On the corner of Avenue B and East 8th Street sits the striking former Tompkins Square Lodging House for Boys and Industrial School, which opened on April 21, 1887, and was designated an individual New York City landmark on May 16, 2000, one of dozens of individual landmarks in the East Village (see a list and designation reports for all here). This handsome High Victorian Gothic building, while an architectural standout in the neighborhood, was once home to orphaned newsboys and bootblacks seeking refuge from life on the streets. Purpose built by the Children’s Aid Society, this lodging house provided a home and education to orphans as part of the organization’s goals of improving the lives of children living on the margins of society.
The Children’s Aid Society was originally founded in 1853 by Charles Loring Brace, who sought to improve living conditions for children while providing an opportunity to learn and work as a way of bettering their position. The first lodging house was opened temporarily in 1854 and occupied the top loft of the Sun Building in Lower Manhattan. Brace and other reformers thought that charitable handouts like traditional orphanages promoted dependence and did little to alleviate the conditions of the poor. Therefore, the lodging houses encouraged children to work and charged a fee for room and board. Yet despite the fee, the charity did not turn away children who could not afford to pay and even offered small loans and supplies so children could begin earning a living by selling newspapers or shining shoes.
Out of this desire to not only provide refuge for orphans in poverty but also to improve their condition came the implementation of the Children’s Aid Society’s industrial schools. The industrial schools provided a place where orphaned children as well as children living with their families could learn valuable trade skills like sewing, cooking, typewriting and printing. These industrial schools were home to pioneering programs like visiting nurse programs, free dental clinics and nutritional programs that were on the forefront of social programs to improve the conditions of the poor.
Another program of the Children’s Aid Society was known as the “Orphan Train,” which was an orphan resettlement program. This program is often considered to be the precursor to the modern foster care system. The program partnered orphan children with families settling in the American West in order to place children with pioneering families that could use the extra hands. As the program utilized the nation’s developing railroad network to send orphans westward, it obtained the “Orphan Train” moniker. While it sounds like a black market for children, in actuality the program sought to provide a healthy home-life for orphaned children along with the opportunity to develop good work ethic and responsibility. Even when the program began in 1854, it carefully screened potential families for placement and allowed children to seek alternate placement if their family was in any way unsuitable.
Returning from the frontier to the East Village, the Tompkins Square Lodging House for Boys and Industrial School is the oldest remaining building constructed for the Children’s Aid Society. The New York City individual landmark building was the third in a series of twelve structures designed for the Society by the notable architecture firm of Vaux & Radford. Principal partner, Calvert Vaux, was known for designing another Village icon, the Jefferson Market Courthouse, and famously partnered with Frederick Law Olmstead to design the plan for Central Park.
Other buildings around the area designed by Vaux & Radford for the Society include the Elizabeth Home for Girls, also an individual landmark, at 307 East 12th Street in the East Village and the Sullivan Street Industrial School, both in 1891. Located at 221 Sullivan Street, the industrial school building is within the proposed South Village Historic District that GVSHP proposed and the Landmarks Preservation Commission has agreed to vote on by the end of the year.
However, it is the Tompkins Square Lodging House that Vaux scholars describe as the best example of the designs for the Children’s Aid Society. As the only remaining combination lodging house and industrial school, it is the largest of the remaining Children’s Aid Society buildings designed by Vaux & Radford. After the Society sold the property in 1925 to Darchei Noam, the building functioned as a Jewish center, with classes for Jewish Immigrants. By the 1950s the East Side Hebrew Institute operated a Jewish school until the building was converted into apartments in 1978. The Tompkins Square Lodging House tells the story of the Children’s Aid Society, which is still providing assistance to children in need. This building provided housing and a place of education for many disadvantaged youths and potentially was the starting point for many westward journeys for orphans seeking a new home.