The Children’s Aid Society, founded in 1853, dramatically altered the lives of the city’s poor and homeless children through a pioneering rural emigration program and a strong network of country-like lodging houses and industrial schools. In doing so, it set the development of social services across the country into motion. Not only do a number of this Society’s most significant buildings remain in the East Village, but the very site that inspired its founding was located in a little church formerly on the north side of Carmine Street, just east of its intersection with Varick Street.
In the 1830s, an economic boom in New York City attracted huge numbers of newcomers, increasing demand for commercial and residential space. By the 1840s, Irish immigrants fleeing an economic downturn caused by Irish industrialization and agricultural collapse flooded into New York; German immigrants escaping unemployment and religious and political oppression following the failed 1848 revolutions came streaming in; and recently freed African Americans (most northern states had abolished slavery by this time) had developed sizeable communities in the city. To accommodate this growing population, homes in the East Village were converted into boardinghouses, or demolished to make way for new tenement buildings. The possibilities for economic mobility stalled, and city became more and more crowded, increasing the rates of crime and illness. Large numbers of children were not attending schools and many did not have a home, but the city had limited resources to provide support, relying heavily on almshouses, orphan asylums, and religious and philanthropic organizations.
It was at this time the Carmine Street Church, also known as the West Presbyterian Church, housed in a structure built in 1832, decided to act. Under the leadership of Reverend A.D.F. Randolph, in 1848 the church began regularly hosting religious services for what came to be an average of one thousand children. They called the events, which were soon emulated by a handful of institutions, “Boys’ Meetings.” The following year, when the Chief of Police Captain Matsell released his annual report, stating that there were 10,000 children living on the streets, Protestant minister Charles Loring Brace (June 19, 1826 – August 11, 1890), a member of the Carmine Street/West Presbyterian Church, began meeting with two other clergymen to strategize additional and innovative ways they could work to combat this horrific reality. Brace led the group of three, which included Reverend William C. Russell and Reverend Benjamin Howland, in what they called “The Mission.” The men then officially chartered the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) in February of 1853.
From its beginnings, the Children’s Aid Society developed a program it termed “Emigration” or “Placing-Out Department.” The CAS hoped to match the city’s disenfranchised children, many of whom came from immigrant families, with rural families who needed extra laborers. This initiative was guided by Brace’s belief that it was necessary to completely change the circumstances of city’s poor and homeless children in order to alter the course of their lives. He believed the best circumstances would be provided by families based in rural areas who “revealed a spirit of humanity and kindness” that these children did not have access to in the city. Within its first forty years of operation, the CAS guided the emigration of almost one hundred thousand children.
By the late 1870s the Children’s Aid Society had laid a strong organizational foundation and obtained sufficient funding to begin a building campaign. Brace enlisted his friend, architect Calvert Vaux, to undertake the design of the Society’s lodging houses. Its first, the East Side Boys’ Lodging House and Industrial School, was located on East Broadway and Gouveneur Street (now demolished). Calvert Vaux, best-known as the co-designer of Central Park along with Frederick Law Olmstead, was motivated at this point in his career to use his talents to improve the lives of marginalized communities in New York City. Vaux sought to develop buildings that stood out from the city’s tenements, which defined poor and immigrant life in the area with generally grim living conditions. His buildings, often free-standing, displaying varied rooflines, and characterized by ornamental features that recalled Durch architecture, attempted to evoke the feeling and image of a “snug country inn.” Mirroring Brace’s “Placing-Out” program, Vaux’s architectural design envisioned idyllic rural life as the antidote to the challenges facing the city. While there were too many impoverished children to move them all to rural regions, the Children’s Aid Society could create country-like enclaves, ornaments themselves to what were understood to be “ugly” surroundings, right in the middle of the East Village. Vaux entered into a partnership with George Kent Radford in 1873, which lasted eighteen years, and during this period developed most of the Society’s projects.
Over the course of the century, the Children’s Aid Society successfully garnered the support and attention of many wealthy supporters, provided short and long-term housing for children in home-like lodging houses, developed a number of industrial schools that taught students trades to facilitate their employment, and contributed enormously to the growth of social services across the country. In addition to providing industrial and domestic arts classes, these industrial schools broke new ground with visiting nurse programs, free dental clinics, and nutritional education, which were replicated widely by similar organizations thereafter.
Without a doubt, the Children’s Aid Society maintained some questionable practices, especially when viewed through today’s eyes. The organization perceived the city’s disenfranchised children as an abundance of unskilled laborers who could fill the excess of work needed in rural areas, which seems incredibly harsh by today’s standards, but at a time when child labor was common and social services were virtually non-existent, such work was one of the few scalable ways to grant these children sustenance and shelter. But to do so the CAS sent children, many of whom were Catholic immigrants, across the country to live and work with rural farming families, almost all Protestant, in unfamiliar surroundings, at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment among Protestants was quite high. Though the CAS supported entire families moving from the city together starting in 1874, the organization was criticized for severing children from their families of origin, for making placements too hastily, and for being anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, and anti-urban. While some children became part of their foster families, others were forced into what amounted to indentured servitude. The history of the organization was deeply complex, but undeniably, it left a visible mark on the city, on the city’s families, and on the way our country manages poverty, social services, and foster care.
Although the Carmine Street/West Presbyterian Church is no longer extant, a number of Children’s Aid Society buildings remain in our neighborhoods. The Tompkins Square Lodging House for Boys and Industrial School at 295-297 East 8th Street and Avenue B facing Tompkins Square, constructed in 1886, is the oldest extant Children’s Aid Society building, the third building Vaux & Radford designed for the organization, and the only extant building that was both a lodging house and an industrial school. It was designated an individual landmark in 2000.
The Elizabeth Home for Girls at 307 East 12th Street was the only lodging house the Children’s Aid Society designed exclusively for girls, and was constructed in 1891-1892. It was one of the last buildings Vaux & Radford designed, of over twelve, for the Children’s Aid Society. The building was designated an individual landmark in 2008.
Ths Sullivan Street Industrial School at 219 Sullivan Street was another school built by Vaux & Radford for the CAS in 1891-1892. It was designated as part of the South Village Historic District in 2013.
The Sixth Street Industrial School at 630-634 East 6th Street was built in 1889 by Vaux & Radford. Though it remains undesignated, it is one of the few remaining Children’s Aid Society buildings today.
According to the 1895 Annual Report, the CAS’ German Industrial School was located at 272 Second Street. This address was, at the time, Primary School 31. Records over the years are not conclusive, but the present-day 268-272 East 2nd Street may be the same building, albeit in altered form, that housed CAS’ German Industrial School in the 1890s.
For more information on the rich, complex history of the Children’s Aid Society and the Civil Rights and Social Justice history of the East Village, Greenwich Village, and NoHo neighborhoods, click here.