Monday, July 22, 2013

The Lost New York Asylum for the Blind

In 1924, just months before its demolition, the Asylum building was virtually unchanged since 1831 -- NYPL Collection
To the early Victorian mind, the blind were to be pitied.  Without sight, it was most often felt that a person could not be educated nor could significantly contribute to society.    The New York City fathers of 1831, however, were surprisingly forward-thinking.

Three years earlier the City had spent $32,500 for James Blackwell’s island in the East River and laid plans for a smallpox hospital, an insane asylum, a debtors house and a prison.  James Renwick, Jr. would receive the commissions for these structures.  The isolated location would assure that the dangerous or undesirable inmates were at a comfortable distance from the general population. 
Apparently the blind were considered less threatening.  The block of land stretching from Ninth to Eighth Avenues, between 33rd and 34th Streets, was acquired and in 1831 the New York Asylum for the Blind was completed.    In the undeveloped area north of the city, the residents and pupils would enjoy the refreshing open air and sunshine.    The structure filled the Ninth Avenue blockfront, while behind a grassy expanse provided park-like grounds.

The name of the architect of the great granite structure is lost; however his design bears compelling similarities to some of the features of Renwick’s Blackwell Island facilities.  The mass of the neo-Gothic structure was divided into five nearly-equal parts—two projecting end pavilions with high mansard roofs that sat slightly higher than their adjoining wings; a central section with turrets, an open bell tower and imposing Gothic window at the fourth floor; and two connecting wings.  Square-headed Gothic eyebrows capped the windows of the first three floors, giving the building a romantic, English feel.

The New York Asylum for the Blind was funded by donations from citizens; the bulk coming from the wealthy.   Its was not meat to be a purely charitable institution, but to educate the blind and ready them for “the active duties and business pursuits of life.”   Students could stay until they reached 21-years of age and were schooled in academics, music, and “manufactures” (the making of baskets, mattresses, sewing, etc.).

Still, visitors to the facility would for decades record their experiences in sappy Victorian prose which balanced their positive impressions of the school’s achievements with sentimental pity.  In 1841 the editor of The Knickerbocker wrote of his visit.  “Who that has ever heard Braham sing ‘Sampson’s Lament for the loss of Sight,’ can ever forget the emotions which filled his mind, when the passage, so effectively rendered, ‘ No sun, no moon, no stars—all dark!’ falls full on the ear?”

This was the impression, he said, upon entering the Asylum.   But he went on to mention “the interesting processes of reading and ciphering, by means of raised letters and moveable numerals; the exquisite musical performances, in full instrumental bank, by the male pupils, and the excellent vocal efforts of the females; together with the ingenious manufactures, of various kinds, which enliven the manual department, and cheer the hearts of the willing laborers.”

The students were less emotional about their disability than was the outside world.   Annually the institution staged exhibitions during which musical programs were performed, students displayed their academic prowess, and manufactured items were shown and sold.  In 1839 19-year old Frances J. Crosby, a new student, recited her poem to the audience that included the lines:

But why, ah! Why the falling tear?
Why heaves the sad, unbidden sigh?
The lamp of knowledge, bright and fair,
Pours luster on our mental eye

 “Fanny” Crosby was born on March 24, 1820 and The New York Times later said “Her blindness was said to be due to the error of a physician who ordered the application of hot poultices to her eyes when she was six months old, thereby destroying the optic nerves...But the fact that she was blind did not depress the child, and Miss Crosby has said that despite her affliction she could ‘climb a tree or ride a horse as well as any one.’”

She wrote her first poem at the age of eight, and like the one she read to the Asylum audience, it reflected her resolve to transcend  her blindness:

Oh, what a happy soul am I!
Although I cannot see.
I am resolved in this world
Contented I will be.

 How much blessings I enjoy
That other people don’t;
To weep and sigh because I’m blind,
I cannot and I won’t”

Jobs within the institution were given to the blind when possible.  The instructors of the Asylum were blind as well and especially successful students were sometimes hired as teachers.   Fanny was one of them.  She taught English grammar, rhetoric, Greek, Roman, and American History for twelve years.  During that time she met another blind instructor, Alexander Van Alstyne and in 1858 the pair married.  Before she died at the age of 95 on February 12, 1915, Fanny Crosby had composed more than 8,000 hymns, including popular songs such as “Blessed Assurance.” 

In 1852 there were 120 students in the school.  The exhibition that year, as always, not only showed the general public the abilities of the blind; but gave the sponsors the assurance that their money was being well spent.   In addition to the large musical program that year, The Times reported on “The usual exercises in Reading, Geography, Grammar, Astronomy and Arithmetic, exhibited the proficiency of the pupils in the acquisition of ordinary knowledge.  Several specimens of the handiwork of blind artisans, baskets, mats, mattresses, hampers, etc., were on the stage for exhibition.”

Two years later The Journal of the Senate of the State of New York said of the school, “It not only affords instruction to pupils, but by the employment which it gives in its workshops supports a large number of blind persons, some of whom have families dependant on them.”

But The New York Times that year was scathing in its assessment of the Asylum’s management.   On July 14, 1854 the reporter began with a florid description of the musical performance of the night before.

“Nature—good kind mother Nature—provides a balm for all wounds, and her stricken children ever find solace at her bosom; whatever may be taken away, there is always one sense left, which by cultivation will afford the keenest enjoyment.  Music is a special gift to the blind; they excel in it.  For the simple reason that it is the only sensual enjoyment permitted them.  How wonderful their delicacy of touch! How quick their perception of sound!”

But the newspaper quickly turned its searing attention to the management.  “The New-York Asylum for the blind is redeemed from utter insufficiency only so far as its musical arrangements are concerned…Neglect, slovenliness and bad management are visible in every part of the establishment.  Among the officials, petty jealousies and feuds are of constant recurrence.  It appears to be no one’s duty to do anything but take his pay, and even this in some instances is performed with a lofty condescension that repels all idea of a quid pro quo.

“Externally, the Institute looks as if it were in chancery; internally, it is cheerless, with burlish men prowling about—blessed with eyesight, but incapable of seeing anything but their own interests.”

The article went on for paragraphs pummeling the management with insults.  It then returned to the music.  “We have seldom spent a more agreeable afternoon than that in the Chapel of the Blind Asylum.  The pupils appeared to be thoroughly animated with the pure pleasure that mere performance of the music afforded them.  We were assured that no classes of pupils are more happy and joyous than those of the Institute.”

The following day four instructors, including Frances Crosby, issued a letter to the editor rebutting the “personal abuse lavished on Mr. Cooper, the Superintendant,” saying “we are at a loss to account for a criticism so obviously erroneous as the statements of your correspondent.”

It was around this time that a young, sighted man from New Jersey was given a job as a bookkeeper.   Grover Cleveland worked here for a year before heading to Ohio and, later, to the White House as 22nd President of the United States.

A stereopticon view shows the Asylum around the time of the Civil War -- NYPL Collection
In February 1864 the Asylum was embarrassed when a group of pupils sent a complaint to the State Legislature alleging “severity in the discipline of the institution, etc.”  By now The New York Times had changed its assessment of the school’s supervision and wrote “The management of this, which is one of the oldest and most useful of our charitable institutions, is in the hands of some of our most excellent and most highly esteemed citizens, who give to it a great deal of their time and personal attention.  They allege that these complaints emanate from a few of the pupils, who have been necessarily restrained in the indulgence of vicious propensities, and who have taken this method of revenging themselves.”

A state committee was appointed to investigate the charges which the newspaper deemed “one-sided.”

The annual exhibition of 1881 not only provided the expected musical performances, but demonstrated a few of the newer teaching methods.   In the area of Geography, for example, three pupils “created great interest, the boys pointing out portions of countries, rivers, mountains, etc., on the map prepared for them entirely by the sense of feeling,” reported The Times.  “A ‘dissected map,’ consisting of a number of blocks of wood joined together—somewhat in the nature of a puzzle—was taken apart by a blind teacher, Mr. Stephen A. Babcock, and was put together again perfectly by three little blind girls.”

In 1903 discussions for a new location were on the table.   The massive Pennsylvania Station project encompassing the blocks between 31st and 33rd Streets, diagonally across Eighth Avenue from the school property, was being developed and “the holdings of the institution…have been the subject of much inquiry on the part of real estate brokers,” reported a local newspaper. 

Besides, the city had engulfed the Asylum property, creating distraction to learning.  “With trolleys on three sides and an elevated across the front, it has become increasingly difficult to talk against the roar of traffic, and a great deal of the teaching has to be done orally,” explained The Times.

It would be years, however, before the Asylum’s plans were finalized.

The 9th Avenue Elevated train ran in front of the building -- NYPL Collection
A frail, orphaned girl who studied here for fourteen years, Margaret Hogan, made an impression in 1907 when she entered Barnard College.   At a time when even few sighted women attended higher education, the challenges for her were significant.   A "reader" read the textbook chapters to Margaret, who took notes on her typewriter.  The typewritten pages were then sent to a printer for the blind, who translated them to Braille.

Although Margaret was the first student from the Asylum to apply for college entrance, the teachers there confirmed that “quite a number” of their pupils were “sufficiently prepared to take up a college course.”  The Times said at the time that the Asylum’s courses were “quite equal, if not superior, to those of the city high schools along this line.”

In 1909 the school purchased the 50-acre Dewitt estate in exclusive Bronxville, New York near Lawrence Park where it planned a new campus.  Before long, however, there was an uprising among the wealthy residents.  At a public hearing one called the Asylum for the Blind so “undesirable as to be characterized as a nuisance."  Another said that “an institution had ruined Sing Sing, and an institution had ruined Matteawan and should another institution be allowed to ruin Lawrence Park?”

The institutions to which the speaker referred were New York State’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility and the Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.  The New York Times pointed out that the speaker was “Thereby, by insinuation, classing the students of a school for the blind with the criminals at Sing Sing and the criminally insane at Matteawan.”

One brave resident voiced his opposition to the mob.  “I consider this thing not only un-Christian, but positively heathenish.  What possible harm a fine school located in a fifty-acre lot could do is more than I can see.  I guess some of the Bronxsville women are afraid it might give them something to think about besides bridge whist.”

The school reversed its plans and sold the property in January 1910.

Proposed deals for the 9th Avenue property came and went over the next decade until finally in August 1923 it was sold for more than $1 million.  The Asylum, which now went by the more politically-correct name of the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind, had purchased land on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx.  The Times reported that “The institute will continue its work in the building until Sept. 1, 1924, when it will move to its new home.”

In February 1925 the venerable Asylum Building, just six years short of a century old, was demolished.  Today, on the site of the great brooding Gothic structure, stands a four-story retail and residential-use building reminiscent of a suburban strip mall.

photo by Dmadeo


  1. this site will be an awesome reliquary for peoples from all backgrounds. im always amazed at the finds

  2. Thanks! It's especially fun to resurrect long forgotten landmarks like this one

  3. If you'd every want a tour of the school as it survives today on Pelham Parkway. look me up. I've worked there since 1976.