Monday, August 28, 2023

The Lost Dept. of Charities and Corrections Building - 66-72 Third Avenue


The one-story stable to the rear was used to house ambulances.  image from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York.

The arm of the New York City government that would become the Department of Charities and Corrections and eventually the Department of Public Welfare began in 1734 when the Common Council recognized the need to care for the indigent.  Gradually the Workhouse, the Almshouse, and Bellevue Hospital were erected.  The city purchased Blackwell's Island in 1828 as the site of a penitentiary and lunatic asylum.  Ward's Island, acquired in 1850, provided a "poor farm," where impoverished New Yorkers worked off their sentences for the crime of being poor.

In 1860, with a tidal wave of immigrants pouring into New York Harbor, the Department of Charities and Corrections was formed.  It oversaw the operations of the institutions on the three islands that now included the almshouse, a children's and an adult hospital, an enlarged lunatic asylum, a workhouse, and an infants hospital and nurseries.  The Department was also in charge of the Soldier's Home, several trade schools, the Inebriate Asylum, hospitals for "incurables" and epileptics, and a penitentiary.

On June 2, 1867, the New York Dispatch reported that the city had appropriated $100,000 "for purchasing a site and erecting a building for the use of the Department of Public Charities and Correction."  The figure would translate to $2 million in 2023.  The northwest corner of Third Avenue and 11th Street was acquired and the architectural firm of Renwick & Sands was commissioned to design an administration building on the site.  The project was handled directly by James Renwick, Jr., who had designed the city's Charity Hospital on Roosevelt Island in 1858.

Construction was begun in 1868 and completed in 1869.  Designed in the relatively new Second Empire style, the two-story structure was entered both on Third Avenue and on East 11th Street.  (The side entrance was used by the poor applying for public assistance.)  The first floor, faced in "patent building blocks in two tints" according to the building permit, featured Corinthian pilasters and elliptically arched windows under substantial lintels.  The top floor took the form of a steep, elaborate mansard straight from Paris, with ornate volutes at the sides of the openings, and intricately carved pediments.  Lacy iron cresting finished the design.

from the collection of the New York Public Library

Not everyone was pleased with Renwick's design.  The New York Times decried "the cumbrous style of the roof," and advised, "with one or two more stories it would be a handsome structure instead of the costly looking barn one might mistake it for at first sight."

The interiors were trimmed in black walnut, and boasted handsome details like polished granite columns.  Meeting rooms and the offices of the various sub-departments engulfed most of the building.  The wide scope of the organization's responsibilities was hinted at in the minutes of the Commissioners' meeting of November 12, 1868 that included:

It was ordered that proposals be obtained for furnishing 1,500 tons of coal for the out-door poor during the coming winter.

It was ordered that Keepers on duty at the Tombs Prison shall not leave the prison without the consent previously obtained of the Warden, or, in his absence, of the Clerk.

And on July 18, 1873, The City Record reported that the Department was taking bids for supplying "about 120 Hogs on Blackwell's Island," and for 600 barrels of flour.

Behind the headquarters building was a stable for housing its "sick wagons."  The Department came under fire after Theodore Schimper suffered an accident at the public baths on East Third Street in September 1879.  The New York Herald called the case "of a peculiarly distressing character."  The article said word was received at

...the Charities and Correction Building, at Eleventh street and Third avenue, to send a sick wagon.  Mr. Blake, who was presiding, did so, but the vehicle had to call for two sick women.  When the driver reached the bath, he found that it would not be safe to put Mr. Schimper with them, so he drove to the hospital, where he reported the case, and the Warden at once despatched [sic] one of his ambulances.

Four hours after his accident, Theodore Schimper finally arrived at Bellevue Hospital, where he soon died.

from Illustrated Guide to New York City, 1889 (copyright expired)

As Thanksgiving neared in 1889, The New York Times reported on the startling increase in citizens living on public charity.  "Ten years ago the number was about 10,000, and it has grown with the population of the city," said the article.  "Many people unable to secure work cause themselves to be committed [to the almshouse] and afterward escape."  Despite the numbers, the Department of Charities and Corrections was prepared to supply the poor with Thanksgiving poultry.  That year it purchased and distributed 14,485 pounds of chicken and 3,975 pounds of turkey.

A reporter from The Evening World spent the morning of May 3, 1888 with Superintendent Blake in the cavernous interviewing room where applicants sought relief.  He noted the room was "remarkable particularly for its height."  Around the room were benches, filled with an array of people.

The settees about the room were occupied by men, women and children, clean and unclean, respectable and otherwise, sick, lame, blind, in tears or smiles, of various nationalities and of all degrees of poverty.  They were waiting their turn to be brought before the Superintendent to make known their wants.

The reporter described one-by-one the long line of applicants, starting with "an aged tramp."  He explained, "There was no mistaking the fact that he was a tramp.  His hair and beard were almost white, and his rags hung about his thin form...A torn and soiled broad-brimmed hat sat on his head and his extensive feet were inclosed [sic] in apologies for shoes."

"I want to go to the island," he told the superintendent, referring to the almshouse.

"Have you any home or friends?"


"Any money?"


"He thanked the Superintendent when he was told that he was a fitting candidate for the almshouse," said the article.

Several of the requests were heart-rending.  A woman with an 18-year-old son suffering with "brain fever" asked that he be admitted to a hospital.  "Her request is granted."  Another woman explained, "My husband, sir, has deserted me.  I have no friends or a home, and what's worse, no money.  I have a boy seven years old and a baby girl.  Can't we get a place to sleep and something to eat?"

After asking a few details about he husband, the superintendent said, "Don't you worry one bit, madam, you and your children will be taken care of."

The desperate condition of some indigent New Yorkers was evidenced in one man's plea on January 26, 1895 to be sent back to his native Colorado.  The New-York Tribune quoted him, "I can starve to death easier and with more comfort in Colorado than in New-York.  Send me there, and I won't bother you again."  The article said, "The board sent the pauper alien home," adding somewhat coldly, "New-York has enough resident paupers of its own without calling in the poor of other lands, and the act of returning the impoverished Westerner was purely one of economy."

The fact was, however, that the Department of Charities and Corrections, was over-stretched.  Each day 700 applicants "representing every hue and shade of poverty and distress" arrived at the East 11th Street door.  The New-York Tribune said, "This winter has brought some 30,000 or 40,000 men, women and children face to face with starvation."

In 1902 renovations were made to the building to accommodate the Children's Court.  But the aging structure was already over-taxed.  On June 4, 1909 a letter of protest "against the inadequate surroundings" was sent to Mayor George B. McClellan by the president of the Children's Society.  John D. Linsday said in part that the atmosphere was at times "almost unbearable," and called the conditions "shameful."

The city sold 66-72 Third Avenue in 1917.  The mansard roof was lopped off, the interiors gutted, and James Renwick, Jr.'s once-proud structure converted to a garage, with yawning vehicle bays installed where the entrances had been.

image via the NYC Dept of Records & Information Services.

The vandalized Department of Charities and Corrections Building survived until 1989 when owner Charles Re leased the property to Loew's Theater Management.  On September 17, The New York Times reported, "A Loew's spokesman said demolition will begin this month to replace the building with a seven-screen movie complex."

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