Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The 1911 Switzer Home and Institute for Girls -- 27 Christopher St.

On May 7, 1910 the Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide reported that William H. Housner had sold his three-story brick front home at No. 27 Christopher Street to The Margaret and Sarah Switzer Memorial Institute.  Directly below, another transfer was noted.  The Institute had also bought the two houses at Nos. 29 and 31.  The combined sales did not bode well for the three old residences.

Decades earlier Margaret and Sarah Switzer arrived in New York from Ireland.  According to Philadelphia’s Rev. Frederick W. Farr in 1911, “They were poor and alone; they had no capital save energy and determination and a great sweetness of feeling toward all humanity.  But they succeeded.”

The immigrant girls were expert seamstresses and had an eye for fashion and design.  They found work in a dressmaker’s shop and, according to the Record of Christian Work in 1922, “By devotion to their profession and loyalty to their employer they won the respect and esteem of all.  Upon the retirement of their employer the sisters…received the business as a reward for faithful services.”

The Switzer girls were thrifty and invested the money they earned.  “In the midst of this world of competition they reached the head of their profession, the dressmaking professional, and they made a fortune,” said the Rev. Farr.  The New York Times credited their wealth to “judicious investments.”  Always mindful of the struggles they had endured, the Switzer sisters laid plans for a home for working girls.

At the turn of the last century more and more single women flocked into the city to take advantage of jobs never imagined a generation earlier.  Finding a respectable place to stay was a problem.  Boarding houses could be expensive compared to the small wages the girls earned working in shops, millinery factories and such.  And the city was rife with evils from which they needed protection.

By the time Sarah Switzer purchased the three lots on Christopher Street at the corner of Waverly Place Margaret had died.  Sarah pushed on with their plans alone.  In 1909 she presented to the Salvation Army the Margaret Fresh Air Camp in New Jersey.  It was intended as a vacation camp for “the tired mothers of the slums, a place where they could bring their little ones and enjoy the bracing ocean air,” according to the Record of Christian Work.  She would also establish Sunnyside Farm “dedicated to convalescent girls recovering from illness or from the effects of overwork.”

Now she focused on the Margaret and Sarah Switzer Institute and Home for Girls.  On March 18, 1911 the New-York Daily Tribune reported that J. D. Harrison had filed plans for a four-story “school and home” which was to cost about $76,000.  That figure would translate to about $2 million today.

Architect Joseph Duke Harrison designed an Italian-inspired structure in gray brick on a stone base that was as respectable and reserved as the Switzer sisters themselves.  A pedimented entrance flanked by two no-nonsense Doric columns and a handsome row of arched openings at the second floor comprised the extent of embellishment.  The resulting structure, completed the same year that plans were filed, was a striking and proper home for the young girls struggling to make it in the city.

The Home was dedicated on December 11, 1911.  Typically, Sarah Switzer forewent the ceremonies; not wishing to receive praise nor wanting to steal attention from the new facility.  She was present only symbolically in the form of a floor mat.  Sarah’s money had paid for the beds, the dressers, the tables and chairs, the curtains at the windows—in short everything.  Everything except one overlooked item:  a door mat.  In the hours just prior to the dedication someone noticed the mistake.  As guests entered that day, they stepped on a mat which announced “12 E. 33,” the address of Sarah Switzer’s home.  She had hurriedly sent her own mat to the ceremony.

Unmarried working girls between the ages of 16 and 30 were eligible to live at the Home, providing they earned no more than $15 per week and were “respectable.”  Their $3.50 a week board included two meals a day.  The New York Charities Directory described it as being “For the advancement and uplifting of girls and young women, to house those coming to New York to look for work and to give lodging and board at low rates to respectable girls and young women.”

“The enterprise is non-sectarian, its benefits being enjoyed without discrimination by Jewesses, Roman Catholics and Protestants,” said The Record of Christian Work.  For those girls who desired to improve their skills, evening classes were held in the Institute in dressmaking, typewriting and stenography.

The Margaret and Sarah Switzer Institute and Home was so successful that within two years of its opening Sarah had purchased the two adjoining houses at Nos. 23 and 25 Christopher Street.  A little over a month later, on November 15, 1913 The Real Estate Record & Builders’ Guide announced that architect Jobst Hoffman was working on an annex costing $4,000.

Sarah Switzer died on February 27, 1920 in her mid-70s.  Most of her half-million dollar estate was left to the Margaret and Sarah Switzer Institute and Home.  Among her other bequeaths was $60,000 to Irving H. Bower “in appreciation of his assistance in her private and business affairs and in matters pertaining to the creation and management of the Switzer Home,” said The New York Times.

The ever-thrifty Sarah kept her fingers on the purse strings even after death.  What Bower did not spend of his inheritance “goes to the home” upon his death, instructed the will.

By the time of the Great Depression things had changed.  Women had become more independent and little by little the hotels for working girls closed their doors.  In 1932 St. Joseph’s Church, nearby on Sixth Avenue, purchased the Switzer Institute building for $210,000.  The church already operated a large parochial school a block away on Washington Place.  It converted the Christopher Street building for use as the girls’ school, retaining the former building for the boys.

Eventually both boys and girls would be educated in the Christopher Street building; but by 1974 the school was experiencing financial difficulties.  It was operating with a significant deficit and the parish sought ways to reduce the debt.  The solution was to close the Christopher Street school.  On June 14, 1977 The New York Times published a photograph of children carrying books, a statue of the Virgin Mary, and a crucifix from No. 27 Christopher Street to the old school building at No. 111 Washington Place.  “The children, all 240 of them, helped to save on moving costs,” explained the newspaper.

St. Joseph’s Church rented the Christopher Street building to the St. Vincent’s Hospital School of Nursing.  The nursing school would remain here until 2002, when it became home to the Dr. Vincent J. Fontana Center for Child Protection—a branch of the New York Foundling Hospital.  The center paid $3 million for the property and for over a decade assisted “abused, neglected and abandoned children” here.  The facility also helped persons with disabilities.

In March 2014 The New York Foundling Hospital put the building on the market again—for about 15 times what it paid for it.  The $47.5 million price tag would enable the institution to help more children, officials said.  A consideration to potential buyers, however, is a deed restriction that prohibits the building’s being used for anything other than health care purposes that does not expire before 2016.

In the meantime, while the quiet Christopher Street neighborhood waits to see the next chapter unfold, Sarah Switzer’s prim brick building sits virtually unchanged since she rushed her door mat from her 33rd Street home to the opening ceremonies in 1911.

UPDATE:  The building was sold in September 2014 for $45 million for conversion into a single-family residence.  Plans by the architectural firm HS Jessup Architecture were filed that November.  They call for 15,000 square feet of floor area, six bedrooms, two kitchens a 50-foot lap pool and a rooftop terrace.

many thanks to reader Nicholas Krasno for suggesting this post
photographs taken by the author 


  1. Always wondered about this one. 2016 isn't very far off. We can assume, I think, that the building will sit unsold until the deed restriction expires, after which luxury condos and a ground floor CVS can't be far behind.

  2. Those are my relatives! How wonderful are they.

  3. St. Vincent's Nursing School closed in 1999.