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Beyond the Village and Back: NY Foundling Hospital

In our series Beyond the Village and Back, we take a look at some great landmarks throughout New York City outside of Greenwich Village, the East Village, and NoHo, celebrate their special histories, and reveal their (sometimes hidden) connections to the Village.

The New York Foundling is one of New York City’s oldest and largest child welfare agencies. Founded in 1869 to save the lives of babies being abandoned on the streets of New York, the Foundling currently serves over 30,000 people each year in New York City, Rockland County, and Puerto Rico. Its comprehensive community programs serve vulnerable children and families with foster care, adoption, education, mental health, and many other community-based services. While the world has changed a bit since 1869, The New York Foundling continues to share its founders’ belief that no one should ever be abandoned, and that all children deserve the right to grow up in loving and stable environments.

The New York Foundling Hospital in 1880.

They also built and operated one of the most remarkable buildings in New York — a first-of-its-kind full block complex bounded by Lexington and Third Avenues, 68th and 69th Streets, which formed a striking landmark on the Upper East Side when opened in 1873.  But before we get to that, let’s take a look at New York Foundling’s much more modest beginnings, and what happened to that once prominent landmark.

The Foundling’s Founding

In the late 1860s, there was an epidemic of infanticide and child abandonment In New York City. The Sisters of St. Peter’s Convent downtown on Barclay Street regularly found abandoned babies on their doorstep. Sister Mary Irene Fitzgibbon of St. Peter’s approached Mother Mary Jerome, the Superior of the Sisters of Charity, regarding the need of rescuing these children. Archbishop (later Cardinal) John McCloskey urged the Sisters to open an asylum for such children.

On October 11, 1869, three Sisters of Charity – Sisters Irene, Sister Teresa Vincent, and Ann Aloysia – opened The New York Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity. They received one infant on their first night of operation. Forty-five more babies followed in that first month. To meet overwhelming demand, Foundling opened a boarding department in November and began placing children under the care of neighbors. Seventy-seven more babies followed in the next two months.

The NY Foundling’s receiving crib in an 1899 photo.

Next Steps for Foundling

After two years, The Foundling had accepted 2,500 babies. The New-York Historical Society has a collection of the notes left with the abandoned babies, which is part of a larger collection of historic photographs of the Foundling maintained by the Society. In 1872, construction began on their massive new full block facility on land granted by the state between East 68th and 69th Streets and Lexington and Third Avenues. It opened in 1873, and an adoption department was established to find permanent homes for children.

New York Foundling’s 1873–1958 site. Ca. 1899.

In response to an increasing need for skilled medical and nursing care for mothers and children, The New York Foundling began providing health services in addition to social services. It changed its name to The New York Foundling Hospital to more accurately reflect its services. Among its programs were St. Ann’s Hospital (opened 1880), which provided unmarried mothers with medical treatment; one of the first day nurseries for pre-school children of working mothers (1881); and St. John’s Hospital for Sick Children (1882), which was at the forefront of developing pediatric practices and approaches to caring for children in a hospital setting. The practice of intubation was invented by Founding Hospital staff member Dr. Joseph O’Dwyer. This method of keeping airways open saved thousands of children from the life-threatening disease diphtheria, an epidemic at the time.

Edward Hopper in his studio. What does this have to do with Foundling? Keep reading to find out. March 7. 1962. Image © Estate of Fred W. McDarrah

The hospitals were closed in 1945 and 1946. After that, Foundling focused less on medical services and more on foster and adoption services, nursery care for children and shelter for unwed mothers. They left their grand Victorian complex on 68th Street in 1958 and moved across the street to new modern headquarters at 1175 Third Avenue. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the organization decentralized into community-based services. By 2005, the Foundling no longer managed a hospital and dropped the word “hospital” from its name. These changes allowed the Foundling to expand its core services of foster care and adoption, and to develop new community-based programs.

A Link to the Village

Beginning in 1945, The Foundling operated a developmental clinic to observe, examine and analyze the developmental norms for young children. The clinic became a learning center for students from New York City area medical schools, nursing schools, and psychology departments. These programs were incorporated into Saint Vincent’s Hospital. That’s an interesting link to the Village – but not the connection you came here to read about.

Foundling’s Village Roots

The New York Foundling Asylum of the Sisters of Charity first opened on October 11, 1869 in a Greek Revival row house located at 17 East 12th Street, between Fifth Avenue and University Place. This building was demolished prior to 1929 when a 12-story parking garage (since converted to an apartment building) was built on the site.

The first home of Foundling, 17 East 12th Street. Image 1899 via MCNY. This image was taken after Founding had left. The building on the left, 15 East 12th Street, still stands, while 17 and 19 were demolished.

But fortunately (and thanks in part to landmark designation, which came too late for either 17 East 12th Street or the Foundlings’ massive Victorian Upper East Side complex), all evidence of the hospital’s early facilities have not been lost. Faced with phenomenal growth, within a year of their founding on East 12th Street, the Foundling purchased a larger house at 3 Washington Square, where they set up and operated a 28-room facility for many years. The Greenwich Village Historic District Designation Report refers to Washington Square North as, “the most important and imposing block front of early Nineteenth Century town houses in the City.” It goes on to say, “it may well be considered the prototype, in this country, of the monumental Greek Revival Rowhouse.”

Now home to NYU, 3 Washington Square North is also well known for some famous residents. The Realist painter and printmaker Edward Hopper, along with his wife Josephine Hopper, lived in a studio on the top floor of 3 Washington Square North.

The second home of the New York Foundling Hospital at 3 Washington Square North. Ca. 1899. Image via MCNY

In 1913, when Edward Hopper was 31 years old, he moved into the small Greenwich Village space at 3 Washington Square North where he would both work and live until his death at age 84 in 1967. With a skylight providing the rich natural light he adored and both a roof and window looking out onto Washington Square Park, the setting was ideal for both his work and that of his wife, the painter Jo Hopper, who worked alongside him.

Photograph of Edward Hopper in his Washington Square North studio taken by Berenice Abbott

3 Washington Square, located within the Greenwich Village Historic District, survives to this day.  17 East 12th Street and the Foundling’s Upper East Side complex do not; the full-block site was replaced with a massive white brick apartment complex which goes by the name ‘Imperial House’ in 1960.

‘Imperial House’ entrance. East 69th Street between Lexington and Third Avenues.

And while the original 17 East 12th Street no longer exists, many of its historic neighbors in the blocks east of the Greenwich Village Historic District, near University Place and Broadway, still do.

(1. to r.) 11, 13, 15, and 17 East 12th Street.

But because of a lack of landmark protections, they may not much longer, and the same fate as the Foundlings other historic buildings may befall them.  That’s why we’re fighting to expand landmark protections to this area, where buildings like 11 and 13 East 12th Street face a pretty immediate danger of demolition.  If you want to support landmark protections for this area, click here.

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