Saturday, August 10, 2019

The St. Francis Mission - 448 West 56th Street

At the turn of the last century the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood on Manhattan's west side was impoverished, dangerous, and crime ridden.  Boys who grew up in the iniquitous environment of saloons and tenements had little hope of a brighter future.  But the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin had other ideas.

Rev. John C. Drumgoole had founded the mission at Mount Loretto on Staten Island around 1870, deemed by The New-York Tribune to be "a home for friendless children."  Ten years later it erected a Manhattan branch, the St. Joseph's Home, on Lafayette Place.

Now, on March 2, 1901, Amos F. Eno sold No. 448 West 56th Street to the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin for the Protection of Homeless and Destitute Children.  The New York Times placed the cost of the property at $12,000, or about $366,000 in today's terms.  The following day the New-York Tribune reported "A home for poor boys will be erected by the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin on the south side of Fifty-sixth-st., near Tenth-ave."

Within two weeks the architectural firm of Schickel & Ditmars filed plans for a "brick and stone club-house and home for boys."  Completed in 1903, their Beaux Arts style structure smacked of a handsome, neighborhood library with its rusticated limestone base and portico and upper stories faced in red brick.  

The architects placed iron balconettes before the second story French-style windows.  Decorative stone lintels wore molded cornices supported by scrolled keystones and short, fluted pilasters.  The high third story windows terminated in arched transoms below graceful stone lintels and keystones.  A pressed metal cornice with foliate brackets crowned the design.

Technically named the St. Francis Branch of the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, the new venue was routinely called the St. Francis Mission.  Its managers understood that the best means of luring young boys from the temptations of liquor, gambling and crime was sports.   Teams were immediately formed that competed with other boys' clubs throughout the city.  On June 27, 1904, for instance, The Globe and Commercial Advertiser announced "St. Francis's baseball teams, seniors and juniors, would like to arrange games for Sunday afternoons in July ad August.  Seniors, age fifteen to eighteen years; juniors, twelve to fifteen years.  Address E. J. Delaney, manager, 488 West Fifty-sixth street."

The mission did not forget the adults in the neighborhood.  Routinely evening lectures and entertainments were held for the tenement families who had little other such opportunities.  But one such evening nearly had a disastrous ending.

On April 26, 1904 about 500 persons, described by the New-York Tribune as "mostly women and children" were "watching an amateur vaudeville performance, when a stage curtain caught fire from a gas jet."  

Andrew Martin, who was playing a comic tramp, had just appeared on the stage when the curtain started burning.  With commendable calmness, he continued his dancing and cavorting in an effort to prevent panic.  The newspaper said "He kept up his antics, though the flames were licking up the woodwork on the side of the stage.  He danced to where a hand fire extinguisher was kept, seized it, and danced back, singing his topical song."

In the meantime, Father Fitzpatrick, the assistant priest, leaped to the stage and "in loud tones had assured the audience that there was no danger."  While Martin sprayed the fire with the extinguisher, the pianist, Fred Bentz, began playing the popular tune "Bedelia."  The Tribune reported that it worked, saying "the people kept step in marching out of the hall."

The potential of a panicked throng injuring dozens was averted and the fire did only about $25 in damages, less than $1,000 today.

The topics of the free lectures makes one wonder how many of the poorly-educated locals attended.  On December 15, 1905, for instance, John F. Dobbs gave an illustrated lecture on "Paper Making from Forest to Press;" and in February 1906 J. Clint Wiseman spoke on "The Life of the Esquimaus."  Later that month a more generally appealing topic was Howard E. Parker's "The Battle of Gettysburg."

But it was sports that dominated the building.  Its basketball court was the scene of the opening game in the "basket ball tournament for the championship of the Catholic Athletic League" on January 11, 1907.  The New York Times reported that the St. Francis Mission boys had "handily" defeated the Paulist Athletic Club.

Within the year the Catholic Archdiocese took over the 56th Street operation for the newly-formed Ozaman Association.  Founded by Thomas M. Mulry, president of the Irish Imigrant's Bank, he envisioned "a chain of boys' clubs located in New York City, which would be sufficiently attractive to the rising generation to draw them into the club rooms from the streets and more unattractive surroundings."

On July 15 1908 Archbishop John M. Farley wrote to Mulry advising that he was fully behind the project.  "The formation of a society such as you have in mind under the patronage of the exemplary and the saintly Ozanam is bound to accomplish much good, and will carry with it God's choicest benedictions."  

Three months later the October issue of Catholic World reported "The Association has acquired the Club House, which was founded by the priests of Father Drumgoole's Mission, in West 56th Street."  The building, said the article, would "be made over the by Association into model and attractive club rooms for the boys."  Included in Mulry's plans was were gymnasium and "baths," and "competent physical directors [were] to be in charge."

The reorganized clubhouse focused almost entirely on sports and athletics.  By 1908 there were three more Ozanam clubhouses, earning No. 448 the distinction of Ozanam #1.  In his article entitled "The Friend of the Poor," in the November 1912 issue of The Common Cause, John D. Tibbits explained the clubs' incentive and described the activities.

It is a well known fact that the period of a boy's life from the time he leaves school until he becomes of age, is fraught with many and grave dangers.  the lines of least resistance he naturally follows lead him almost invariably to places and companions which contribute to lower if not to altogether destroy the ideals of his younger days.  As an offset to these conditions the Ozanam Association was formed in the year 1908.

He listed among the various activities "athletics, instruction, music, games, reading rooms, lectures, baths, and with them all an atmosphere both morally and physically uplifting."

The undefeated Ozanam #1 basketball team in 1912.  The Common Cause, November 1912 (copyright expired)
The teams of the Ozanam Club were trained well and routinely excelled.  On August 31, 1913 The New York Press reported that the "Ozanam Medios have won twenty-one games, with three defeats, at the hands of much heavier teams."  The article passingly mentioned another fact--one which would raise eyebrows today, especially given the Roman Catholic backing of the teams.  "Games to be played at Van Cortlandt Park, diamond No. 2, for a side bet of $5 or $10 and a league ball."  That information had been supplied by P. J. Hynes of the 56th Street clubhouse.

Betting was not a one-time incident.  On April 18, 1915 The New York Press reported "The Ozanam baseball team is offering its services to all the fastest teams in and around the city for side bets and inducements."

On occasion girls were allowed inside the 56th Street building.  On February 13, 1920, for instance, The Evening World reported "At the Ozanam Club No. 1, to-morrow evening the home team will cross nets with the Sagamore Five.  As the Ozanam boys have been setting a fast pace in their last few games a good contest is expected.  Dancing will precede and follow the game."

By the time of that article the proficient trainers of the club were transforming a few of the boys from the street into world-class athletes.  That summer boxer Frank Cassidy went to the Olympics in Antwerp.  He made it as far as the quarterfinals before being eliminated by Gotfred Johansen of Denmark.

The following year, on May 10, The Evening World reported on the boxing tournament held in the 71st Regiment Armory to benefit wounded and disabled veterans.   It was attended by the working class and the wealthy; the newspaper noting it "drew patronage from Blue Book and City Directory alike."  Among the competitors that night was the Ozanam Club's Joe Garvey.  He was, said the article, "a finalist in the metropolitan and State championships."

By the Depression years the clubhouse had been taken over by the Catholic Youth Association, which renamed it the Catholic Boys' Club.  The focus on sports and boxing did not change; a fact made clear in 1935.  On May 17 the Peekskill Evening Star reported that Joseph Burke had been appointed director of the 56th Street club.  In addition to listing his academic and professional achievements, the article added "Burke's main hobby is boxing, a sport in which he is quite proficient.  He trained under Arthur Donovan, well known New York referee, though the assistance of 'Bill' Brown, Boxing Commissioner of New York State."

A new sport had been introduced by 1936.  On November 4 The New York Post announced "The last meeting of the Catholic Youth Association Roller Hockey League representatives prior to the beginning of the annual tournament will be held tomorrow night at the C. Y. A. Center, 448 West Fifty-sixth Street."

But the main event continued to be boxing.  Following a week of "rigorous training" at Camp Hayes in upstate New York, in June 1936, the boys returned to Hell's Kitchen where The Herald Statesmen reported they "will start an intensive training grind at the C. Y. A. Training Center, 448 West 56th Street" before heading to a Chicago tournament at Soldier Field."

Hell's Kitchen remained a gritty neighborhood throughout the first half of the 20th century.  But it was discovered in the last quarter by New Yorkers seeking less expensive housing and then by developers.  Corner stores and mom-and-pop shops were one-by-one replaced by boutiques and trendy restaurants.  The need for a boys' club to rescue youth from the sinful lures of the streets ebbed.

Around 1995 the building became home in part to the High School for Environmental Studies, and the administration offices of ReStart Academy, an alternative education program across the city that provides "transitional services for students ages 13 through 21 who reside in temporary or involuntary settings," according to its website.

Little changed on the exterior, and the vintage structure was placed on the LPC's list of Landmarks Under Consideration in 2009.

photograph by the author

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