the structure was solely a soup kitchen. Thank you for your interest in clarity.

  3. I was invited to join Rainsford House 1949-51 plus, fresh out of law school and commencing work in nyc, eventually serving as president. Our liason with the church was one Archie Dudgeon. on the latter's board, and a wonderful conduit for communications between us. We expanded our required community service to almost any worthwhile endeavor; I taught English at the Presbyterian Labor Temple on 14th street. Additionally we had speakers in every month. We formed many friendships, and indeed there were several romances with the Pierce House women. Our "rent" which covered meals and basic cleaning was all of $90 a month. There was a maximum stay of 2 years, more or less honored. We had frequent reunions. I was sad to learn that it closed many years later for economic reasons.

    If any alumnus or alumna from my era picks this up I would love to hear from you. ag besser, Morrisville, Vt.

    1. After graduating from Northwestern, I joined Chevron Chemical and after a few months in San Francisco was transferred to NY. While staying in Summit Hotel which was exciting as Lindsay's campaign headquarters, an older colleague at Chevron asked whether I had called Rainsford House, rather than looking for an apartment. Jack Selby had lived there in 1940's after Princeton. I was invited to dinner and realized Rainsford was more like a post college fraternity than residence. I lived at Rainsford for a year until it closed in late 1966. I always marveled that I kept in closer contact with friends I met at Rainsford House than other friends before or since. Dinner conversations each evening at Rainsford converted me from fast eater to one who has ever since looked to dinner as source of stimulating conversation.

      Archie Dudgeon was still liaison with St. George's and good friend to all at Rainsford. Community service commitment endured until Rainford closed, probably more from St. George's financial needs. Don't know whether us contributing more in rent could have led to Rainsford lasting longer.

      History of building before us was fascinating. We heard more about St. George's having been given building by J.P Morgan who owned or used it after Vestry commitments during years he was Senior Warden. All Lundy did with social workers is more consistent with us volunteering some time to help in changing community, even though ours was only an evening a week.

      Two close friends from Rainsford married Pierce house girls and a third should have. I still have very fond memories of Rainsford and those I knew there. Hopefully some other innovator might revive something like it in NY, as I understand a Yale graduate from a St. George's family did decades ago, bringing along five buddies to launch Rainsford House based on his community service proposal to St. George's, at time that Dolly's 'Lights of 14th St.' were dimming as Manhattan continued it's move uptown and Stuyvesant Square neighborhood changed.

      Last thing I did with Rainsford House was update a directory from mid 1960's. But that work was done 20 some years later and by that time many couldn't be contacted and had spread, unsurprising throughout the world. Will send website link to half dozen or so I still see or know. Good to hear building is still font of good things as it has been since Lundy's.

      Rod Handeland

    2. My parents met while living at Rainsford and Pierce House -- Larry Ward and Grace "Skip" Viard. I don't believe their stays overlapped with yours. (I certainly met Archie Dudgeon when I was a youngster.)

  4. 20th March 2015
    I stayed at Henry Hill Pierce House in the 1950's for about a year. I had arrived in New York City from Bristol, England, via Montreal, Canada. The girls there came from all over the world - they were welcoming and friendly and it was a very special, safe place to be. Like the boys in Rainsford House we took part in community activities one evening a week and once a month we had an outside speaker. I still send Christmas cards to one or two, but sadly, some, like Henry Hill Pierce House are no longer with us. Brenda Lalonde

  5. My father stayed in Rainsford House in the 1950s. I have a letter home dated 1958, but I don't know how long he was there. His name was Andy Sears. I would enjoy hearing from anyone if they knew him.