Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Noble Remnants - Leake & Watts Orphan Asylum - Amsterdam Ave and 112th Street

photo by Helena Kubicka de Braganca, via

When attorney John George Leake died on June 2, 1827 at the age of 75, he left a significant fortune (more than $9.75 million today).   With no children nor close relatives, Leake left the entire estate to Robert Watts, the son of his best friend, with the stipulation that the young man would change his surname to Leake.  He did so, but died intestate only a few months later.  The Leake inheritance now passed to Robert's father, John Watts, as next of kin.  However, given the circumstances, Watts was uncomfortable accepting the unintended windfall.

Found among Leake's papers was an unsigned draft of an earlier will which left funds to create an orphanage.  John Watts was named in that draft as its administrator.  The courts granted Watts's petition to use Leake's estate to establish the institution, which was incorporated in 1831.

On January 16, 1838 the State Assembly unanimously passed a bill "to vest in the trustees of the Leake and Watt's Orphan House of New York, the escheated estate of Mr. Leake."   The state had liquidated 2,236 acres of Leake's real estate upstate, the $8,000 net (a little under a quarter of a million dollars today) being added to the coffers of the institution.

According to the Morning Herald, during the process one Assemblyman, a Mr. Wardell, "showed himself the warm friend of the orphan and hoped that every man's feelings would prompt him to do at one an act of justice too long delayed."   He ended his speech saying "I am glad to see the Assembly awake to this subject.  Let it be our pride to verify the old Greek maxim: 'The Orphan--first and last in our hearts.'"

The trustees of the Leake & Watts Orphan Asylum (or, sometimes, the Orphan House) chose Ithiel Town to design its facility, far north of the city in what was known as Manhattanville.  Among the preeminent architects of the period, Town was an early proponent of the Greek Revival style, as evidenced in his 1829 temple-like Church of the Ascension on Canal Street.

The grounds of the asylum engulfed 50-acres in the area that today would roughly be Amsterdam Avenue to Morningside Drive, and from 109th to 113th Street.  Even while the building rose, the orphanage began functioning.  Vegetable gardens not only taught boys important skills, but provided the institution with food.   The asylum's gardens got a surprise gift of fertilizer in November 1839.

In its meeting on November 18 the Board of Aldermen voted "In favor of giving 250 loads of street manure to the Leake and Watt Orphan Asylum."  It was, perhaps, not so gracious a gift as it might appear on the surface.  Thousands of horses filled New York City streets with manure, keeping cleaners busy all day, every day.  The Aldermen were no doubt happy to get rid of at least some of it.

The building was completed and formally opened in 1843.  Thiel had created a classic Greek temple faced in red brick, flanked by two projecting wings.  The monumental Ionic columns, which appeared to be marble, were in fact plaster-covered brick.  The majestic structure, which a traveler might mistake for a major civic building, commanded an imposing presence atop the hill in the rolling green countryside.

The resplendent structure appeared in a guidebook around 1861.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
The dormitories were on the second and third floors.  Each bed in the second floor rooms were shared by two children.  "The others are not so greatly crowded," commented The Times.  The dining room was situated in one of the wings; school rooms were in another.  The facility admitted children between the ages of three and twelve only.

A one-line notice from Albany appeared in The New York Herald on March 21, 1847.  "The bill authorizing the Trustee of the Leaks and Watt Orphan House to bind out the orphans as apprentices in other States, was passed."  The innocuous-sounding practice would be heavily criticized decades later.

"Binding out" the boys was, in fact, indenturing them to farmers, factory owners, and the like.  Paid only in shelter and food, they were essentially slave workers.  While some boys were well taken care of and welcomed nearly as a family member; others were cruelly used.

Two weeks earlier the institution had proudly reported "There has been but one death in the Asylum during the last year."  That figure was, in fact, quite impressive among similar facilities in 1847.

Later that year President James K. Polk passed by the orphanage on his way to see the engineering marvel, the High Bridge aqueduct, which was nearing completion.  Word had reached the institution weeks earlier and the excited children were ready.  On June 27 a reporter  wrote "As we approached the Leake and Watts Orphan House, we observed about an hundred of the children, boys, awaiting our approach, and as the President's carriage came up, they raised their tiny voices in three cheers."   The President did not disappoint the boys.  He ordered his driver to stop, "and addressed a few words to them...and then we went again."

Eight years later 136 of the orphans got a special treat.  They went on what today would be termed a "field trip" to the nearly-opened Crystal Palace on the site of today's Bryant Park.  On September 25, 1855 the Crystal Palace was closed to the general public  A "special holiday" was held for 1,719 children from missions, orphanages, trade schools and similar institutions.  The New York Times reported "The Leake and Watts Orphans were nearly of a size--comely and well-behaved."

In 1892 the area around the former orphanage was still undeveloped.  The cross had been erected a year earlier when the Episcopal Church purchased the property.  from the collection of the New York Public Library
In 1861 the orphanage was at the center of a horrifying tragedy and scandal.  In 1859 24-year old Mary Dunlop had arrived in New York from Scotland.  She was taken in by the family of her uncle, Hugh McAlpine, a blacksmith.  Six months later she was hired at the asylum as a seamstress, and, according to The New York Times, "her character for virtue does not seem to have been questioned."

On Friday, September 6, 1861 Mary fell ill.  After being sick for a few days, she confided in a co-worker that all was not well at home.  The Times said "she made confessions to one of her associates, charging her uncle with having abused her and caused her ruin."  Hugh McAlpine had not only sexually assaulted her, he had impregnated her.

Mary's sickness was the result of an attempted abortion.  The New-York Daily Tribune later reported "Mrs. Guest testified that she, having heard what was wrong with the girl, determined that she must leave the [asylum], and advised her to go to the Bellevue Hospital, but she preferred to go home to her uncle's house."   Mary died there on September 15.

The family made rapid preparations for a funeral to be held the following morning but officials stepped in.  "Just prior to the removal of the remains, some members of the Police took charge of them, by order of Coroner Schirmer," reported The Times.  Everyone involved scrambled to clear his name.

Dr. Norval, who had attended Mary in the Hudson Street house, had listed the cause of death as "disease of the heart," although the coroner's examiner "found undoubted evidence that death had resulted from the cause stated," reported The New York Times, delicately avoiding the term "abortion."

At the coroner's inquest Mary's co-workers told everything they knew about sordid circumstances leading up to Mary's death.  Shockingly today, no one was held responsible.  The Times described McAlpine as "bearing a good reputation," and The New-York Daily Tribune reported "A strong effort was made by way of hearsay testimony, on the part of the Orphan School witnesses, to prove that the uncle of the deceased had seduced her, but there being no testimony bearing on the abortion, the Jury rendered the following verdict: 'Metro-peritonitis supervening upon abortion, induced in a manner unknown to this Jury.'"

Around 1869 the Asylum sold off a large part of its property, realizing $1 million in the sale, more than 18 times that much today.  Although it foreshadowed the development of Morningside Heights; there were still only three major structures in the area at the time.  As late as 1879 The Sun wrote "That large columned building on the heights at 110th street is the Leak [sic] & Watts Orphan Asylum.  North from it that spacious and well-preserved frame, buff-colored, old, but comely fashioned, is the 'De Puyster Mansion.'  Over the heights, at about 114th street, is a glimpse of the Bloomingdale Asylum."

photo by E. P. MacFarland, May 10, 1934, from the collection of the Library of Congress.
One of the indentured orphans was Charlie Harper.  He had been sent here by his relatives following his parents' death in the mid 1870's.  In August 1878 the asylum "bound him out to David Terry, a farmer at Southampton, Long Island," according to The New York Times.  But in December the 13-year old escaped, hopping a freight train back to the city.  He made his way back to the asylum, and hid in a barn.

"There he lay concealed for two weeks," reported The Times on January 25, "and was supplied with food by the other inmates of the institution.  This would not last long, however, and yesterday afternoon Charlie was handed over to Officer Connolly, who took him to the Harlem Police Court."

A glimmer of hope was sparked when Judge Bixby listened to the boy's story and seemed genuinely interested.  He asked Charlie if he had any relatives, and was told that he had an uncle and two sisters in New York City.  Bixby next asked if they "took any interest in his welfare."  Charlie admitted that he doubted they did.  It was not the answer the judge hoped for and the boy was, at least temporarily, jailed.  "The magistrate locked him up until he could have an opportunity of communicating with them."

When a scourge of typhoid fever broke out in the Deaf and Dumb Asylum in Washington Heights in the winter of 1879, the Sanitary Committee made an inspection of similar institutions.  They were not pleased with the results of their December 1 visit to the Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum.  On one hand, the facility was well run; on the other, its outdated sanitary conditions were deplorable.

The New York Times reported "Only full orphans are admitted to its benefits and there are at the present time 160 children within its walls, all of them apparently well fed and cared for in every particular, save a sanitary one.  The Asylum having stood for twenty-seven years utterly lacks all the modern appliances for ventilation, sewerage, &c., and though it has a magnificent annual income, no effort has been made during those years to improve the sanitary condition of the place."

On each end of the building were two water closets for the little children.  The raw sewage emptied directly into the street.  The article explained "the urine and all the waste water of the house passes into a sink, or cistern, from which it soaks or escapes through a half-choked sewer to One Hundred and Tenth-street, and thence finds its way along the gutter down to the low ground at Eighth-avenue, where it becomes a stagnant pool, or else is gathered into the numerous shallow wells dug about there by the squatters."

Outhouses (or "night-soil closets") for the older orphans were no less offensive.  The Times said they were "of the rudest description--mere surface pits, half the time choked up...They are emptied about every two years, and the excrement made into compost for the adjoining gardens.  They were in a pretty bad condition yesterday, and the effluvia from the stream of sewerage on One Hundred and Tenth-street, was anything but pleasant."

As the city pushed northward in the 1880's it slowly engulfed the once-bucolic district, making it less agreeable as the site of an orphanage.  Simultaneously the Episcopal Church was searching for a site for its proposed cathedral--one that would outdo even the Catholic Church's majestic marble St. Patrick's Cathedral.  On October 15, 1887 the Real Estate Record & Builders' Guide reported that the Church had made an "offer of purchase, more or less formal," for the orphanage land.

On April 22, 1888 the New-York Tribune wrote "Building a cathedral worthy of the site at Morningside Park, and worthy of the city as it will be fifty years from now, is a great project and the trustees are wisely anxious to do nothing in a hurry...The Leake and Watts Orphan Asylum will keep possession of the Morningside Park grounds until the summer of 1889."

The orphanage acquired 33 acres of land overlooking the Hudson River in Yonkers in 1888 and in 1891 the Episcopal Church purchased the Morningside Heights property for $850,000--about $23.6 million today.  The Real Estate Record & Guide pronounced it a "very low price" owing, in part to the trustees being "affiliated with the Episcopal Church."

Construction began on the massive Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, directly behind the orphanage structure.  Over the decades the cathedral grew, eventually butting up against the rear portico.
In October 1924 the wall of the Cathedral edged just feet away from the orphanage's rear portico. from the collection of the New York Public Library
As mid-century approached, it became evident to all that the 1843 structure sat directly in the path of construction.  In 1950 the east wing was demolished.

from the collection of the New-York Historical Society
On December 9, 2004 The New York Times architectural journalist David W. Dunlap called the former orphanage "a landmark in the way of a landmark" and noted "Wary that Leake & Watts would jeopardize their ability to build the south transept, cathedral officials once resisted any talk of preservation.  The columns, stucco over brick, crumbled.  Column capitals and other woodwork rotted away.  The roof leaked.  A lot."

The church was engaging in what preservationists call "demolition by neglect."  But then it changed its mind.  In 2006 it embarked on a $1.5 million restoration which was completed six years later.  Renamed the Town Building in honor of its architect, it currently houses the Cathedral's Textile Conservation Lab and its social service arm, Cathedral Community Cares.

Nevertheless, it does not have landmark designation and sits directly on the intended site of the South Transept.  And in speaking to David Dunlap in 2004 the cathedral dean, the Very Rev. Dr. James A. Kowalski pointed out that "the investment in the Town Building does not signify a retreat from the hope that one day St. John will be completed."

In the meantime, the 175-year-old Greek temple nudges up against the Romanesque-Gothic behemoth; the two architectural masterworks coexisting as uneasy bedfellows.


  1. Tom, thank you for your stellar work on sites throughout the city. This one was particularly interesting.

    1. Really glad you enjoyed it. It is a fascinating juxtaposition and potential conundrum for the Church and preservationists.