Monday, June 11, 2018

The Lost New York House of Refuge - 5th Avenue and Broadway

The institution grounds sat above the X that would be formed by the crossing of Fifth Avenue and Broadway later.  Valentine's Manual, (copyright expired)

In 1806 the United States Arsenal was erected near the junction of the Bloomingdale and Old Post Roads.  It would be several decades before the northern tide of the city would reach this far.   The two-story frame building was, according to the General Government "for the purpose of an arsenal and deposit of military stores."   When the War of 1812 erupted the Arsenal was converted to a barracks.

The reconfigured barracks building as it appeared when the Society moved in. Our Police Protectors, 1885 (copyright expired)

In 1824 the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents was formed.  New York State law treated juvenile delinquency as a crime; however the wealthy men who formed the Society felt that reformation was a better option than incarceration.  What the wayward youth needed was religious instruction, industrial training and sufficient food.

After the military facility was moved to Castle William, the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents paid paid $6,000 for the barracks--about $157,000 today--along with the triangular plot of land in front formed by the junctions of the roads.   According to the authors of the 1918 The New York Tombs: Its Secrets and its Mysteries, "This location was then far out of town, in the midst of a rich farming district.  It consisted of about four acres."

Two stone-faced wings were added as well as a significant deterrent to escape.  The Society's report said "A more convenient or eligible situation could not probably have been selected.  The lot of ground, 320 feet by 300, is enclosed by a stone wall 17 feet in height, and more than two feet thick."

The New York House of Refuge was opened on January 1, 1825.  The New York Tombs: Its Secrets and its Mysteries wrote "The inmates consisted of six girls and three boys, who had been brought in by the police.  This proportion would seem to establish the fact that the women are twice as bad as the sterner sex, although we are too gallant to believe it."

The opening ceremonies included an address by District Attorney Hugh Maxwell.  He returned to the facility ten months later to check on its work.  He announced in October 1825 "I am happy to state that the House of Refuge has had a most benign influence in diminishing the number of juvenile delinquents.  The most depraved boys have been withdrawn from the haunts of vice, and the effect of the examples set them has in a great degree been destroyed."

from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

One wing housed boys, the other was for girls.  The Society report stressed "there is no communication between them."  Only children between the ages of 6 and 16 were accepted.

The first floor of  the "Boys' Refuge" included a dining room, common hall, superintendent's office and tailor's and shoemaker's shops.  On the second story were the hospital and dormitories.  The 132 separate rooms were not for the claustrophobic--measuring 312 by 7 feet.  Two open aisles, 10 by 110 feet, were used as classrooms, furnished with desks and benches.  The Society noted "In school the older and more vicious boys are separated from the younger and more innocent, and a kindergarten is maintained for the younger boys."

The report said "The Girls' Refuge is finished in a superior manner to that for the Boys."  On the first floor were the kitchen, dining room and work rooms, as well as "a neat Parlor and Chamber for the Matron, a Committee Room, and a Laundry."  At the south end was the chapel, large enough to accommodate "140 boys, 70 girls, and 300 visitors."  The girls had their own hospital.  There were half as many dormitory rooms on the second floor than in the boys' wing.

On the grounds was a two-story stone house for the superintendent and his family, and a brick house for the Assistant Keeper and his family.  Boys were put to work in several other buildings where they not only learned a trade, but provided income for the institution.  Contractors paid for the labor of the boys, provided the material and the instructors, while staff from the House were placed in each shop "to maintain discipline."

The two story "Work-House" was where 40 boys were employed making chairs.  A single-story wooden building where 30 boys worked making brass nails and saddlery was connected to a foundry building.  The girls worked within the main building.  "The principal industries here are sewing and laundry work," according to the Society report.

Other outbuildings included a wooden bakery and storehouse building, and a combined stable and carriage house.  The report noted "A part of the ground is laid out into kitchen and flower gardens, grass plots and gravel walks.  There are four wells on the premises, of excellent soft water.  Adjoining the south wall, the Society occupies an angular piece of ground, containing about one acre as a pasture."

Cows graze in the pasture at the south portion of the grounds.  Our Police Protectors, 1885 (copyright expired)
The boys and girls who lived within the 17-foot walls may have had a differing opinion to the report's assertion "The whole aspect of the establishment is cheerful and comfortable, and it has little or none of the appearance of a prison."

Eliza Bailey, who arrived at the House of Refuge in 1836, was a typical case.  The Herald reported on January 7, "Eliza Bailey, a mild simple looking girl, was charged with stealing at various times from Mrs. L. St. John, No. 202 Broadway, money to the amount of eighty dollars and clothing valued at twenty more.  She confessed to the theft, but declared there was not as much money as was stated in the indictment."

Edward Pirnie arrived a week later.  The Herald reported on January 14 "Wm. Brown, alias 'Rise and Flutter,' Edward Pirnie, alias Prine, John Harvey, and Joseph Lawrence alias Portuguese Joe, were charged with burglary in the third degree, in breaking into the house of Mr. Walter B. Townsend, No. 33 Madison street."  The boys made off with $14 in silverware and other articles.  They were all found guilty, "But Edward Prine was sent to the house of refuge until he could be sent to sea, being only 16 years of age."

Being "sent to sea" was the common means of solving the problem of repeat offenders.  Teen-aged crooks and incorrigibles were indentured on sailing ships.  The theory was that they would turn to a career as sailors rather than crime.  The convenient truth was that the practice got rid of a menace.  Boys at the House of Refuge who did not successfully learn a trade or were otherwise unfit for society were sent to sea upon reaching the age of 17.

Tragically, the children who ended up in the courts and subsequently in the House of Refuge were most often victims of a cruel accident of birth.  Born into poverty and often neglected or abandoned, they had little recourse other than crime.

A pitiful example came to light in the summer of 1838.  On August 1 the Morning Herald reported "Two little girls of the age of scarcely nine years, were arraigned for stealing a basket of clothing from the side walk at Washington market.  It appeared in the course of the investigation that the step father of the children compelled them to go about town and steal whatever they could lay their hands upon; and in the default of their bringing plunder home at the close of the day, the infernal monster would scourge them with ratans over the naked flesh until the blood followed the lash."

The girls' story was confirmed by scars and recent wounds.  The article said "The Court very mercifully committed the children to the custody of the keeper of the House of Refuge, which, by the by, is one of the most benevolent institutions in the United States."

The following year the House of Refuge burned.  A new location was procured on East 23rd Street at the river until a substantial new facility was built on Randall's Island in 1854.

In the meantime, the Old Post Road was closed on April 27, 1844 and the following year Fifth Avenue was extended from 23rd to 28th Street.  The Bloomingdale Road, or Broadway, was straightened, and no remnant of the extensive House of Refuge grounds remained.  Today the grave and monument of General William Jenkins Worth sits directly above the site of the building.

The House of Refuge sat where the obelisk marking the grave of General Worth (center) is today.  from the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

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