Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Henry Street Settlement House -- No. 265 Henry Street

Above the exquisite doorway and molded metal lintel was applied to the original stone one -- photo by Alice Lum
In 1827 Henry Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side was undergoing rapid development.  Brick-clad Federal-style homes were erected for the city’s well-to-do merchant class.   No. 265 was completed that year, one of a row of elegant residences boasting costly touches.  At No. 265 these included Flemish-bond brickwork above a brownstone basement, an elaborate door frame with fluted Ionic colunnettes and intricate iron cage newels.

In the years just prior to the Civil War Alderman Thomas W. Adams lived in the house.   He was seriously ill at the start of his last term, which ended with his retirement on December 31, 1859.  At 2:00 on the afternoon of January 3, 1860 a group of citizens assembled at the Henry Street house.  The New York Times reported that “Mr. Wm. L. Ely, on their behalf, presented to Mr. Adams an elegant gold watch, with hunting-case, gold chains, pencil-case and key, all costing $363.”  The gifts represented a substantial testimonial worth about $7,000 today.

Ely told Adams that the assembled citizens “desire me to say, and I cheerfully and heartily indorse the sentiment, that they have tried you, both as a friend and a Democrat, and never found you wanting.  Your course has been consistent with right and with the principles of Democracy, and as such is approved.  This testimonial is presented by friends who claim a place in your memory.”

An emotional Thomas Adams told the crowd “I never have allowed myself to stoop to anything low or contemptible in the eyes of the public to subserve party ends, and as I am under many obligations to you, gentlemen, for attending to my interests at the last election, when I lay sick and disabled, and not able to attend to my own, receive my kind respects and my wishes through life for your future prosperity and happiness.  I accept this token of respect to me as a private citizen, which I am now, and wish you all a happy new year.”

Following his acceptance speech, Adams invited the group into another room “where refreshments were bounteously provided.”

Charles W. Moores was next to move into No. 265 Henry Street.    When Union soldier Charles T. Jenkins of Company D of the 40th Regiment Ohio Volunteers died in New York on Thursday, April 3, 1863, the Moores family offered the house for his funeral.    Only four months later, on August 27, Charles’ son William was drafted into the conflict.

William Moores would survive the Civil War and rise to the position of Dean of the Board of Directors of the Empire City Savings Bank.  When the Seventh Regiment staged a gala reception two decades later, on February 22, 1881, The Times noted that “The gentlemen wore the regulation evening dress, and the members of the regiment were only distinguishable from the civilians by their handsome regimental pins which they displayed upon the lapels of their vests.  Among those present were…A. H. T. Timpson and William Moores, two of the oldest members of the regiment, with their wives.”

By 1893 the Henry Street neighborhood was no longer the stylish enclave it had been during the Civil War.  Wealthy residents had moved away and tenement houses crowded with impoverished immigrants had replaced many of the homes.   That year Lillian Wald, a young graduate nurse from the New York Training School for Nurses, began teaching a class in home nursing and hygiene to immigrant women in the neighborhood.

One morning a little girl appeared, saying her mother could not attend the class because she was ill.  Wald followed the girl to her squalid tenement room.   She later wrote she traveled “over broken roadways…between tall, reeking houses…across a court where open and unscreened closets were promiscuously used by men and women, up into a rear tenement, by slimy steps…and finally into the sickroom.”  She said “that morning’s experience was a baptism of fire.  Deserted were the laboratory and academic work of college.  I never returned to them.”

With her friend, Mary Brewster, Lillian Wald established the Visiting Nurses Service using donated funds.  By January 1894 the pair had visited more than 125 families.    In the spring of 1895 German-Jewish banker Jacob Schiff purchased the house at No. 265 Henry Street to be used by fledgling organization.

The house was enlarged with a full third floor, its windows being carefully matched and a modest but architecturally-appropriate cornice installed.    Soon there were eleven residents in the house, including nurse Lavinia Dock, an ardent suffragist, feminist and union organizer.  A diverse group, the women lived and worked together, arising for the 7:30 breakfast followed by a meeting to discuss the day’s schedule and to address any problems or difficult situations.  The nurses went into the field, returning for lunch most often, and teaching in the afternoons. 

A cooking class, the Good Times Club, cost five cents per week and was a favorite in the neighborhood.  Immigrants could learn English here and study rooms were provided.  The residents of the area showed their gratitude however they could.

Tenement children play behind the Henry Street house at the turn of the century -- photograph by Jacob A. Riis, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York--
On June 8, 1902, the New-York Tribune reported “At the Nurses’ Settlement, No. 265 Henry-st., there is a small but good collection of brasses.  Miss Lillian D. Wald, the headworker, Miss Waters and others of the resident nurses are great admirers of foreign metals and…they often receive gifts from their Yiddish neighbors and patients.”  The article quoted Waters “We have two brass samovars—one very old and valuable.  We use one every day, while the other is kept in readiness for company or festive occasions.  The samovar is an ideal teapot, being clean, economical, convenient and decorative.”

The women of the Nurses’ Settlement were accustomed to speaking out against injustice and civil wrong.   When police allegedly over-reacted when the funeral of Rabbi Joseph erupted into a full-scale riot in the summer of 1902, one of the residents spoke out.  “Jane W. Hitchcock of 265 Henry Street, who is connected with the Mercy Settlement, declared that policemen had handled women with unnecessary force,” reported The Times on August 20.

Lillian Wald wrote of the myriad illnesses the nurses dealt with in the first years of the 20th century.

There were nursing infants, many of them with the summer bowel complaint that sent infant mortality soaring during the hot months; there were children with measles, not quarantined; there were children with opthalmia, a contagious eye disease; there were children scarred with vermin bites; there were adults with typhoid; there was a case of puerperal septicemia, lying on a vermin-infested bed without sheets or pillow cases; a family consisting of a pregnant mother, a crippled child and two others living on dry bread; a young girl dying of tuberculosis amid the very conditions that had produced the disease.

In 1903 Schiff donated the house to the Settlement.  Three years later the house next door, at No. 267, was donated by another German-Jewish philanthropist, Morris Loeb.  By now the settlement had expanded its services to offer a summer camp.  Camp Henry was located upstate near Peekskill and every summer around 45 boys, “all from the Ghetto,” as described by The Sun, enjoyed fresh air and escape from the city.

Tragedy struck Camp Henry in the summer of 1905 when the assistant director, 24-year old Arthur Sobel, drowned while swimming in the lake.   On July 24 The Sun reported “The boys of the camp and others dived into the lake hundreds of times to-day for the body, but were not successful.”

From its modest beginnings in the old house on Henry Street, Lillian Wald’s settlement had burgeoned by now.  A kindergarten had been established at No. 279 East Broadway (later moved to a house on Montgomery Street), additional residential space for two nurses was acquired on one floor at No. 52 Henry Street, dancing and gymnasium classes were conducted in the Children’s Aid Society building, and domestic science and home nursing classes were held at No. 226 Henry Street.  In 1905 the number of nurses had risen to twenty-four.

Operating the expanded Settlement was not inexpensive.  During the week of March 15 to 22, 1920 a fund drive sought to raise $1 million.   The Settlement, the largest visiting nurse service in the country, now had 185 nurses on staff.  In 1919 43,946 sick people received care.  An advertisement in The Survey noted that the nurses attended to 614 births in that year.  “In the entire city 4,418 little lives were watched over by the nurses during the first month of life with a loss of only 72 babies.”

When Lillian Wald retired in 1933 after four decades of service, her nursing staff had risen to 265.  They still climbed tenement stairs and rode subways to reach sick patients.  That year they would make 550,000 home visits.  Wald died in 1940 following a long illness and four years later the Settlement was reorganized.  The Visiting Nurses Service moved uptown while the Henry Street Settlement remained to focus on the needs of the immediate population.

A visiting nurse tends to an infant around 1940 -- photograph by Roy Perry, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York --
The Settlement’s administrative offices remain in the three old Federal-style homes at Nos. 263 through 267 Henry Street.  In 1966 the houses were designated New York City landmarks and in 1992 No. 265 was restored.  Amazingly, throughout its century of use by the Settlement, the exquisite doorway and the original ironwork of the stoop survive.   The handsome home endures not only as an rare architectural landmark, but as an important part in New York’s social history.
Close inspection of No. 265 at the center of the three Settlement houses reveals the line in the brickwork where the third floor was added -- photo by Alice Lum

1 comment:

  1. Amazing that you would think with such a conversion from residential use to institutional use and after decades of service these structures look better than most and largely intact. Wonderful.