All week, we’re bringing you a series of deep dives into the surprising histories of storied addresses. Back to our usual after the New Year.
“Incidentally,” Alice Broadbent recalls at age 92, “one of these page boys wrote me the hottest love letter I’d ever received.”
Alice Broadbent’s handwritten account – in all of its billowy, free-flowing ballpoint glory — is currently kept in the Manuscripts and Archives Division of the New York Public Library. It’s likely been suffocating since she wrote it 70 years ago – slipped inside a manila folder, her obituary attached – among the umpteen cubic feet of boxes that chronicle the library’s history since its founding in 1854.
At her daughter’s request, Alice Broadbent spent the last year of her life recording what “the old-time days were like,” including the year she spent as a library cataloguer in 1909-10. That was when the main library was located at 425 Lafayette Street, in the building that currently houses the Joseph Papp Public Theater.
Broadbent’s recollections offer insight into both the social and professional life of a “single young working woman” in New York City at the turn of the 20th century as well as her day-to-day experiences in the library named for John Jacob Astor, who donated “the princely sum” of $350,000 in 1838 to see it established. As the New York Evening Post reported when he made the offer, Astor was the wealthiest man in America – and to this day the fifth wealthiest American ever. His friend and unofficial financial adviser, Joseph Green Cogswell, told the Post that he had convinced Astor to make the donation. “I urged him to give it for a library,” Cogswell was quoted as saying, “which I finally brought him to agree to do.”
It took another 16 years for the library to open between 6th Street and 7th Streets. When it did, it was by all accounts extraordinary. The Astor Library was the first reference library in the country that did not lend out its holdings. But to Alice Broadbent, it was a very ordinary place to work and the site of her proto- but abortive case of sexual harassment that, like so many, never went further than the front door.
She conjures a vision of the library as a space with a “primitive” layout, where desks were scattered about in a large room where a “young fellow, a sort of page boy” checked each cataloguer in every workday morning. The page boy, whose name she said she never learned, wrote the “hot” letter.
“I debated a bit,” she recalled in her brief memoir, “but I showed it to my co-worker on Periodicals and it struck the powers that were above us, who told us they would fire the page if I said so! But I decided I could do my own absolute disregard of the whole thing.”
The enlightened response of her employers to the untoward advances of the page boy did not extend to wage parity. She titles the sixth page of her essay, “How a NYC Working Girl Lived in 1909 on $760.00 A Year.” Adjusted for inflation, that figure equates to about $20,000 a year today.
She lived with two other “library friends” of hers at the Ladies’ Christian Union Home for Working Girls — a brownstone at 2nd Avenue and 17th Street – described as a place with “many rules and… absolutely no imagination behind it.” She writes about the food they were routinely fed, often three prunes for breakfast, which resulted in some of the girls calling it the “House of Three Prunes.” Room and board cost $5 a week for a single room, something like $130 a week in today’s money.
It was Cogswell, one of the library’s trustees and trusted friend of Astor, who established a policy of closed stacks. As he explained at the time, “It would have crazed me to have seen a crowd ranging lawlessly among the books, and throwing everything into confusion.” Despite the number of people that detested these policies, there was a particular incident that seemed to dramatize the trustee’s response. As if to justify Cogswell’s draconian policy, the New York Times recently reported that in 1872, the writer Richard Boyle Davy “tore 98 pages from an old volume of the Revue de Paris magazine to hide his plagiarism of one of its stories.”
In 1881, Broadbent’s predecessors in the cataloging department took a punch from the New York Times in 1881 for “imperfections as annoying to the frequenter of the library as some of its blunders in classification are ludicrous.”
“It is amusing, for instance,” the diatribe continued, “to find Balzac’s social satire ‘Physiologie du Mariage…’ entered under ‘Medicine’ in the subject catalogue, and to find the book itself in the alcove devoted to that department, on the same shelf with manuals of etherization and operative surgery, and treatises on phosphorous and club-foot.”
A well-known New York architect, Alexander Saeltzer, designed the space, which attracted many researchers and writers but met sour criticism in its earliest years for closing at sunset, effectively excluding the working poor. The hours did not change until 1906. This was reported rather dramatically through the disappointment of two gentleman patrons, one who came at night only to find that the books he needed could only be viewed during the daytime, and the other, who found that the $8,000 a year the library was spending for the extended hours did not include lighting all of the alcoves.
By the time Broadbent became a member of the staff, the situation had righted itself, for she described its patrons as “the people of the Lower East Side, many of whom were immigrants and earnest students, trying hard to learn the ways of this strange country.”
Americanization in “this strange country”
Alice Broadbent’s recollections of immigrants tirelessly attempting to assimilate into “this strange country” inadvertently foreshadow the building’s future. The library closed due to financial hardship, which caused a well-known attorney in New York to create the New York Public Library from the collections of three libraries in the city that were experiencing the same fiscal troubles. The space was abandoned in 1911, and it wasn’t until 1920 that the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society announced plans to purchase the abandoned building at Lafayette Place for $325,000.
The announcement of this transition came in an article in The Jewish Advocate, with the ambitious headline “Famous Building, Once New York’s Spiritual Center, To Become the Home of Americanization.” Later and with similar language, the New York Times reported in 1920 on the society’s drive to raise $500,000 for the renovations at 425 Lafayette for the future “home of Americanization activities among Jewish immigrants.”
While the society’s efforts toward Americanization in the 20th century sound like a governmental political platform, the success of these programs were contingent upon the contribution of charitable Jews. Albert Rosenblatt, the chairman of the society’s Building Fund Committee, called upon all who had not contributed to the society to do so immediately, urging this act as a public duty, referring to the inherent importance of having a permanent structure to serve as “a house where each and every immigrant will learn the spirit and traditions of American and will thus at an early date become a good loyal and useful prospective American citizen.”
Fischel, of the society’s building committee, further argued that this was the duty of American Jews. “We have a perfect right to mortgage the Jews of America,” he said, “for the comparatively insignificant sum necessary to pay for the purchase and remodeling of the building.”
This space transformed into the hub of “Americanization” for Jewish immigrants in New York in the 20th century. The architect hired by the society, Benjamin Levitan, tore apart much of the original structure of the library in order to serve the necessities of the societies — multiple kitchens, a synagogue, classrooms for “Americanization” trainings, a playground and a space for a weekly bazaar. Particular architectural details, such as skylights, vaulted ceilings and the original columns were, however, left intact.
The renovation coincided with a time in which the standard of living within these transitional, immigrant homes was being scrutinized. At the turn of the 20th century, a commission appointed by Congress to examine immigration affairs found out that “in about 75 percent of the so-called immigrant homes, it is reported that shameful conditions exist.” In 1909, the Jewish Exponent mentions that:
These so called charitable societies gull immigrants into lending them money without interest, demand 65 cents for each ostensibly free meal, exact a fee of $2 for employers for every immigrant supplied, promise to guide incoming aliens to their friends and relatives, and instead, beat them with bludgeons, permit employees regularly to consume intoxicants on their premises, exchange money at improper rates, sell identification clips to outgoing aliens for $2 each, and countenance even more scandalous practices.
The honorable role of the society, however, was well established before the purchase of the building at 425 Lafayette, as they operated a bureau on Ellis Island. The New York Times reported in 1914 on the tragic story of Sarah Pogrebensky and her sons. Members of the society had gone to Washington to advocate on behalf of the Podrebenskys, as their immigrant story balanced precariously between despair and hope.
After years of living in the United States, Abraham Pogrebensky of Russian Turkestan background, was finally able to bring over his wife and two children. The times were certainly not easy for his family. Pogrebensky’s employers housed the family of four in vacated factory rooms and just as they were about to settle and make ends meet, immigration services discovered that their son was “defective,” which at the time was grounds for deportation.
Abraham Pogrebesky committed suicide after he learned that his children and wife were to be deported, since he couldn’t afford a ticket to return home with them. The society discovered this family’s case, and took care of them until the older son was equipped to care for the family of three.
The society lacked foresight in terms of the fate of the building, evident in Fischel’s comment that “this building, when completed, will not only be one of the finest edifices of New York, but will be a pride and glory for all Jews of America who have helped transform it into a home for immigrants.”
The building, in its 37 years as the headquarters for the society, sheltered 250,000 immigrants, but as the society’s process of handling immigrants began to shift in the mid 1960s, so did the purpose of 425 Lafayette. They were no longer providing shelter to immigrants upon arrival, and instead the newly arrived immigrants were to be sent directly to their new, independent lodging space. This meant that the society no longer needed a space as large as that which they occupied at the time; they simply needed office space.
This phase came in 1964, when the society ended up selling the building to a developer that intended to demolish the building.
To follow was the role Joseph Papp played in “demonstrating that the New York City landmarks preservation ordinance would work.” After a building is landmarked, it needs a permit in order for it to be destroyed. A 1966 New York Times article comments on the process that succeeded in stalling the demolition of the building until it could be purchased by New York City as an “appropriate 19th-century melodrama calculated to make any 20th-century cynic’s heart melt.”
New York City leased the building to Joseph Papirofsky and the architect Giorgio Cavaglieri – after a reported $1.8 million in renovation costs — converted it into the structure we now pass on Lafayette just before we hit Astor Place.
“The miracle on Lafayette Street” is how an architecture critic for the New York Times described the saving of the historic structure at 425 Lafayette. Her words harkened to the building’s immigrant heritage as imagined by Harry Fischel, the chairman of the Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society. He emphasized the immigrant thread that connected John Jacob Astor, “an immigrant, who made good” to the immigrant services of the society. The thread has stayed taut. Papirofsky, of course, the same Joseph Papp of the Public Theater that stands at 425 Lafayette today, was also the son of immigrants.