Friday, September 15, 2023

The 1967 Grand Street Boys Foundation Building - 131-135 West 56th Street


At the turn of the last century, the Grand Street neighborhood in the Lower East Side was, as recalled by columnist George E. Sokolsky in 1960, "the breeding place for gangsters, gamblers, judges, musicians, successful businessmen, professors of universities, and pickpockets."  What the boys who lived in the environment had in common, said Sokoslky, was that they "all were more or less underprivileged."  In 1916, a group of men who had grown up on or near Grand Street reunited.  Now all successful, their meeting led to an idea--a club that would help boys and young men like they had been.  The Grand Street Boys' Association was soon established.

The club did not discriminate regarding its members.  It was open to men of any religion, social class, or ethnicity.  (Women would eventually be included.)  The wide-ranging goals included, according to the Center for Jewish History, "welfare projects, acts of fellowship and tolerance, scholarships, youth employment, war efforts, and the elimination of discrimination in sports."

In the 1960s, the members recognized that education was a necessary tool to raise impoverished youth from their desperate conditions.  On February 1, 1960 The Times-Union reported that the group had initiated a program to "reward" 100 teachers each year with a gift of $500 as recognition of their dedication and work.  Former Judge Jonah Goldstein, head of the association, explained in part,

We all knew such men and women back in our school days on the East Side of New York.  Few of us, for instance, had English as our home language but it was in the schools that kindly men and women drilled us to know our native tongue and many of us have earned our living because of our knowledge of our native language.

He added, "The gift is not too large, only $500, but considering the inadequate pay of teachers, it helps along."

In 1962 the association targeted students directly.  Jonah Goldstein discovered that some municipal colleges in New York required an 85 passing mark for admittance.  He realized that many bright students were required to work during their after-school hours to help with family finances.  On October 13, writing in The Times-Union, George E. Sokolsky wrote,

Today, there are students who drive taxis over week-ends, who run elevators, and do all sorts of jobs.  It is hard to get an 85 under those circumstances.  Judge Jonah Goldstein realized that much college material was lost because such students, if they had a chance, ought to be able to continue in college.  The Grand Street Boys put up $30,000 to help them to equality of opportunity.

Additionally, Goldstein attacked a Social Security directive.  Orphans received Social Security benefits until the age of 18, at which time it stopped.  Goldstein pointed out two orphans who were making grades of 96, one in bio-chemistry and the other in physics.  When their benefits elapsed, they were forced to drop out of school.  The association's lobbying against the practice was typical of its work.  

Sokolsky ended his article by describing the Grand Street Boys Association as "such an amazing organization of all races, creeds, colors, occupations, successes and failures--men who started at the very bottom and, without shame, reached the top of life."

At the time of the article, the association's headquarters was at 106 West 55th Street.  That building was scheduled for demolition in 1966 to make room for an office building.  The Grand Street Boys Association acquired 131 through 135 West 56th Street, three vintage brownstones that had been converted to an apartment building, in 1935.  The group hired the architectural firm of Charles Luckman Association to design their new clubhouse.

Completed in 1967, it was described by The New York Times as being "Colonial-style."  A 1960's take on Georgian architecture, the six-story structure was faced in running-bond red brick.  Cast metal arched pediments sat above the second floor openings, and brick quoins ran up the sides of the four-story midsection.  A partially balustraded parapet ran along the roofline.  

The new club offered amenities for both its members and the young men it fostered.  On the second floor were an exhibition room, the board room and an office.  The dining room and a lounge engulfed the third floor, while a card room and offices made up the fourth.  A gym, sauna, steam room and barber shop were on the fifth floor and the sixth held meeting rooms and a caretaker's apartment.

Unfortunately, it was not long before the Grand Street Boys Association recognized that it had overstretched itself.  On June 1, 1976, The New York Times reported, "The Grand Street Boys Association, the philanthropic organization that originated on the Lower East Side 56 years ago, has put its seven-year-old midtown clubhouse up for sale for $2 million."  Samuel D. Rosan, the president, explained that "prohibitive annual operating costs of about $140,000" had forced the closing.  The group was negotiating for rental of a more cost-efficient headquarters.

The Lambs, a club for people in the theater, was already eyeing the property.  Its landmarked building at 128 West 44th Street had been purchased by the Manhattan Church of the Nazarene.  Although the church invited the Lambs to continue to use the Stanford White-designed structure, a spokesperson said, "Our members could never get used to the idea of meeting in a place where liquor was prohibited."  On May 22, 1975, The New York Times reported, "the Lambs plan to move to the clubhouse of the Grand Street Boys Club, at 131 West 56th Street, as soon as arrangements can be completed."

Appropriately, by the mid-1980s the lower level had been converted to the City Center Theater.   Sharing space in the building at the time were the headquarters of the Manhattan Theater Club.

The following decade saw Kaplan, a test preparation company, take over the building.  Founded by Stanley Kaplan in 1938, it had by now expanded beyond test preparation to "include after-school learning programs and specialized services for schools, universities and businesses," according to The New York Times on April 14, 1998.  The article said that the West 56th Street location "will now be devoted almost exclusively to international students preparing for entrance and licensing exams."  Kaplan continues to occupy the building today.

photographs by the author
many thanks to Andrew Cronson for suggesting this post
no permission to reuse the content of this blog has been granted to 

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