The Saturday before Christmas, 1921, near Third Avenue and 12th Street, a truck struck and killed little Amelia Laredo, who was on her way to buy a present. She was living just around the corner at the Howard Mission and Home for Little Wanderers, a Protestant-run orphanage housed in the four-story red brick-and-frame townhouse at 225 East 11th Street. On Saturdays, Jennie Hudson, the mission superintendent, would give each child a dime for the movies but that day, Amelia told her friends that she was going to use the money to buy a Christmas gift for her brother, a cripple, who was in Brooklyn Hospital.
Amelia left around noon; it would be several hours before anyone realized she was missing. A report of the child’s death in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle said that the other kids at the home called her “Buttons,” because she liked to find stray buttons and other objects and save them in a box. The newspapers pinpointed her age as 12; her death certificate, 10, and the 1920 census, 8.
Amelia’s body was eventually returned to her mother, an Italian immigrant who lived in Brooklyn. Although Amelia had lived with her mother for a time, she preferred the mission and one day, the Eagle said, she went back to the mission on her own. Her mother allowed her to stay. Today, the handsome Italianate building houses a law office and several high-end apartments. These have supplanted the orphans and young women who occupied the space for more than half a century from the Victorian and Progressive eras, through both World Wars and the Depression in between. As the city rose around it, the building became a receptacle for society’s challenges: party politics, corruption, fires, waves of immigrants and, finally, street children. The Howard Mission operated at this location from 1893 to 1946, in a time when charitable establishments proliferated and religious institutions clashed. It became a place that tried to offer a solution.
The plot at 225 East 11th, however, started out as part of Peter Gerard Stuyvesant’s vast property in lower Manhattan. Stuyvesant was a descendant of the famous New York Governor Petrus Stuyvesant. After his death, his estate was divided between three people, one of whom was his nephew, Gerard. Gerard began to divide the estate and sell off the lots. On July 3, 1852, he sold a lot to a man named Peter Badeau. The land conveyance document said that Badeau was free to build on the lot, under the condition that he would not construct any “dangerous, noxious or offensive establishment.”
The year after purchasing the property, Badeau, who the 1857 City Directory lists as a provider of “late provisions,” decided to build a house. According to Tax Assessment records, construction began in 1853 and finished the following year. The house was numbered 48 East 11th Street at the time. Badeau lived there until 1860, when he sold the house to Thomas Little, a prominent architect and a politician. He was responsible for designing the cupola on City Hall, the courthouse on Chambers Street, the county jail on Ludlow Street and the lunatic asylum. At the time, he was also serving as Supervisor of Elections for the Republican Party.
“[He] is a capital nomination,” wrote an 1858 editorialist in the New York Atlas. “He is an architect of high repute in his profession, and a citizen of unimpeachable integrity.” After becoming Supervisor, Little ran for Congressional representative in New York’s Sixth District. He was less of a favorite two years later: An 1860 article in the same paper called Little “a man of no energy and rather a small potatoe [sic].” While he didn’t win his party’s nomination, he worked on behalf of his opponent, and the Republican party presented him with a $300 gold chronometer watch, case, chain and gold key in gratitude. It seems that Little also frequented the same circles as some of the most powerful men in the city; in April of 1864, Little worked on the committee for a regimental ball alongside William M. “Boss” Tweed himself.
From Thomas Little, the house passed into the hands of Charles L. Carpenter and his wife, Elizabeth. Carpenter was the sexton of St. Mark’s Church and an undertaker. Following Carpenter’s death in March of 1869, the estate was divided among his children, and, after being sold a few times and having its number changed to 225, the house ended up in the hands of a woman named Maria Wagner in 1889. She would own the building for only four years, enough trouble to last a lifetime.
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Between 1891 and 1893, according to city directories from the period, the Reverend Daniel C. Potter of the Tabernacle Baptist Church rented part of 225 East 11th Street as a boarding home for young girls. Potter was ordained pastor of the 6th Street Baptist Church on October 30, 1873. He quickly made himself into a public figure by performing high-society marriages, such as one between the Duke of Marlborough and an American socialite and heiress named Lily Hammersley. He was also known for his incendiary speeches and sermons—which, some sources say, weren’t always driven by religious zeal. In 1883, the Galveston Weekly News referred to his speech against the Young Men’s Christian Association as having “a flavor of personal grievance and jealousy.”
The first mention of Potter’s boarding house is in 1886, when a reporter for the Burlington Free Press praised the “Laura Home for Young Women,” located at 120 Second Avenue, as a place where young women “with small means” could go to learn self-sufficiency. The home apparently had fewer rules than other, similar institutions—the women’s boyfriends could even come for a visit.
Sometime between 1889 and 1891, Dr. Potter moved his home for young women a few blocks north, to 225 East 11th Street. He left the location about two years later. Maria Wagner claimed that Potter moved the young women out in the middle of the night between two rent days, to avoid paying the rent.
Potter’s lifestyle apparently reflected that of a man with a generous benefactor. An article in the New York Times reported that the girls living in the home at 225 East 11th Street “ate lamb chops for breakfast and satisfied their appetites at dinner with pork tenderloins and veal cutlets.” It described Potter as a “muscular Christian who apparels himself in the style of a prosperous merchant” with “a voice well adapted for an exponent of doctrines of the church militant.”
Yet Potter’s lavish spending eventually landed him in court, where a number of people sued him, including the butcher, the milkman, and the church organist. The Times says that Mr. Potter ordered $73 worth of meat from a butcher named Isaac Reinheimer in order to feed the young women at the boarding house in the spring of 1891. The New York Herald said that the milkman presented Potter with a $534 bill for a years’ worth of milk, and Wagner claimed $300 in unpaid rent. There were other creditors, too. The amount Potter owed came to a prodigious $1,600, something like $45,000 in today’s money.
As compensation for Potter’s landlord, the deputy sheriff seized about 1,000 stereopticon views and some magic lantern slides that the clergyman used as visualizing tools when he gave lectures on religious topics. The sheriff spent two days and two nights in the Tabernacle Church, keeping guard over the items as Sunday services went on.
Potter insisted that the butcher had overcharged him and complained that the home on East 11th Street had become “uninhabitable.” He called his bill from the milkman “simply a case of persecution.” He blamed the lack of funds on his newly hired sexton— whom he said had forged vouchers for bills that were never paid.
Potter also said that the young women’s boarding house was not connected with the Tabernacle Church, a fact which allowed some individuals to make insinuations about its real character. However, there doesn’t seem to be any proof that the boarding house was anything more or less than a refuge for young women who were trying to establish lives for themselves. He charged the young women $4 per week; in May of 1892, the home housed 16 young women, but one year later, when Potter was trying to avoid paying rent, only six girls remained.
Potter’s problems were far from over. During the investigation, Potter was accused of having misappropriated funds meant to go to the poor, and of having stolen the rent collected off of his wife’s cottage in Connecticut. His wife then filed for divorce; she discovered that Potter was having affairs with several women, allegedly meeting with them at multiple locations, including the home at East 11th Street. Although Potter won that case, the Baptist City Missionary Society evicted him from the Second Avenue property, and his tenure ended. For the next half-century, the events at 225 East Eleventh Street would be a bit more G-rated.
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One Wednesday in November 1901, Bertha Smith and Jennie Walker became engrossed in a sidewalk game and ran late to school. Dreading the idea of going back to the Howard Mission and getting in trouble with the Mission heads, 10-year-old Bertha came up with a plan: she would go to visit her father in New Jersey. Jennie, who was 8, decided to tag along. The two walked to 88th Street in the pouring rain, until, finally, the police caught them, gave them cookies and hot tea, and sent them back to the Mission. An article in the New York Herald said that, upon arriving at the Mission, the two were threatened with “such dire punishment” that they begged forgiveness and went to bed.
When they weren’t being reprimanded for truancy, the orphans at the Howard Mission seemed to have been treated well; a series of medical reports from the year 1914 show that the children were healthy, well-fed and clothed, and that the dormitories were clean and spacious. The Mission averaged 15 children in the home at once, ranging in age from four to 19 years old.
The Mission was in its 40th year when it bought 225 East 11th Street from Maria Wagner in 1885 and moved from its first location on New Bowery, now St. James Place, to be closer to the population it wanted to serve.
From the start, the Mission provided food, clothing, and shelter, as well as education and Bible classes. It also temporarily took in children without parents or whose parents could not care for them. An annual report from 1895 shows some of the activities that the Mission offered: a mother’s prayer group on Thursday nights, children’s Bible study on Fridays, and Sunday School at 2:30 p.m. Visitors were invited on Sunday afternoon to hear the children sing. The Mission hosted sewing classes, and the children were allowed to keep what they made. In the summers, the Mission took children to Bradley Beach in New Jersey for two months; in 1895, they were reportedly taking at least 30 children per year.
The Mission relied on donations to sustain itself. Wealthy people often left money to a long list of charitable societies, including the Howard Mission, in their wills. However, letters in the Sheltering Arms Children’s Service archives at Rutgers University revealed that the Mission also received money and donations from individuals across the country: $40 from a dentist in New Jersey, $11 from a woman in Minnesota, a box of clothes from a woman in Connecticut. The Superintendent of Public Schools in Horneville, NY, was so impressed by the Mission’s Sunday School that he convinced his Bible class to send a contribution. He wrote in a letter dated January 31, 1984, “I wish it were 10 times as much, but the poor are here, too.”
The Mission also printed annual Thanksgiving and Christmas appeals in the newspapers, listing what the Mission had accomplished during the year, and asking for money, food and clothing donations.
In its earlier days, the Howard Mission, like many other orphanages in New York at the time, would send children to new homes across the country, where it was never certain how they would be treated. By the time the Mission had moved to East 11th Street, however, the general wisdom about how to deal with the “little wanderers” was changing. As Timothy Hacsi writes in his book Second Home: Orphan Asylums and Poor Families in America, child advocates around the turn of the 20th century had begun to argue in favor of returning children to their families of origin. In the year 1893-94, out of the 56 children that the Mission accepted, 39 were eventually returned to their parents.
The Mission did try to find steady jobs for some of the older children. Companies and individuals would write letters asking for a Mission child who could work for them. One letter dated Nov. 5, 1894 from Scientific American, Munn & Co, read:
If you have among your assortment a nice intelligent boy, 13 to 15 years old, who has a reputable parentage, and lives at home, who wishes a place in an office, or as an errand boy and assistant to the house butler, you may send him to me at this office and I will examine him.
And another, from a woman in Westerly, R.I.:
I write to know if you have any girl with you about 11, 12 or 13 years of age in need of a good home, who you could recommend for honesty and good behavior that you would like to provide for. We are looking for such a person as a companion for our mother, a lady a little over sixty. We would want her to be willing to make herself generally useful in doing things suitable for her age. Errands and little things…
We prefer a German or American and are rather averse to Irish…we wish a girl that could be trusted in any part of the house and that could be made one of the family.
Census records show that from about 1910 through 1920, most of the children accepted into the home were Italian-born or had Italian ethnicity. The Mission also housed children with roots in Germany, Canada, England, Turkey and Ireland. Although the Mission was Protestant-run, and despite the fierce rivalries that existed between Protestant and Catholic institutions, baptismal certificates show that the Mission also took in (mainly Italian) Catholic children. These children often came from poor families, in which the parent, or parents, struggled to support multiple sons and daughters.
Lena and Lucy Blumetti were two with this profile. Born in 1906 and 1908, respectively, they were the youngest of five children, who in 1910 were living with their father, Pietro, a porter in a factory. Lena’s baptismal certificate suggests that the family was Albanian-Italian. It’s not clear whether the children’s mother, Anna Buccola, lived with them or not—she is not listed as a member of the household on the 1910 census. The two went to live at the Howard Mission sometime between 1910 and 1915 and stayed for at least five years, from the time Lena was 8 until she was 14. In 1930, when Lucy, the youngest, was 22, she returned to live with her father. The census lists her as working as a dressmaker, a trade she might have learned in her time at the Howard Mission.
A document from 1928 shows the structure of the Mission: dining room and kitchen in the basement, a kindergarten on the first floor, playroom and the administration offices on the second floor, and dormitories above. An occupancy certificate from the same year also lists the building as “nonfireproof.” The children would discover this very quickly.
The New York Times reported that there were 13 fires in the Mission between the years of 1910 and 1912 alone. While flammability was a regular feature of New York apartment buildings at the time, other reasons may well have put the Mission at risk. In 1912, a succession of three fires in three weeks, all of which were in closets and discovered by the same 10-year-old boy, led to his being banned from the annual summer trip to Bradley Beach. Six-year-old Joe De Rocca set fire to his bed in 1911 after lighting a match to look for “hidden pennies.” (Joe protested that this was not true.) Fires sometimes create unexpected heroes. They can also reveal unexpected arsonists. The Howard Mission had both. When 14-year-old Jennie Castrelli discovered a fire in a clothes closet on the upper floor, she didn’t want to scare the younger children, so she told the superintendent Susan Oliffe that there was rain coming through the roof. While the superintendent was dealing with the blaze, Jennie led the 13 other children out of the building. Two years later, in February of 1913, Katherine Weiler, 13, and Anne Schafer, 14, ended up in Children’s Court, where they admitted to a judge that they had set several small fires and used the distraction to steal $50, which they spent on candy and other items.
Gradually, the demographics of the Howard Mission began to change. Beginning in 1925, in the prelude to the widespread economic hardship of the Great Depression, more and more of the children accepted were US-born. This trend would remain until the Mission sold the home in 1944. At that point, it underwent substantial renovations and a conversion of its rooms into apartments. It went through multiple owners and housed many tenants, reflecting in each incarnation the neighborhood around it. Most notably, in 1981 the building housed the first iteration of Patti Astor’s FUN gallery for graffiti art, pre-empting the explosion of the East Village art scene. A Home For Little Wanderers, and the Occasional Arsonist
Today, 225 East 11th is an apartment building that also houses the law office of Askold Lozynskj, an attorney and former president of the Ukranian Free Congress. There’s no plaque indicating its history, nothing to commemorate the children who ran up and down its staircases. It’s not the type of space in which the past does much to inform its present. Yet outside its walls, a new generation of little wanderers are traipsing to school, enduring long commutes on the subway and spending their nights in shelters. At one lower East Side public school, nearly half the students are homeless. The Mission at 225 East 11th Street was an institution that came and went with a specific era. But the poverty and social ills it tried to eliminate still exist, maybe not on East 11th Street, but not too far away.