|photo from the collection of the New York Public Library|
In mid-19th century New York teemed with waifs known as “street arabs” – the orphaned or abandoned children of prostitutes, drug addicts and alcoholics -- who fended for themselves. The dirty, neglected children slept in stairways and parks. Some earned pennies selling newspapers or shining shoes; others turned to pocket picking or other crimes to survive.
In response, The Children’s Aid Society was formed in 1853 by Charles Loring Brace to “ensure the physical and emotional well being of children and families.” The Society’s purpose was to serve the “large multitude of children who cannot be placed in asylums and yet who are uncared for and ignorant and vagrant.”
The Children’s Aid Society depended heavily on the donations of the wealthy in order to fund lodging houses, industrial schools, and reading rooms. In 1887 John Jacob Astor funded the 14th Ward Industrial School on Mott Street, while almost simultaneously banker and entrepreneur Morris K. Jesup provided the money for the lodging house and school at No. 247 44th Street, at the corner of Second Avenue.
Both structures--as indeed were all the Society's buildings--would be designed by the architectural firm of Vaux & Redford. Calvert Vaux (who will be forever be most remembered for co-designing Central Park with Frederick Olmsted) and his partner G. K. Redford filed plans for the 44th Street structure in September 1887. In reporting on the filing, the Real Estate Record and Guide noted “The building, which is of brick and stone, four stories high, will be somewhat Flemish in appearance.”
Indeed the building, completed in 1888, was, like its fraternal twin on Mott Street, a Victorian Gothic pile of brick, terra cotta and brownstone, liberally splashed with Flemish Revival elements like the prominent stepped gables. The delightfully irregular roof with its many dormers, chimneys, and projections, was crowned with a four-sided clock tower.
|The Second Avenue El runs in front of the beleaguered structure in the 1920s. photograph from the collection of the New York Public Library|
Initially, the $65,000 facility suffered an identity problem. First called the Newsboys’ Lodging House, it was known briefly as the House for Homeless Boys. But by 1889 the Children's’ Aid Society had decided on the "East Forty-Fourth Street Lodging House." A year after its completion, the Society reported “This beautiful building, provided by the generosity of Mr. Jesup, has realized all our hopes and is crowded from top to bottom with poor children—in the day Industrial School., the work-shop, the Crippled Boys’ Brush-shop, the night school, and the Lodging-House.”
The report air-brushed the conditions of the indigent boys, saying “No House in the city presents a scene of busier activity or more cheerful industry. It will be a lasting source of pleasure to the kind-hearted giver to see how much happiness and good he has scattered in that quarter of the city.”
Industrial schools city-wide offered training to orphaned or neglected boys; providing them with a trade when they entered society. But the Crippled Boys’ Brush-Shop was unique.
The seeds for the Brush Shop were planted years before, in 1882, when a boy named Peter was run over by a freight train which severed both his legs. The Evening World, on February 24, 1891, explained that for some years he “hid, slept and starved in wagons and areas, and finally was advised by a kindly disposed and sympathetic officer to try the Children’s Aid Society.”
William H. Matthews, Superintend of the 44th Street Lodging House searched “far and wide and high and low for suitable employment for the boy, who was strong in his arms as a young lion and perfectly willing to work. But nobody wanted him. ‘Crippled, you see, and would only be in the way,’ they said.”
Matthews conceived of a classroom to teach otherwise unemployable crippled boys a trade that did not require extreme physicality. Supplies were ordered from Philadelphia, a shop was constructed and a brush maker was brought in to teach Peter the craft. The Evening World reported “Other boys, cruelly handicapped, entered the shop, and before the first month’s report was out there were thirty at the bench.”
Young Peter became the supervisor, refusing to use “his timbers;” instead moving around the shop using his arms and dragging the stumps of his legs. He had a sizable crew under his guidance. The Society’s 1889 report noted “The Crippled Boys’ Brush-shop has continued during the year with good results; an average of 14 cripples have been kept at work. In addition to this, 264 boys were given temporary employment.”
Unfortunately, in Peter’s case his early success came to a crashing defeat. Jacob Riis later explained that the homeless boys, despite the Society’s influences, were often still victims of the outside environment. An article he wrote for The Century Magazine in 1912 included “There is evil enough abroad in the streets. Its touch, with all that is cheap and tawdry and vulgar, from the perennial cigarette to the vile bar-room and worse that open upon it, sharpens the lad's wits and too often tends to dull his morals.”
Regarding Peter, The Evening World said “Success of heredity, or both influences, turned his head. He took to drink, became ungovernable and was suspended. He retaliated by getting out in the street with a pocketful of stones and riddling the windows.
The other crippled boys continued on. They began work at 7:00 in the morning and worked until 5:00. They received one hour break as well as a free lunch. The boys were compelled to attend one hour of night school following work from October through March. If they went out at night, they were required to return by 10:30 during the weekdays and midnight on Saturday.
The brush makers paid five cents to live in the house and five cents for evening meals. If they broke curfew, they were charged extra for their beds—between 7 and 11 cents. Those trying to get back into the lodging house after midnight would find the doors locked.
The Crippled Boys’ Brush-Shop was a commendable endeavor; but it could go only so far. The Evening World commented “These poor little fellows are not long-lived. Many of them die of consumption, and pneumonia is both common and fatal among them. The majority are Irish children, friendless, helpless and homeless.”
Between 1888 and 1889 the Lodging House furnished beds to 33,474 boys who came and went. It supplied 53,107 meals, of which 45,524 boys were able to pay their nickel and 7,583 were supplied free. During that 12-month period, 378 boys found homes and employment.
The Children’s’ Aid Society was a favorite cause of many of New York’s wealthiest citizens. Thanksgiving and Christmas were, of course, times when benevolence shined brightest. The boys at the 44th Street Lodging House who routinely ate meagerly were treated to a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner, for instance, in 1894 when millionaire William Earle Dodge’s family not only paid for the feast, but joined the boys for dinner here.
Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas trees did not make routine life for the boys much improved, however. John Widmore was 18-years old and living here in 1900 when he took the trolley to Jamaica, Queens, to visit his mother. The boy had enough money to pay his fare to Queens, but was penniless when he tried to return. The New York Times described him as “much emaciated, and his face was sallow, and his eyes sunken.”
When the conductor, 22-year old Thomas Chivers, realized Widmore had sneaked onto the trolley, he fought with the boy. The motorman, 47-year old Henry Smith, joined in and they physically threw Widmore off the moving trolley. The boy landed on a stump, causing internal injuries. He died in Flower Hospital of peritonitis.
When a journalist from The Times questioned authorities at the 44th Street Lodging House about Widmore, they “gave him a good reputation and said he was very steady.”
Tragedy touched the lives of other residents. On August 11, 1907 19-year old John Kelly sought to escape the city heat by swimming in the Harlem River. He did not know how to swim, and wore a pair of rubber water wings which were slightly too large for him.
He was swimming a few feet away from a moored barge loaded with bricks when someone dived from the vessel. Startled by the splash, Kelly jerked and his water wings dislodged and floated away.
“The boy floundered about in the water and screamed for help,” reported The Times the following day. “Men crowded to the edge of the bank and the rail of the barge and watched the boy, but they made no attempt to haul him from the water.”
Finally the panicked, flailing boy sank for the last time.
The taint of homelessness and poverty was more powerful than the glow of heroism in the case of James Coleman. Frustrated in its failed attempts to nab the notorious burglar Eddie Fay, the City of New York offered a staggering $17,000 reward for his capture in 1910.
On Tuesday, March 29 Coleman, described by The New York Times as “a bright-faced newsboy of 19,” was selling his papers in front of Grand Central Station. Police closed in on Eddie Fay on Vanderbilt Avenue and a commotion ensued. James Coleman ran to towards the scene, only to see Fay “dashing away.”
James stuck out his foot and tripped the felon. He then jumped on the crook and held him until police could apprehend him. A witness, Frederick Keppel, offered to write a letter testifying that it was the newsboy who detained Fay.
On April 1 the boy walked into the Mayor’s office with Keppel’s letter. Mayor Hugh J. Grant listened to Coleman’s story and read the detailed account provided by the well-respected Keppel, a picture frame dealer with the fashionable address of No. 4 East 39th Street.
And then he sent the boy away. “The Mayor told Coleman that the distribution of the $17,000 reward offered for Fay is not in his hands, and that he did not see how he could help him in any way.”
Two weeks later a little joy arrived at the Industrial School (which now accepted girls) in the form of 13 postcards sent from Egypt by one of the facility’s fondest supporters, Theodore Roosevelt. The Times said on April 16, “The Roosevelts have been interested in the activities of the Children’s Aid Society for three generations. When he was Vice President the Colonel delighted the boys of one of the lodging houses by passing ice cream and cake at one of its entertainments.”
As Roosevelt laid plans for his international trip in the fall of 1909, the class had sent birthday wishes to him that included good wishes for a “pleasant journey” and one boy added that he hoped “that you will come back and be our next President.”
The Times said the boys had followed Roosevelt’s movements through “dispatches in the local Italian newspapers.” Now, with the arrival of the picture postcards and a sheet of Cairo Hotel stationery with the message “With all good wishes for my friends, both teachers and pupils,” the children were elated.
“The proudest children in New York today are the Italian boys and girls of Class 3A,” said The Times. The article added “The postcard will be famed and hung in one of the places of honor in the east side school’s gallery.”
Some of the indigent boys saw the United States’ entry into World War I as one way to improve their lot. Military service, of course, did not always end well. On August 13, 1918 Joseph E. Becker, who could only list the Lodging House as his address, was included on the War Department’s Casualty List as “severely wounded.”
The trend continued even after the war. In 1922, by which time the name of the facility had been changed to the Brace Memorial Newsboys’ House, 105 boys had enlisted in military service. The number of boys sheltered and fed that year was 1,341. That year President Warren G. Harding sent an autographed photograph inscribed “To the Brace Memorial Newsboys’ House, with cordial greetings from one who knows the sterling stuff from which real boys are made.”
In 1925 the Childrens’ Aid Society discontinued the Lodging House; converting the structure to the Kips Bay Boys’ Club in an effort to provide safe recreation space for boys living in the surrounding tenements. The renovated structure provided “facilities for 1,500 boys, with a gymnasium, game rooms, library, showers and clubrooms.”
It would be a short-lived endeavor here, however. Four years later the Society sold the building as a modern Kips Bay Boys’ Clubhouse was planned. The venerable Vaux & Redford structure was demolished, replaced with a playground which in turn made way for the 1964 Olympia House apartment building.