This week and next, we present a series of longer pieces unraveling the histories of storied buildings.
The commotion began as Gertrude Williams strolled home from her cashier job at an uptown restaurant. At Broadway and 39th, a strange man tried to strike up a conversation. Annoyed yet accustomed to such unwanted attentions, she ignored him. But he persisted. The New York Tribune described what happened next: “Raising her pugnacious right, she caught him square on the jaw.”
The patrolman on duty promptly arrested the alleged “masher” and whisked him away to night court, where Williams testified against him. “I never saw this man before, and when he spoke to me for the second time, after once being ignored, I thought I’d teach him a lesson,” she told the magistrate. “I guess I have.” The court fined the street harasser $10. That would be around $250 today.
Home for Williams that April night more than 100 years ago was the Elizabeth Home for Girls some 30 blocks downtown at 307 East 12th Street. The Children’s Aid Society formally opened the residence in 1892, to be, as the New York Times described it in April of 1911, “a home and training school for destitute girls.” Williams was tough, habituated to sticking up for herself on the streets of the city, like so many of the girls who lived at the home before and after her.
In 1826, nearly a century before Williams threw her impressive punch, the founder of the Children’s Aid Society, Charles Loring Brace was born into a prominent New England family. He grew up in Connecticut and went on to graduate from Yale in 1846. Two years later, he moved to New York City to attend Union Theological Seminary with the hope of devoting himself to religious life. But a few years after his ordination, at the age of 26, he began to minister to the poor of Blackwell’s Island (today’s Roosevelt Island) and the Five Points Mission in lower Manhattan.
This early work with New York’s poor and homeless had a profound impact on Brace, prompting him to shift his focus from purely spiritual outreach to social concerns. Determined to bring the attention of the city’s middle and upper classes to the lives of New Yorkers who lived in tenements, who slept in the shelters and starved on the streets, he began writing a regular column for the New York Times under the recurring headline, “Walks Among the New-York Poor.” His descriptions were both matter-of-fact and poignant. He bore witness to the lives of single working mothers whose never seemed to be able to every mouth in their one-room homes. He spoke with dejected husbands and fathers who failed each day to find work at a living wage. He stopped on corners to talk to the children overlooked by hurried passersby, curious to know everything about them, from their living situations to when they had their last meager meals.
Brace’s visits to the city’s most destitute alleyways and tenement houses convinced him that more needed to be done to meet the dire needs he encountered. He found most pressing the plight of the tens of thousands of children who roamed the streets of the exploding metropolis and set out to do more than minister to their souls. To that end, he founded the Children’s Aid Society in February 1853.
The next month, his column described his experience visiting the Eleventh Ward, a large swath of historic Little Germany in the present-day East Village. Brace estimated that in the Eleventh alone roamed thousands of children “mostly ranging the streets without any restraint.” Among them were “more than 100 girl prostitutes well known in this Ward, the oldest not 17, and the youngest not over 11 years of age.” Many of the children were orphans, and ran the streets in packs. Others spent their days rummaging through trash for sellable items or peddling matchsticks to help their families make rent and put bread on the table.
In his column, Brace wrote of visiting the “Girls’ Industrial School” in the Eleventh Ward, a joint project of a local women’s association and his new society to teach sewing and similar skills to some 40 girls—“all clean, some showing the sad marks of others’ vices and brutality, but most with the soft bloom, the round cheek, the changing bright eye and laugh, which only many years of sore poverty and filthy influences and low vice, can utterly wipe away from the young girl’s face.”
Compassion was not the only force behind Brace’s work. Practicality motivated him in is efforts as much as empathy. He saw the growing number of vagrant children as a public menace. The Society’s first Annual Report, published in 1854, even cited records kept by then Chief of Police Captain George Washington Matsell that put their number at nearly 10,000. Worse yet, the report said that in 11 New York City wards, “2,955 children were engaged in thieving, of whom two-thirds were girls between the ages of eight and 16.”
Brace and his colleagues at the society firmly believed that reaching children was key to ameliorating social ills. “The old heart of man is a hard thing to change,” Brace wrote in a January, 1854 column. “In any comprehensive view the only hopeful reform through society must begin with childhood—basing itself on a change of circumstances and on religious influences.” For Brace, reaching the children was a race against time, not unlike taking in a puppy before the streets and the wild pack around it turn it feral, unredeemable. He urged New Yorkers to heed them lest “the ignorance and cunning and sensuality of childhood ripen into the vice and dishonesty and reckless crime of manhood and womanhood.”
A firm conviction that the combination of a stable home life, basic schooling, skills-building work and religious instruction could “reform” a wayward child served as the foundation of the society’s various programs to create a “change of circumstances” in their young lives through training, adequate housing, and the organizing of “Orphan Trains” that sent hundreds of thousands of children out West for adoption by mostly rural farming families.
With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, the Children’s Aid Society faced new challenges. While New York was generally experiencing a wartime boom from production of utilitarian clothing and weapons for Union soldiers, poor girls of the city suffered. The Society’s 1862 Annual Report lamented “the number of young girls, who are cast adrift without employment, through the cessation of the manufacture of luxuries; or who, through the absences of so many fathers of families in the war, are left about the streets, uncared for.” To combat this, Brace proposed replicating the society’s already extant “Newsboys’ Lodging-House” but as a home for girls.
Within months, the Society managed to raise the $2,000 (around $45,000 today) needed for the project and opened its first home for girls at 205 New Canal Street in 1862. In the society’s 1863 annual report, Brace was careful to clarify that “the work of the Society has always been, to lead the poor to help themselves, and to provide no permanent refuge or shelter for the destitute.” Thus, “the house was made pre-eminently a place of work, not of refuge.”
The Superintendent and Matron at the Canal Street location, Mr. Eli Trott and Mrs. Lois E. Trott, kept the girls busy “scrubbing, cleaning, cooking, ironing or sewing.” Each girl had to pay two and three-fifths cents for any house meal. Girls between the ages of 14 and 18 were welcome, but any of them who had “just passed the line of virtue” were “sent away to public and private institutions of Reform.” The lodging-house was the earliest iteration of the Elizabeth Home for Girls, which would have three other locations in the 30 years before it opened at 307 East 12th Street.
After 205 New Canal, the lodging house moved briefly to 125 Bleecker Street in 1869 before raising the $22,000 needed to purchase a more spacious location at 27 St. Marks Place in 1870. The Trotts and the girls settled into the new location, which housed a library and a parlor full of sewing machines for the girls’ use. In his 1871 report to the Children’s Aid Society, Trott expounded on the importance of the house’s monthly tea party, which featured live music and refreshments. “One of the great wants of our Institutions for Females are evening amusements,” he wrote. “Something healthier than street attractions and the concert saloon; something that will compensate for the free, roving, gypsy life that so many of these girls lead.”
Brace died in Switzerland at the age of 64 in 1890. Although he had been in excellent health, he had decided in May of that year that he needed to rest, and traveled to Europe with some of his family. Days after his death, the New York Tribune described him as “one of the most practical of philanthropists, counting the cost and measuring the results of works of mercy with the same degree of shrewdness and caution which successful business men display in their investments and enterprises.” The article praised his work with the “street boys of New York,” but did not mention the society’s efforts for Gotham’s girls.
Despite the loss of its founder, the society pushed forward with its work. Its annual report the year of Brace’s death expressed the need to expand the property and services of the house at 27 St. Marks Place. Fortuitously, the very next year, a wealthy New Yorker, Emily Wheeler, bought the property at 307 East 12th Street and bequeathed the plot to the Children’s Aid Society in memory of her deceased older sister, Elizabeth Davenport Wheeler.
Charles Loring Brace Jr. left his engineering career to lead the Society after his father’s death. He filed an application with the city to erect a building on the plot that would become a new lodging house for girls. Once approved, he petitioned his father’s old friend, the renowned English architect Calvert Vaux to design the structure. Vaux was the partner of Frederick Law Olmstead in the designing of Central Park in 1858. Their “Greensward Plan” drew from traditional English landscape gardening and went on to influence public parks across the country. Many of Central Park’s iconic bridges as well as its picturesque Bethesda Terrace and Fountain grew out of Vaux’s designs.
Not only had Brace Senior and Vaux been friends, but Vaux had designed the Brace family’s country home in Hastings in the Hudson Valley and had developed an interest in using architecture as a tool for improving the lives of society’s most vulnerable. He began to work with Brace Senior to create a variety of structures for the society, including the Girls’ Industrial School, which still stands at 630 East 6th Street. Today it continues to fulfill a social purpose as the Lower East Side Service Center, which caters to those affected by substance abuse, HIV/AIDS and mental illness and their families.
By the time Vaux died in 1895, he had designed more than a dozen of the society’s buildings; the Elizabeth Home was one of his last. The four-storey building of pressed red brick and sandstone trimmings featured dormer windows peeking up over the left side of its roof. The steep, stepped-gables—a throwback to the neighborhood’s Dutch past—on the right side of the roof gave the building a charming asymmetry. Vaux had also used stepped-gables and dormer windows for the red-bricked industrial school on 6th Street, making obvious sisters of the two buildings, separated by a short 15-minute stroll.
On October 1, 1892, the girls living at the lodging house on St. Marks Place moved to the brand new, bright red brick building. It was a great improvement over their previous home. Among its features were multiple dormitories and bedrooms, the new property contained two dining rooms, a kitchen, laundry, a large ironing, washing and drying room for custom work, rooms for typewriting and sewing machine classes, a fitting room for the dressmaking department, and a waiting room for applicants.
Fittingly, a woman named Elizabeth, Elizabeth S. Hurley, became its superintendent. She was well-prepared for the job, as she had taken over the supervision of the former house on St. Marks street many years earlier. In a report to the Society, she described the girls’ first day at 307 East 12th: “Soon they were merrily trooping through its wide, airy halls and spacious rooms, singing and hurrahing to their hearts’ content, for the occasion was such a joyous one they were allowed for a time to give full vent to their enthusiasm.” They found the new amenities of a fireplace and an extra sitting room designated for their sole use to be particularly thrilling.
One year later, Hurley was still optimistic about the move. “Our new life in the Elizabeth Home has been a very busy and happy one,” she wrote in another report to the Society. “The privilege of room and space, with added conveniences and comforts has been appreciated by the inmates and has lessened the friction among them, by giving each a certain latitude for individualities, which human beings require.”
The girls accomplished a lot in that first year. A newly opened cooking school in the home enabled 10 girls to learn “in various ways of cooking meats and vegetables, making porridge, biscuits, cake, simple puddings, etc.” The young chefs were also permitted to eat their creations. Fourteen girls received training in the dressmaking department and nine of them found good employment “situations” in that industry. Fifteen girls learned to type, 20 mastered the sewing machine and 48 girls picked up the useful skills of hand sewing, darning and mending. With the expanded facilities, the Elizabeth Home was able to train 23 girls in the laundry, more than ever before. A total of 401 young women came and went as temporary residents that year.
The generosity of some of New York’s most celebrated philanthropists helped bring joy to the home’s Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations. Mere months after the girls moved to 12th Street, “Mrs. W. Waldorf Astor supplied bountifully for the Christmas festivities” and Cornelius Vanderbilt even sent over famed comedian Marshall P. Wilder on several occasions “to give the girls an evening’s amusement.”
There was sadness, too. Hurley’s reports told of the arrival of one girl who, “with many tears,” said that her father “told me not to come home to-night unless I found work; he thinks I can find it if I want to; and I have walked all day, and eaten nothing since my breakfast; and now I am afraid to go back, but if you will let me stay here to-night I will try again in the morning.’”
Still other girls had troubles that Hurley’s diligent care could not ameliorate. A November, 1893 New York Times article headlined “Agnes Nichols Fails to Kill Herself” recounted the tale of a young woman registered at the home who attempted suicide by overdosing on laudanum. She purchased the opioid at a drugstore on Second Avenue, but “the clerk, suspecting her design, diluted the tincture.” Her efforts still managed to render her unconscious. When she awoke, she swore she’d make another attempt, “and she was taken a prisoner to Bellevue Hospital.”
Gloom fell over the house again in 1909, when Hurley died of heart failure at the age of 84. Her passing came as a shock, as the New York Times reported that she had been “active until within a week of her death.” In her 54 years of service to the Children’s Aid Society, she “cared for upward of 20,000 girls” and was responsible for “the fact that 12,000 women [had] led useful lives who might otherwise have gone to evil ways.”
Even with the loss of its revered matron, 307 East 12th continued to fulfill its mission for another 21 years.
On March 5, 1930, the New York Amsterdam News reported that the Children’s Aid Society was moving its operations uptown to Harlem. The organization sold the building on 12th Street to Dr. Benedict Lust, a German immigrant and one of the founders of naturopathic medicine. Lust founded American School of Naturopathy in 1902 after migrating to the United States. Upon his death in 1945, 307 East 12th Street went up for sale for a second time.
The handsome building didn’t linger long on the market. Within a year of Lust’s death, the Florence Crittenton League purchased it and began to restore it to its original purpose: to serve as a home for girls. The shelter had its grand opening on Halloween in 1946. The New York Times described how it would host 19 girls “from 16 to 21 years of age, some of them runaways, some under the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Aid Bureau of the courts.”
Within a few years, the shelter became known as Barrett House, named after the former president of the National Florence Crittenton Mission, Dr. Robert South Barrett. It soon became a popular cause among New York’s wealthier residents. Supporters of the home hosted luncheons and banquet fundraisers to keep the residence in operation. One New York Times article from Nov. 17, 1957, announced a “$100-per-plate gastronomic event” held at a farm up in Peekskill, New York, in support of the cause.
The Amsterdam News reported on the September 1967 merger of Barrett House with the Bronx-based organization, Girls Town, a branch of the Florence Crittenton League, which the New York Times profiled two years later under the headline “Once They Were Lonely and Disturbed….” Reporter Judy Klemesrud (who five years later would write the first newspaper profile of Donald Trump) explained that although Florence Crittenton houses throughout the country were known for sheltering unwed mothers, 307 East 12th Street was the “lone exception” to this stereotypical depiction.
“What we want to give them is a kind of respect of themselves as women,” Klemesrud wrote, quoting Marion Ennes, who was home’s executive director at the time. “Most of these girls come here with no feelings of self-worth because their mothers and aunts are all prostitutes and dope addicts.” The mission of Girls Town seemed to be working. One 16-year-old girl even told Klemesrud, “If it was up to me, I’d stay here forever.”
By July 12, 1980, Klemesrud’s hope-filled description of the home and its residents no longer held. “Manhattan Neighborhoods Fight Two Girls’ Homes” read a headline in the Times. Girls Town was one of them. Neighbors had “lost patience with the noise, violent behavior and sexual activity inside and outside” and agitated to have the shelter shut down. The neighbors blamed the girls, the girls complained of lax supervision, and Girls Town administrators cited a dire lack of funding responsible and the behavior of the girls for the problems. Whatever the cause, one of East 12th Street’s “house parents” summed up the sorry state into which the home had drifted. “A girl comes in here confused and leaves worse off in terms of respect for herself.”
Not long after, the neighbors prevailed and Girls Town closed its heavy wooden doors on 12th Street. In 1982, real estate developers from Zephyr Co. purchased the building, launching the building’s next metamorphosis. The first hint of its new destiny appeared in a New York Times ad on Oct. 16, 1983. Ninety-one years after its first young occupants jubilantly skipped into the building singing and cheering, “Leeds House,” as the building was newly christened, was about to open to the public for a “Preview Showing” of its new cooperative apartments. In 2008, a quarter of a century later, 307 East 12th Street would receive its landmark status to honor the work of Brace, the Children’s Aid Society, and Calvert Vaux.
One hundred and twenty-five years ago, some of New York’s most destitute arrived there with empty hands and a meek knock on the door. Today, the building offers two bedroom apartments to prospective residents with a broker and deep enough pockets to pay upwards of a million dollars.