Henry Bergh was an impassioned reformer who caused the closure of Christopher Burns's notorious Sportsmen's Hall in 1870, and berated the wax figures of the Eden Musee on West 23rd Street as "demoralizing." The highly-publicized case of an orphan girl in April 1874 prompted Bergh to establish a protective agency for children. With attorney Elbridge T. Gerry and philanthropist John D. Wright, he founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children that year. Its announced mission was "to respond to the complex needs of abused and neglected children, and those involved in their care, by providing best practice counseling, legal, and educational services."
On March 30, 1880 the society purchased the four-story brownstone house at the southeast corner of 23rd Street and Fourth Avenue (later Park Avenue South), from Henry G. Davis for $43,000--just over $1 million in 2022. It served as the society's offices and temporary housing for abused or abandoned children. Eight years later, on April 14, 1888, the Real Estate Record & Guide reported that the society had purchased the house next door, at 102 East 23rd Street, for $45,000. Builder G. W. Patterson was hired to "alter walls" in the two former residences.
But even the expanded facilities were quickly outgrown. In 1889 the Gerry Society, as it had become known to most New Yorkers, had "received and investigated 6,802 complaints, prosecuted 2,364 cases, and secured 2,331 convictions, while 3,271 children were rescued and relieved," according to The New York Times on February 5, 1890. Those children were temporarily housed in the East 23rd Street houses.
Being "rescued and relieved" was, in itself, not necessarily pleasant. The New York Times explained that of those 3,271 children:
...22 were provided with houses or situations [i.e., work as domestics], 167 who had been lost or stolen were restored to parents or guardians, 126 were sent to the American Female Guardian Society, 215 to the hospital and nursery on Randall's Island, 130 to the Dominican Convent, 105 to the Five Points House of Industry, 302 to the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, 328 to the Missionary Sisters, 506 to the New-York Catholic Protectory, 300 to the New-York Juvenile Asylum, 192 to St. Joseph's Asylum, 82 to the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, 140 to the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society, 26 to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, and others to various institutions.
On February 20, 1892, the society's building committee approved the plans submitted by Renwick, Aspinwall & Renwick for a substantial building on the site of the brownstones. Construction began on April 1 and was completed before the end of the year at a cost of $200,000 (about $6.14 million today). Engulfing the footprint of the two houses and rear yards, it ran 50 feet along West 23rd Street and 100 feet on Fourth Avenue, where the main entrance would be located.
The architects gave the Renaissance Revival style building a two-story base of "Westerly granite," as described by The New York Times. The upper four floors were clad in buff colored Roman brick. The New York Times explained, "The whole building will be extremely plain on the outside, with the idea of saving as much as possible of the building fund for securing interior conveniences and the latest modern appliances." Among those conveniences were two elevators--a passenger and a freight.
A store for extra income was installed on the 23rd Street corner. On the ground floor was a reception room "for persons making complaints or seeking information," baths and receiving rooms for arriving children, and the offices. The entire second floor was "given up to the Superintendent and matron," according to The New York Times on February 21, 1892. "Here they will have their parlor and living rooms." The third floor held the dining room (with seating for 100), and play areas, "so arranged that folding doors can shut off the more depraved and vicious from the as yet innocent little ones."
The original plans had called for a six-story structure, but during construction two additional floors were added. Now the girls' dormitory occupied the fourth floor, and the boys' was on the fifth. Also on the fifth floor would be the infirmary. The top floor held the kitchen, laundry, servants' quarters and storerooms. The roof was partially covered to provide for a playground.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children not only received abused and abandoned youths, but delinquents. The New York Times noted, "All the children arrested in the city for one cause or another will then be given over to its charge." The new building could accommodate the temporary housing of 125 children.
A concession to the "extremely plain" facade, as originally projected by The New York Times, were the handsome terra cotta plaques on the seventh floor. Those at the corners and ends depict young girls, encircled by wreaths. The others are of figure-eight-shaped garlands.
The dismal lives of the children were brightened twice a year, on Christmas and Thanksgiving. The society depended greatly on donations, and was supported by several women of high social standing. Among those in charge of arranging the Thanksgiving dinner of 1917 were Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Sr., Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., Mrs. Mortimer L. Schiff, Miss Mary Choate and Mrs. Robert L. Gerry. Given the massive fortunes of those families, it may have surprised subscribers of The Evening Post to read on November 28, "Children in the custody of the Children's Society will have a chicken dinner tomorrow in the Society's rooms...For the first time in years it was decided, because of the high price of turkey, to substitute chicken for turkey."
In December 1919 the financial secretary, E. J. Craine, explained to a journalist from the New-York Tribune, "In their short lives Christmas has meant almost nothing to these little ones. Few of them have either father or mother; their homes have been cold and sordid, and many of them will carry all their lives scars from the cruel and inhuman treatment they have suffered. They cannot know the joy, on a Christmas morning, of rushing breathless in nightclothes to see the wonderous gifts left in their stockings by a loving Santa Claus."
Most of the destitute waifs had never received a Christmas present nor seen a Christmas tree other than through a window. On December 20, 1915, The New York Press reported on the upcoming Christmas party at the society. "Santa Claus has sent word he is coming, and a big tree, lighted with electric lights will be waiting for him. He will bring something for every child...There will also be a magician, a Punch and Judy show and other entertainments for the youngsters."
A mailbox had been set up in the shelter marked "Mail For Santa Claus." On December 21, 200 letters were taken out for New Yorkers to read and fulfill the little writers' wishes. The New-York Tribune printed a few. Among them was:
Dear Santa Claus: I have neither father nor mother and have been in an orphan asylum for the most part of my life. I have heard that you will be around in a few weeks. I love music and would like to have a clarinet, and do please remember that orphan asylum with some toys or some treat that always makes us so happy. Sam.
Another boy did not ask for himself, but only for something for his sister. "I would like you to bring my sister a doll. Hoping to receive the doll, I remain, yours sincerely, John."
In 1920 a new general manager, Colonel Ernest K. Coulter was put in charge. Among his first acts was to sell the $4 million building in July to the American Linseed Co. The Record & Guide reported, "The expansion of the society's work requires enlarged accommodations, and the society will erect a new building for its own use in the neighborhood of the Children's Court." Coulter's actions caused extreme friction among the officers, including some of its wealthiest supporters.
On November 10, 1920, The New York Times reported that the tensions, "which started with a skirmish several months ago over the sale of the old society home...has become more intense over some of the details of management." At a meeting the previous day, seven women resigned, including Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt, Jr., Mrs. Mortimer L. Schiff, Mrs. George Nichols, and Mrs. J. Nelson Borland.
The American Linseed Company hired the architectural firm of M. L. & G. H. Emery to convert the building into offices. The extensive renovations cost the firm the equivalent of $1.2 million today. American Linseed Company did not move into its building, but leased space to various organizations, like the American Association for Organizing Family Social Work, and the Woolen and Dress Goods Merchants Association.
In 1930 United Charities, whose headquarters engulfed the southern half of the block, purchased the building. On March 12, The New York Sun reported, "United Charities now controls the entire east block front of Fourth Avenue from Twenty-second to Twenty-third street."
The structure now filled with agencies like the Council for Women for Home Missions, and the Church Committee on Overseas Relief. One Depression era tenant, the New York Emergency Unemployment Relief Bureau, got more than its fair share of publicity. The facility was formed to "end the misery of the unemployed." But that goal was not so easy to reach.
In January 1931 applicants received a two-line notice from the Bureau that read:
Dear Sirs: The Emergency Work Bureau has over 24,000 men at work. We have reached our quota, and regretfully send notice to all men registered with us that no more jobs can be given either now or later.
Yours truly, Raymond W. Houston
The notice prompted a demonstration in front of the building on February 10.
Another demonstration was held in January 1933 when members of one group realized that the Emergency Relief Bureau catered only to whites. On January 6, The Daily Worker reported, "Six Negroes were granted $10 cash relief immediately and promised jobs in the near future, as a result of a demonstration of the Needle Trades Unemployment Council before the Emergency Relief Bureau at 297 Fourth Avenue."
Throughout the 1940's the building was home to several religious-based groups, like the World Council of Churches, and the Federal Council of Churches. In 1950 Fourth Avenue was renamed Park Avenue South. The 1960's saw the National Cystic Fibrosis Research headquarters and the Association for Homemaker Service, Inc. move in. The latter was a non-profit agency that placed "homemakers" with families. On February 23, 1963, for instance, the Amsterdam News noted, "Two weeks after it started, it had two homemakers in two homes fulfilling the role of the mothers in these families, both mothers being confined at the hospital."
By the early 1970's, the building was known as the Social Service Exchange Building. In March 1973 the newly-formed Council On Economic Development and Empowerment for Black People took space, and in 1976 the Commission for Racial Justice had offices here.
Change came in 1983 when the upper floors were converted to residential space. The building, now known as Park 23, took the new address of 275 Park Avenue South and contains 179 rental apartments.
photograph by the author
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