Monday, September 30, 2013

The Lost Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum -- 5th Avenue and 51st Street

The Male Orphan Asylum sat on rocky, ungraded ground where today Cartier Jewelers and the Olympic Towers stand. -- sketch from the Archdioces of New York Archives.
When the immense Croton Reservoir was opened in June 1842 on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street it stood atop Murray Hill well north of the developed city.    Fifth Avenue was graded and improved up to this point, allowing carriages of well-dressed citizens to travel back and forth for Sunday promenades on the reservoir's broad rim.

But above 42nd Street there was even less development.   A Potter’s Field was located just off Fifth Avenue, to the east, with irregular boundaries from about 48th to 50th Streets.  Years later when excavation of the land was done along Madison Avenue the remains of bodies, thrown without coffins into trenches were discovered.    John D. Crimmins would remember that “Hundreds of barrels of bones were removed from the field to Hart’s Island.”

The same year that the Croton Reservoir was opened, a little frame church—the Church of St. John the Evangelist—was erected on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 50th Street.   Later the magnificent white marble St.Patrick’s Cathedral would take its place.  But for now the area was bucolic and sparsely populated.

Nearly thirty years earlier, in 1817, the Roman Catholic Benevolent Society was organized.   Run by the Sisters of Charity, it guaranteed that Catholic foundlings and orphans would not be lost to the faith by being taken in by a Protestant organization.   The first building, at Prince and Mulberry Streets, had accommodations for 30 “inmates.”   The influx of children was such that a new building was quickly acquired on Prince Street, which then had to be enlarged.

Finally, in 1845, Archbishop John Hughes approached the city for a more permanent solution.   The rural and rolling meadows around St. John the Evangelist offered fresh air and hilltop breezes.  That, coupled with the location’s remoteness and low property value, created the perfect spot for an orphanage.  The city gave Hughes a lease on the block of land from Fifth to Madison Avenue, between 51st and 52nd Streets.  The agreement, dated August 1, 1846, stipulated that the land would be used only to shelter orphans, and rent would be one dollar per year. 

Although construction of the four-story brick-and-stone edifice was completed before 1851, it was not immediately utilized.  According to the Catholic World later, in 1886, “But Archbishop Hughes would not allow it to be occupied until it was entirely free from debt, which was fortunately accomplished through a legacy of $25,000 under the will of Peter Harmony, a wealthy Spanish merchant.”

Based on its similarities to buildings he designed on Blackwell’s Island—like the Gothic-style Small-Pox Hospital—it is highly possible that the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum (originally called the Male Orphan Asylum) was designed by James Renwick, Jr.     When it opened in 1851 the facility had accommodations for 500 boys. 

The boys-only institution would quickly see the neighborhood start to change.  A year later Archbishop Hughes acquired most of the block directly to the south of the orphanage and in 1853 bought the corner belonging to the Church of St. John the Evangelist.  The gears were now engaged; grinding into motion the archbishop’s monumental dream of erecting the most lavish and costly church in the city—St. Patrick’s Cathedral—designed by Renwick.

While Hughes’s dramatic cathedral rose, the boys next door received instruction in all the areas of education that the public schools covered.    But the Asylum educated its boys within a military structure.   The orphans were taught military drills, officers were promoted among them, and rigid military discipline was expected.

The Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum depended mostly on private donations to operate.  In order to prove to its benefactors that their money was well-spent, the facility hosted an “Annual Exhibition” during which the boys’ education and progress were proudly put on display.    On June 24, 1859 the exhibition, deemed by The New York Times to be “a pleasant entertainment,” was presented to a host of wealthy citizens, politicians and clergy. 

The Times said “The boys, to the number of some five hundred—clean, smart, sharp, lively lads, all—went through their annual exhibition in presence of a large and distinguished audience.”  The boys performed their lessons in the large auditorium in front of some of New York’s wealthiest and most influential citizens.

“The boys were exceedingly prompt and accurate in their answers, and exhibited an extent of information, a correctness of deportment, and a discipline so thorough, that they surprised their warmest and most indulgent friends.  There were songs, recitations, dialogues, literary exercises, questions in orthography, parsing, geography, history, arithmetic, algebra,--an opening address and valedictories,--which were each and all very cleverly done and immensely applauded.”

The boys closed the display with a “scene from the Revolution.”  The orphans dressed in Continental Army costumes and acted out a little drama.  “The rear of the troop was brought up by four little urchins—none of them over three years of age—who toddled along in a most uncertain manner, and whose movements excited more attention, and occasioned more laughter, than any other event of the day,” reported The Times.

In his remarks to the children, Archbishop Hughes touched upon the Victorian prejudice against orphans.   He said that certain people “even in this Christian community, and with the hearts of men beating in their bosoms, have indicated a certain amount of low jealousy in your regards;” but he said should they had seen the boys that day, “if they ever had enmity against the orphan, they would go away today converted.”

In 1862, while work on the Cathedral was grinding to a stop because of the Civil War, a “violent storm,” as described by The New York Times, savaged New York City on February 25.   The gale hit the harbor with the strength of a hurricane, sinking or damaging ships.   In the city chimneys and signboards were blown down and buildings were damaged—one five story building recently completed on Avenue A was demolished by the winds, burying a worker inside.  On Fifth Avenue the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum “was unroofed.”

The roof was replaced in time for the annual exhibition.   The political mood of the day due to the War of Aggression raging in the South, was reflected in the boys’ offerings.  “A speech called ‘Union’ and also one entitled ‘Taxes,’ met with the most demonstrative appreciation from the loyal audience,” reported The Times.  The boys’ band, consisting of 60 pieces of brass and stringed instruments, led off “by playing some patriotic aims, and afterward accompanying the vocalization.”

The auditorium was patriotically-decorated in the height of mid-Victorian taste.  “The large exhibition hall was tastefully draped in hangings of red, white and blue, of light and tissue-like fabric.  The stage had heavier emblems of silk and gold, with stars and stripes unblemished by division.”  At the back was a heavy foliage of evergreens, against which were placed in vivid contrast, the field and garden flowers of the season.  About the hall were placed hot-house blooms and rarer growths, which made the atmosphere redolent with perfume.”

The newspaper commented on the condition of the facility.  “The Asylum is in a healthful condition, not overcrowded or at present subjected to any embarrassment in funds.”

In 1865 the Asylum received a large endowment in the will of Peter Boland for the establishment and maintenance of a farm/industrial school.  The Boland Farm was established near Peekskill under the operation of the Brothers of the Christian Schools where the orphaned boys learned trades that would enable them to survive in the world once they left.

Meanwhile, the military schooling of the boys was evident in the annual exhibition of 1866.  “After the exhibition the boys, who were tastily dressed, many of them in military fashion…marched around the ground reviewed by a large number of friends, who crowded the balconies and piazzas of the building, and by the good ladies who were pleasant spectators of the pleasing proof, in their crowded rooms and grounds of the public appreciation of their devotion, to these lonely little ones.”

In 1875 wealthy families came together to support the Asylum when two performances were staged at the Academy of Music for its benefit.   The entertainments were “largely attended” and around $6,000 was collected—around $115,000 in today’s dollars.

Renwick & Sands was commissioned to design a Girls Asylum on the eastern end of the block, fronting Madison Avenue, which was opened in 1886.   Between the two hulking buildings was the grassy lot and drill field.  The Catholic World noted that “The asylum now includes the Male Orphan Asylum on Fifth Avenue, the Female Orphan Asylum on Madison Avenue, and the Boland Farm…Half-orphans as well as orphans are received in all three institutions.”   At the time there were a total of 964 inmates, “273 orphans and 691 half-orphans” being cared for.

Renwick & Sands designed the Madison Avenue-fronting Girls' Asylum -- photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
In 1889 $45,000 was spent in renovating the aging boys’ asylum.   The expensive repairs did not include vermin extermination, apparently, and on February 12, 1890 a rat busied itself “building a nest between the beams of the attic flooring and using matches in its construction,” according to Fire Department experts.  The result was a fire that broke out in the attic around 8:00 in the morning.

The military training of the boys proved valuable.  “In a few seconds nuns, servants, and children, thanks to instruction in fire drill and the drill of the cadet corps of 200 of the boys by gallant little “Colonel” Robert Johnson were doing precisely what they should do with the coolness and precision of automatons,” reported The New York Times.  The boys pushed beds and lugged bedding out of the building; while others helped the nuns in the chapel “completely dismantle the altar and carry all that could be moved from it to the rear of the parlor in the centre of the building."

When the Fire Patrol had the flames under control, “’Col.’ Johnson called a retreat, mustered all the boys on the playground, and marched them to the Female Orphan Asylum, where they formed in order and remained until told to return to their classrooms.”

The neighborhood was now lined with opulent mansions and concerned socialites rushed to the scene.  The wealthy women “remained and helped the nuns until studies were resumed in the classrooms.”  Fire damage amounted to between $8,000 to $9,000 to the building and $3,000 to $4,000 in property.

The cathedral was completed when this photograph was taken.  Trees line the grounds of the orphanage.   The high main exterior staircase can be seen.  photo from the Fifth Avenue Bank of New York's 1915 pamphlet "Fifth Avenue-Glances at the Vicissitudes and Roman of a World-Renowned Thoroughfare" (copyright expired)

The complex would be enlarged once again when on October 2, 1892 the cornerstone was laid for the Boland Trade School, an extension of the boys’ orphanage, on the opposite side of Madison Avenue.   “In the laying of this cornerstone the Board of Managers of the orphan asylum see the solution of a problem which has long perplexed them.  That problem has been what to do with boys when it was time to send them out into the world to earn their own livings,” said The Times.

The new $175,000 building and trade school would include dormitories for 200 more boys.  “Only the larger boys will study in the trade school, the younger ones being taught in the regular classes now.”

When the Constitutional Convention’s Sub-Committee on Charities and Education visited the orphanage on June 13, 1894 there were 52 Sisters of Charity manning the institutions—26 each at the Girls’ and Boys’ asylums.   The women were currently caring for 895 children.

“The committeemen were soon fascinated by the details of the management of the asylum and its school system,” said The Times, “and noted the clean floors, thorough arrangements for supplying provender for the young folks, the system of ablutions by which each child, to avoid ophthamalia, has a numbered towel, and the ample accommodation for the sick.”

That year at Christmas the orphans were treated to the fruits of kindly donations.  “An enormous chicken pie at either end of the table, a half score of gigantic turkeys placed at intervals, more chicken pies, and red pools of cranberry sauce, and mountains of bread and mounds of butter, cased round eyes to brighten, cheeks to flush to a shade rivaling the blush of the cranberry sauce, and little hearts to beat with unusual palpitations of joy at the Roman Catholic orphan asylum for little girls at Fiftieth Street and Madison Avenue,” reported The Times.  “The little ones in the institution for male orphans, at Fiftieth Street and Fifth Avenue, had dinner with the girls, and had an equally good time.”

“Many friends of the little orphans prepared for the day by contributing thousands of toys, articles for wear, hats, hoods, handkerchiefs, etc…[The orphans’] unhappiness was forgotten in the joy of the day’ their parentless condition was lost sight of in the kindly care of the sisters who are intrusted [sic] with their bringing up, and the cold and hunger of many in the recent past was not thought of.”

In 1896 St. Luke’s Hospital was demolished.  Like the orphanage, it took up an entire Fifth Avenue blockfront between 54th and 55th Streets.   The now-valuable real estate was quickly snatched up by millionaires and the exclusive University Club, which set McKim, Mead & White to work designing its new clubhouse on the site.   The potentially-lucrative real estate under the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum did not go unnoticed as well.

On April 5, 1896 The New York Times ran the headline “Blots on Fifth Avenue” with the sub-headline “Insignificant Buildings on Very Valuable Ground.”  The article complained “The antiquated buildings of the Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum, on the block between Fifty-first and Fifty-second Streets, seem to be out of place after one has observed the stately proportions of the cathedral and the costly mansions of the Vanderbilts, near by, and most persons would have the impression that the children sheltered there would be happier on extensive grounds somewhere away from the noise and dust of the city.”

By now the Board of Managers of the asylum had acquired the land from the city; however the city’s consent was required before the property could be sold.   On March 16, 1897 the Board of Aldermen met to consider a petition for the consent of the city to sell the Asylum property.    John D. Crimmins, chairman of the committee in charge of dispensing of the land, told reporters “It is estimated that the block should bring $2,000,000.”

The drastic change in the neighborhood can be seen in this 1898 view taken from the Asylum's grounds.  Beyond the fence of the orphanage are seen the lavish mansions of the Vanderbilt families.  Note the elegant carriages passing by on Fifth Avenue -- photo by Byron Co., from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York 
In January 1899 the trustees of the Orphan Asylum took title to property in Fordham Heights as the site of a new facility.   The news perked the attention of millionaires and developers alike.   But another incident at the orphanage grounds also caused a stir.

On March 29 that year a steer broke loose from one of the cattle transport boats docked at the piers around East 42nd Street.  The reddish-brown bull (“not any particular breed—just plain steer,” said The Times) ended up in the enclosed grounds between the Girls’ and Boys’ Asylums.  It resulted in an impromptu rodeo made up of policemen and “venturesome civilians” who tried to subdue the beast.

The gates to the Asylum grounds were closed “and the chase began, a sight to thrill the breasts of the romantic and recall the age of chivalry,” reported the newspaper.  “A crowd of many hundreds of people soon gathered outside the grounds and urged on the toreadors as madly as ever a Spanish crowd applauded their favorite bullfighter.”

The bull fought an admirable battle and several men were tossed off their feet.  “Whenever an unfortunate landed in the shrubbery and it was seen that he was not much hurt, the crowd was visibly amused.  Fortunately, the 550 orphan boys of the asylum were all in class at the rear rooms of the building and could not look on and add their voices to the chorus—‘Bully for the bull!’ on such occasions.  Indeed, they knew nothing of the tragedy in process of being enacted until the curtain had been rung down.”

The tragedy, at least for the bull, was the penalty of death for his escape from the cattle boat.  Although he, at first, was slated to become beef steaks for the orphans, police headquarters had the carcass held for its rightful claimant.

By October the orphanage trustees were being flooded with offers for the real estate.  “A matter of considerable interest to real estate men is the final disposition of the old Roman Catholic Orphan Asylum property at Fifth avenue and Fifty-first street,” noted The Sun on October 8.  “A number of offers have been made for the site, but the trustees have as yet accepted none of these.  The rumors which have been in circulation for several days regarding a sale of the property can be traced in all probability to a meeting of the trustees held yesterday afternoon when the offers so far received were discussed but not adopted.”

Finally as the 19th century turned into the 20th, the building plots were sold off.  The Vanderbilt family purchased the Fifth Avenue frontage, thereby ensuring their homes on the opposite side of the street would not be sullied by commercial structures.  Before long the elegant Morton Plant mansion would occupy the northern corner, the exclusive Union Club would rise on the southern end, and between them George W. Vanderbilt constructed two lavish white marble twin mansions.

Two mansions (at left), now converted for business, survive from the first period of construction following the demolition of the Asylum -- photo by Alice Lum
Today only the northern portion of the block survives from that early phase of construction.  The Morton Plant mansion houses Cartier jewelers and one of Vanderbilt’s marble twins remains as Versace’s flagship store.


  1. Thank you for this! I believe that my great-great-grandfather was among the boys performing at the 1859 exhibition. The census says he was living there in 1860 and indicate that he arrived there in 1856.

  2. My father and his brothers were here
    It certainly doesn't sound like this the stories we heard
    They all received excellent educations
    But life was hard