Wednesday, November 1, 2023

The 1931 Seamen's House - 550 West 20th Street


In 1930, the American Seamen's Friends Society, the Seamen's Christian Society, and the Seamen's Y.M.C.A. "joined together to build and operate Seamen's House at 550 West 20th Street," as reported by The New York Sun.  The site on the southeast corner of the Miller Highway (today's West Side Highway), directly across from the riverfront, would be convenient for transient, maritime workers.

The syndicate hired the architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb  & Harmon (which had just been commissioned to design the Empire State Building) to draw the plans.  Completed in 1931, the eight-story Seamen's House was clad in brown brick and trimmed in cast concrete and terra cotta.  The architects chamfered the corner where the dramatic two-story entrance echoed ancient, monumental architecture.  The piers flanking the doorway were capped with bronze lanterns in the shape of early lighthouses.  Square, fluted columns terminated in capitals of alternating red and blue terra cotta triangles.  An arched doorway opened onto an iron-railed balcony.  In the monumental Art Deco framework above it was a terra cotta plaque of a ship against a deep blue sky.  

Shreve, Lamb & Harmon emphasized the vertical with full-height piers between the openings.  The sparse decoration was mostly limited to terra cotta elements that reflected maritime motifs--lighthouses and anchors, for instance.

On the ground floor were a cafeteria, barbershop, a chapel, social rooms, and a library-reading room.  Along with the 17 bedrooms on the second floor was a gymnasium and swimming pool.  The upper floors contained a warren of small bedrooms and dormitories.

The Seamen's House opened in the early years of the Great Depression.  On December 4, 1931, its executive secretary, Clifford A. Braider, issued a plea in the form of a letter to the editor of The New York Sun that said in part:

At this season of the year and throughout the winter more than ever before we will be called upon to supply clothing for men and boys who "go down to the sea in ships."  You can assure your readers that any clothing they may donate to us will bring larger dividends than what the "ole clothes man" will give them.

We face a very serious situation and if possible we want to anticipate the needs of this group of men, who have felt the effects of the depression more than any other.  They not only are out of work but many are sick, and we want to do our best to help them in their extremity.

The facility depended greatly on donations.  On December 12, 1932, the New York Evening Post reported, "A dinner-dance for the benefit of the Seaman's [sic] House, 550 West Twentieth Street, will be given on board the liner Leviathan at Pier 50, North River, Wednesday night."

For decades, the sailors who came and went from the ships on the Hudson River were known to police as a boisterous bunch.  Riverfront barrooms were the scenes of drunken fights, robberies, and even murders.  When the Seamen's House opened, many of its residents were no better behaved.

One of them was 28-year-old Robert Ross, "an unemployed seaman," according to The New York Sun on February 8, 1932.  He had been arrested the day before for a terrifying crime.  Rose d'Agostino, who was 23, was walking along a corridor on the sixth floor of the Post Graduate Hospital when Ross "sprang at her from a vacant room and tried to snatch her handbag."   When his victim screamed, he hit her with a blackjack, knocking her to the floor and "causing a painful laceration."  The policemen who found Ross hiding under a table charged him with attempted robbery.

The Seamen's House provided "open forums" for the residents.  But in 1933, they were discontinued and replaced by lectures "after workers took over every forum and spoke defending the Unemployed, Councils, the Revolutionary Unions and the Communist Party," according to The Daily Worker (a Socialist newspaper).  The new policy failed.

On January 15, a lecturer took the podium to speak about Ghandi's passive resistance movement.  The Daily Worker reported, "Passive resistance was thrown overboard when militant seamen took the floor at the reactionary Seamen's House."  The speaker was forced off the stage and the protesting ship workers "over rode the new rule at the Seamen's House for 'lectures only and no open forums.'"  They forced Clifford A. Braider to invite W. C. McCuistion of the Marine Workers Industrial Union to speak on "Revolutionary Mass Action vs. Passive Resistance" a week later.

On the afternoon of January 24, 1935, the SS Mohawk left New York City for Havana with 110 crew members and 53 passengers aboard.  Less than five hours later it was struck by the Norwegian cargo ship Talisman.   The crew struggled to release the snow covered lifeboats in sub-zero temperatures.  A year later, on January 26, 1936, a service was held in the Seamen's House auditorium "in memory of the fifty-six passengers and crew who died in the Mohawk disaster."

In the meantime, the Socialist-leaning seamen continued to cause upheaval.  On April 30, 1937, it resulted in one resident's nearly losing his life.  The New York Post reported, "A dozen men, apparently seamen of the old-line faction in the union, raided a meeting of seventy I. S. U. stewards...last night.  A sharp fight occurred and the raiders, as they left, stabbed Thomas Harmon, thirty-two, a seaman, of 550 West Twentieth Street.  He was taken [to] St. Vincent's Hospital in a serious condition."

Keeping order among what were often rowdy and unruly sailors required a staff of what were termed "special officers," or what today might be called security guards.  Arthur Peterson was one of them in the winter of 1938.  When 47-year-old Patrick Travers, a Hoboken ship worker, showed up drunken and disorderly on February 1, Peterson attempted to eject him.  It ended very badly.

The Long Island Daily Press reported, "Witnesses told police that Peterson was putting Travers out of the Y. M. C. A. building at 550 West 20th street, when the ship worker slashed out with his fists."  Peterson took a blow on the face, and punched back.  The article said, "Travers reeled to the street and collapsed.  He died on the sidewalk."  The 31-year-old guard was arrested and charged with homicide.

After World War II broke out in Europe, America instituted the first peacetime draft in U.S. history, the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940.  By the nature of their work, many residents of the Seamen's House were at sea and unable to register immediately.  But a plan was established to accommodate them.  On October 25, 1940, The New York Sun reported, "Seamen away on October 16, the day of registration for men between 21 and 35, are being registered as they arrive and Dr. James C. Healey, chaplain of the Seamen's Branch of the Y. M. C. A., 550 West Twentieth street, announced today that he had registered 556 since October 17."

On December 14, 1966, the Lockport, New York Union-Sun and Journal reported that the state planned 18 facilities "for use in the new compulsory narcotics treatment program."  The article said, "The first of 14 private properties named today to be acquired will be the Seamen's House YMCA, 550 West 20th St."

The building was renovated to accommodate the Bayview Rehabilitation Center, operated by the State Narcotic Addiction Control Commission.  It opened in June 1967.  Treatment included activities that many might have found surprising.  On April 4, 1970, the N. Y. Amsterdam News reported on a week-long "Easter Festival of cultural, artistic, musical, recreational and athletic events at Bayview Rehabilitation Center."  There were sports competitions for court-certified male addicts," and a musical staged for relatives and friends of the "more than 200 residents undergoing rehabilitative programming at the center."

A second renovation by the State of New York was completed in 1974 to convert the facility to a medium security prison, the Bayview State Correctional Facility.  Its policy of weekend passes for certain inmates came under question a year later.

Herman White had been jailed in 1974 for "hurling his two young daughters through a window," according to The New York Times.  On June 28 the following year, he was given a weekend furlough.  He went to the home of his children's mother, Pauline Winfree, and "persuaded her to let him take the children, Pamela Winfree, 5, and Michele, 3, to buy them sneakers," reported The New York Times.

White was angry that Pauline Winfree had married while he was in jail.  When he returned to her apartment that evening, he pushed her to have sexual relations, which she refused to do.  He grabbed the two girls and disappeared.  Before Pauline and the police could find him, he had thrown them from the roof of a four-story building.  The girls were taken to Kings County Hospital in critical condition.

On July 16, 1983 the Brooklyn Big Red News, reported that the Bayview Correctional Facility would "present a special Family Day Program" that afternoon.  "This day is held to bring incarcerated women and their parents, husbands and children together," said the article.

Despite the efforts, the Correctional Association of New York found the Bayview Correctional Facility severely wanting in a report issued in January 1985.   The report described, "a debilitated physical plant, lengthy delays in obtaining outside medical care, inadequate visiting and program facilities, the lack of sufficient vocational training and counseling, and a history of sexual harassment and abuse by the male guards against the women prisoners."  The conclusion was that "it is not an appropriate general-confinement facility."

In October 2012, as Hurricane Sandy closed in, the inmates  of the Bayview Correctional Facility were evacuated.  They would not return.  The New York Times reported, "Fourteen feet of water destroyed boilers, corroded electrical equipment and required over $600,000 in repairs."

On August 20, 2013, The New York Times reported that the state planned to sell or lease the property.  The article pointed out that the empty prison was "now a valuable piece of real estate."

The following year, the NoVo Foundation and Goren Group announced an intended renovation to create The Women's Building.  It was to be a "a home for the global girls' and women's rights movement," according to Curbed New York.  In August 2016, Deborah Berke Partners was chosen to redesign the 100,000-square-foot facility "into a place for activism, partnership, and solution-building in the movements."

Then, in March 2020, a statement from the NoVo Foundation read, "Timelines and budgets for this project have far exceeded original estimates."  The foundation decided to redirect the $50 million dollars raised to other projects "that can directly facilitate girls and women in need."

Two years later, on July 26, 2022, The Real Deal reported that the Empire State Development Corporation would convert the building "into supportive housing for the formerly homeless," saying the "new property would include at least 60 supportive housing units."  The redevelopment, which would include on-site social services, "is being folded into the larger Penn Station redevelopment," said the article.

photographs by the author has no authorization to reuse the content of this blog

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