Tag Archives: Henry Street Settlement

Henry Street Settlement and the Legacy of Lillian Wald

Without perhaps intending it, social services pioneer Lillian Wald, in her desire to help thousands of poor immigrant women and children in the Lower East Side, also saved a rare and forgotten part of New York City history.

The modern Henry Street Settlement is spread throughout several buildings in the neighborhood, providing health care, shelter, job training and a host of services to the community.  But it started out in just three adjacent Federalist-style townhouses on Henry Street, recruited into duty by Wald and her benefactor Jacob Schiff to stem the tide of disease and harm that threatened families in the world’s most densely populated neighborhood in the late 19th century.

Children gallivant and pose for pictures outside 265 Henry Street, date unknown (Courtesy Henry Street Settlement)



A Different Lower East Side
As New York grew northward in the 19th century, wealthy landowners carved up their land with hopes of profit and a desire to foster New York’s next great elegant neighborhood. Revolutionary War colonel Henry Rutgers, who lends his first name to the street where the Settlement makes its home, sold off his property near Corlear’s Hook to businessmen with financial concerns along the Manhattan waterfront.

Below: An illustration from Forgotten NY, outlining the dividing line (literally, Division Street) between surrounding properties and Rutger’s own (in yellow). The buildings discussed are at Henry and Montgomery.

Many of the great shipbuilders lived in today’s Lower East Side (in the 1810s, it might have been called the Upper East Side) in fabulous residences within walking distance of the shore. Even by the 1850s, when the character of the neighborhood began to change, the mayor of New York Jacob Westervelt still resided at 308 East Broadway close to his shipyards. His neighbor at 281 East Broadway was city surveyor Isaac Ludlam.

Typical of the buildings that defined the neighborhood were 263 and 265 Henry Street, Federalist townhouses built in 1827. Its neighbor 267 Henry Street is a touch more ornate, with a different shade of brick  in a Georgian Eclectic style.

Picturing these streets today lined with such buildings is requires a vivid imagination. That’s because of the sudden mass of immigrants who arrived in New York by the 1850s, moving into poorer neighborhoods along the waterfront and in places like Five Points. Most of the homes along once-elegant Henry Street were torn down and replaced with tenements. Later, many of those tenements were themselves replaced with blocks of apartment complexes in the early 20th century.

These three Henry Street buildings have survived (as well as a few others, including Ludlam’s old home) because they were repurposed by a woman of uncommon compassion, one of New York’s most important figures in health and social services.

Settling Down

Lillian Wald first came to the city in 1891 as a student of New York Hospital’s nursing program. An intelligent and ambitious woman from Rochester, Wald quickly found purpose in one of the few respectable professions in the late 19th century where women could rapidly excel.

She’s marveled at today as a person of extraordinary compassion. But in many ways Lillian was a modern entrepreneur, able to latch onto the progressive instincts of the day to solve the immediate social ills facing New York with great imagination and a bold lack of prejudice.

When Wald founded the Nurses Settlement in 1893, she was building upon the practices of altruistic Christian programs (like the Methodist missions into Five Points) that brought social services into the very heart of slum-filled, overcrowded neighborhoods. However Wald was Jewish, and her perspectives involving health care were profoundly nonreligious and ‘universalist’ for the day.

Below: Nurses heading out to the tenements

In that year she also met wealthy banker Jacob Schiff (who himself had immigrated to New York in 1865) who purchased the three Henry Street buildings for Wald to properly set up her nursing agency. From that moment, it became the Henry Street Settlement, housing a squad of nurses sent out into the neighborhood to tackle an ungainly number of health issues.

In an era where poor patients were often turned away from standard hospitals, Wald and her team of extraordinary women provided care for free, often risking their own lives to enter squalid tenements and exposing themselves to many illness that today have been completely eradicated. (One of her nurses, Margaret Sanger, would later become America’s leading birth control advocate.)

A nurse scales a rooftop to access a patient’s home. Judging from the gas tanks in the distance, she’s in the area of today’s upper East Village.

The Settlement had no problem making the former Henry Street residences into working clinics. The rooms still felt like a home in its decor, a respite for many visiting patients. The nurses lived upstairs in rows of small bedrooms, most of which today have been turned into cozy offices.

The most lively (and historically important) room at the Settlement was the dining room, with large mahogany tables where Wald entertained a wide variety of guests, from poor patients to the great thinkers and Progressive voices of the day.

Below: A knitting class in the famous Henry Street dining room, May 1910. The fireplace at left is still very much intact. [LOC]

Beyond Borders
The Henry Street Settlement soon expanded its mission statement to generally improve the quality of life in the Lower East Side. Concerned that neighborhood children had no place to play, Wald set aside her courtyard to become one of New York’s first playgrounds in 1902.


Below: The location of the playground, just behind the Henry Street structures, pictured in an 1895 image by Jacob Riis and a most recent image.

Wald frequently held meetings here for strikers rallying against the women’s garment industry. In 1909, she invited both white and black guests for a dinner, organizing a group that would soon grow to become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP).

An excerpt from her 1915 book ‘A House On Henry Street‘ illustrates the racial politics of such a seemingly simple dinner party:

“At the time of the first convention of the organization, [the NAACP] formed to further better race relations in this country, the occasion promised to be almost too serious unless some social provision were made. 

I suggested a party at the House, but even the organizing committee was fearful. ‘Oh, no!’ they protested. ‘It won’t do! As soon as white and colored people sit down and eat together there begin to be newspaper stories about social equality.’ 

‘But two hundred members of the conference couldn’t sit down,’ I submitted. ‘Our house is too small. Everybody would have to stand up for supper.’ ‘Then it would be all right,’ they said with relief, and the party was successful.”

Below: One of the two original dining tables. Wald hosted hosted dozens of intellectual luminaries in this room, including Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacob Riis and Theodore Roosevelt.

Wald would become a leading figure for New York social programs, often enlisted by the city to bring improvement to the city’s other public services. (In 1902, Henry Street’s Lina Rogers become the very first school nurse.)  The Settlement even become an important venue for the arts with the debut of the Neighborhood Playhouse theater in 1915.

The tradition lives on at the Abrons Arts Center, another part of the Settlement that continues to be a critical part of the Lower East Side cultural community. (Below: A flyer for a WPA meeting, between 1936-41, LOC)


Wald died in 1940, but her Henry Street Settlement has only expanded in the years since her passing. Today they have facilities in over a dozen buildings throughout the neighborhood, expanding their focus to include job training, mental health services, adult education, a shelter for victims of domestic violence and even a computer lab.

Those original three buildings, housing mostly administrative offices today, are still a wonderful expression of an early era of New York history. Traces of that history sits next to the practicalities of office life; in one room, an original kitchen hearth and brick oven from the original tenants sit next to a couple photocopiers. Employees sit at laptops in Lillian Wald’s original bedroom with its spectacular sleeping porch overlooking the former playground.

The Henry Street Settlement hopes to use the Partners In Preservation grant money to combat the challenges of keeping their nearly two-centuries old offices in working order, to upgrade and prepare these old rooms for many more decades of providing a little more life to the Lower East Side.

Below: A portrait of Lillian Wald by William Valentine Schevill, hanging in the U.S. Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C.

(Portions of this article originally ran on this site back in 2012)

The Women’s Peace Parade, a moody anti-war protest in 1914

Give Peace A Chance: Women take to the streets in a stunning parade of mourning

Below are some pictures of what’s possibly New York City’s first anti-war protest organized by women, on August 29, 1914.

War had erupted that summer in Europe, sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in late June and unfurling into a continent-wide catastrophe, as countries entered the fray on either side of the conflict.  Within weeks of the conflict, New Yorkers with strong ties to individual nations were raising money and even boarding ships to fight alongside their distant countrymen.

In other cities with sizable European populations — such as Montreal — people were already marching, calling for an end to the conflict.  And leading this call were women already involved in social organizations, in particular, suffragists with networks that reached into high society.

Protesting war has been a touchy issue in New York City. [See the Civil War Draft Riots for such a protest gone wrong.]  The mayor had expressly forbade parades in support of individual nations on New York streets lest a microscopic version of the European conflict erupt here.  Anti-war was often associated with socialist organizations and indeed, that August, several did march in Union Square.  But these were comprised largely of men.

Which makes the Women’s Peace Parade so unusual.  Prominent women met at the Hotel McAlpin in mid-August to plan what was essentially a mourning parade, with its participants — from all walks of life — dressed in black as though in a funeral procession. (As you can see in the pictures, many women also chose to wear white in a symbol of peacetime, garnished with black accessories.)

Many people didn’t quite understand what a peace protest even meant, seeing it as a wasted effort. One letter writer to the New York Times asked. “Will any of the women who intend to parade in protest of the war explain what they mean to accomplish by such a demonstration?”

While the parade drew from prominent individuals in the suffrage movement, others were simply not convinced.  Carrie Chapman Catt, one of America’s most famous suffragists, remarked, “If anybody thinks that a thousand, or a million, women marching through New York or talking about peace in the abstract will have any effect on the situation in Europe, it is because they don’t know the situation in Europe.”

But, in fact, there was a motivation.  One of New York’s leading activists Harriet Stanton Blanch — daughter of Elizabeth Cady Stanton — was very succinct about their motivation. “This is a movement for actual work. We intend to do something definite. We wish to have a meeting at The Hague Peace Conference called.”

The parade began in the afternoon, marching down Fifth Avenue from 58th Street down to Union Square. Women who either lived or shopped along the avenue now marched in formal procession down it, accompanied by the “ominous beat of muffled drums.”  There was occasional applause but otherwise “the general silence of the great gathering was considered the best evidence of understanding.” [source]

Among the marchers were Lillian Wald and the nurses of Henry Street Settlement.
The skies were appropriately gray.  Some participants hoped for rain actually.  “Every woman in the slow-moving line wore some badge of mourning, either a band of black around her sleeve or a bit of crepe fluttering at her breast, as a token of the black death which is hovering over the European battlefields.” [source]

The parade marshal was the young Portia Willis, a magnetic lecturer on the suffragist circuit. .

While the organizers announced there was to be only one flag on display in the parade — the flag for peace — one other crept into the proceedings.  “The smallest Boy Scout was Alfred Greenwald, 4 years old, who … attracted much attention.  Little Alfred unknowingly broke the most stringent rule of the parade by carrying a flag.  He carried a United States flag but it was furled.” [source]

Unfortunately I was not able to locate any pictures of the second half of the parade — with 250 African-American women in solidarity, followed by “a number of Indian and Chinese women” and carloads of elderly women and babies.

Those who witnessed the parade would not soon forget it, especially in the following months as the conflict that would become known as World War I grew to eventually encompass the United States.

MetroCard adventure: The 10 best free Open House NY events that don’t need a reservation

The Edgar Allen Poe Cottage — with horse and buggy! — photographed between 1910-1915. You can visit it as part of Open House New York and even go visit their new visitors center. (Courtesy LOC)

Open House New York is the absolute best time of the year to wander the city and visit dozens of New York City’s greatest historical landmarks and architectural wonders.  Unfortunately, reservations for many of those places pretty much filled up within ten minutes.

Never fear, for a great many of the most interesting ones don’t take reservations and are wander-in-as-you-please type venues. Go to their website or pick up a copy of the Open House schedule and stitch together some great weekend plans.  
Trust me, I never, ever remember to make reservations (although, for the first time ever, I actually did get in a couple this year) so I always rely on the free sites.  And there are plenty to choose from.

You can even make a theme day out of OHNY free sites. For instance, do this free tour of Bronx historic homes:  the Van Cortlandt House, the Valentine-Varian House, the Bartow-Pell Mansion and the Edgar Allen Poe Cottage, all open this weekend.  NOTE: Be aware that the government shutdown has shuttered some of these locations for the weekend.  So no Hamilton Grange, no African Burial Ground and no Grant’s Tomb!

Below are some my personal recommendations, ten must-see stops for your weekend.  I’ll be spending my weekend hitting several Open House sites, including some of those listed below.  You can follow along with my trek through the city on Twitter (@boweryboys).   I’ve also made some podcast listening suggestions below; you can download them from the links, pick them up on iTunes, or stream them on Stitcher and other services.

All the times below are from the Open House New York website. Please check their site before you go for any changes!

Above: One of the first playgrounds in the city, located in the Settlement yard. You’ll see this on your tour. (Pic courtesy Facts on File)

HENRY STREET SETTLEMENT
Manhattan, Lower East Side, 265 Henry Street
Open: Saturday only, with free open tours at 10am, 10:45am, 11:30am, 1:30pm, 2:15pm, 3:00pm, 3:45pm
If you are anywhere near the Lower East Side this weekend, you owe it to yourself to take a look inside here.  The Henry Street Settlement is a landmark medical and social-outreach facility, founded 120 years ago by Lillian Wald to serve the over-crowded immigrant community.  You have to see how they’ve stitched together this series of classic old row houses from the inside.  Wait until you see Lillian’s sleeping porch!
Before you go: Read this profile on the settlement that I wrote last year for the Partners In Preservation program.

NEW YORK MARBLE CEMETERY and NEW YORK CITY MARBLE CEMETERY
Manhattan, East Village, 41 1/2 Second Avenue and 52-74 2nd Street
Open: Sat and Sun, 10am-5pm
Manhattan’s two oldest cemeteries are quiet oases from the street, spacious greens interspersed with the grave and vault markers of New York’s oldest families.  Worth a short visit, even if you’ve been before. Do you remember a couple years ago when they found some C-4 explosives in the 2nd Street site?

GRAND LODGE OF MASONS
Manhattan, Chelsea, 71 West 23rd Street
Open: Sat and Sun: 11-2pm
I think I recommend this every year. Because it’s totally bonkers! These elaborate ceremony rooms dripping in gilded finery will set you imagination ablaze. You’ll need three hands to count the number of pipe organs. Paranoid people or those allergic to decorative pomp should probably avoid.

FIFTH AVENUE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH CLOCK TOWER
Manhattan, Midtown East, 7 West 55th Street
Open Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 12:30pm-5pm
Reservations to the Trinity Church bell tower downtown filled up pretty quickly.  But if really, really want to tour a Gothic tower, look no further than this beautiful church’s clock tower, which will be open to those in comfortable shoes.  Afterwards, just a few minutes east, go take a look at the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum and Garden in one of Manhattan’s oldest buildings. (Open Sun 11am-4pm)

FRICK ART REFERENCE LIBRARY
Manhattan, Upper East Side, 10 East 71st Street
Open: Sat-Sun Noon-3pm, tours on the hour
There are a lot of great sites open on Fifth Avenue along Central Park. Start with the Central Park Arsenal and later on, proceed up to the Ukrainian Institute of America, the National Academy Museum and the New York Academy of Medicine, all free.  But don’t leave out this new addition to the OHNY calendar, the Frick Art Reference Library, built in 1935 and designed by John Russell Pope (better known for the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC). If you spend your afternoon touring all these buildings along Central Park’s east side, you’ll feel instantly smarter.

BROOKLYN ARMY TERMINAL
Brooklyn, Sunset Park, 140 58th Street
Open: Saturday 11am-5pm
Believe it or not, this was designed by Cass Gilbert, the same person who gave us the Woolworth Building.  Completed in 1919, this was the largest military supply base in the United States through World War II, an awe-inspiring space that today is leased to private tenants.. If industrial architecture fascinates you and you haven’t yet seen this building up close, make this your first stop of the day. (Picture courtesy On The Real NY)
Before you go: If you’d like a primer on Gilbert’s early New York work, here’s my article on Gilbert’s three other buildings constructed prior to the Woolworth.

OLD STONE HOUSE
Brooklyn, Park Slope, 336 3rd Street
Open: Sat 9-5pm, Sun 10-5pm
This reconstructed Revolutionary War site is already a favorite for many in the neighborhood. But there’s one particularly fascinating reason to visit this weekend — on Saturday, reinactors in period uniforms will play baseball based upon 1864 rules.  The Kings County Fiber Festival will also be taking place. You can never have enough fiber in your diet! (Of the crochet variety, that is.)
Before you go: Hear about the history of the Old Stone House in our podcast on New York and the British Invasion 1776. [website] [podcast]

ST. GEORGE THEATRE
Staten Island, St. George, 35 Hyatt Street
Open: Sunday only, 10 am-2pm, with a free guided tour at noon
A few minutes walk from the ferry terminal, this fabulous old theater was built in 1928 and a few years later purchased by William Fox, the powerful movie executive whose name is attached to 20th Century Fox and the Fox Television Network. The stage is frequently used on television and movies. Were you a fan of NBC’s ‘Smash‘? The faux Marilyn Monroe musical was mounted here.
Before you go: Listen to the Bowery Boys podcast on the Staten Island Ferry to learn the origins of the name St. George. [download here] [webpage]

The Trans-World Airlines Flight Center, open this weekend for your intercontinental enjoyment. Pic courtesy Life Magazine.

TWA FLIGHT CENTER
Queens, JFK Airport
Open: 11am-4pm
Yes, this means you’ll have to go to the airport without the benefit of having a vacation attached to it.  But if you haven’t see this Eero Saarinen masterpiece up close yet, it’s worth the voyage.  One of the most flamboyant examples of modernist architecture still standing, Saarinen’s groovy, bird-like structure  embodies a way of thinking about flight and broke the mold for fashionable public spaces.  I dare you to come out here dressed as a vintage flight attendant.
Before you go: Listen to the Bowery Boys podcast on Idlewild/JFK Airport to discover the secrets to JFK’s ‘charm bracelet’ design. [download here] [webpage]

HINDU TEMPLE SOCIETY OF NORTH AMERICA (GANESH TEMPLE)
Queens, Flushing, 45-57 Bowne Street
Open: Sat-Sun 8am-9pm, free tours at 12, 1:30, 2:30 4pm  
One of the most fascinating religious structures in New York, the Ganesh Temple was built in 1970 with granite shrines and imported stone from India.  Wandering through with your shoes off is both marvelously peaceful and slightly disorienting.  A beautiful, otherworldly gem in the midst of Flushing.  And there’s a delicious canteen in the basement.

Why are there so many Henry Streets in New York City?

Manhattan’s Henry Street looking south, 1935, photo by Berenice Abbott (NYPL)

Since Manhattan and Brooklyn developed as two separate cities before they were intertwined within consolidated New York City in 1898, it’s not surprising to see similar street names in both boroughs, deriving from different origins.  But the Henrys being honored in these street names are quite different:

Henry Street (Manhattan) is named for Henry Rutgers, the Revolutionary War hero and the financial savior of Queen’s College in New Jersey, who thanked him by renaming themselves Rutgers College (later University).  You’ll find a Rutgers Street in the Lower East Side too; in fact, it intersects with Henry Street. I wonder if he had a middle name?

This of course the Henry Street of  Henry Street Settlement, the pivotal health and social services provider which opened on this street in 1895.

Henry Street (Brooklyn), however, is named for Dr. Thomas W. Henry, a prominent physician in the 1820s who treated the early aristocracy of Brooklyn Heights.  Although Henry was president of the Medical Society of the County of Kings from 1831-32, it doesn’t seem like he was a name for the annals of medical history.  The reason he got his own street has to do with one of the families he treated — the Middaghs.

Lady Middagh, as legend has it, wanted more colorful names for her neighborhood and led a movement to rename certain streets for pieces of fruit — which is why Brooklyn Heights has a Cranberry Street, an Orange Street and a Pineapple Street.

Despite her aversion to pompous street names, one street is actually named for her own family (Middagh Street) and, of course, one for her beloved doctor.

North Henry Street (Brooklyn) was just regular Henry Street in the independent town of Greenpoint.  But that changed in 1855, when Greenpoint — and its neighbors Williamsburg(h) and Bushwick — were annexed into the city of Brooklyn.  Dozens of old street names were changed when the annexation took place. Here’s a lengthy list of other altered names.  Since the southern Henry Street was the ‘original’ Henry Street of Brooklyn, this one got a North stuck to it.

It’s not clear to me which Henry this is named after, but it’s possible that it took its name from Revolutionary War hero Patrick Henry.  If so, it would have shared this trait with one of Brooklyn’s greatest politicians, Patrick Henry McCarren, who represented the Williamsburg(h) and Greenpoint areas during the years of the Gilded Age.

Interestingly, none of these Brooklyn Henry Streets are named after Henry Ward Beecher, although his pulpit at Plymouth Church sits near the ‘original’ Henry Street.

Henry Place (Staten Island) is in the neighborhood of South Beach.  I’m not sure of the origin of the name, but one possibility could be a farmer named Henry Bedell, whose mill gives its name to Mill Creek, or even Henry Hudson, who landed here in 1609 before heading over to Mannahatta.

But according to this census report from 1930, Staten Island had a great many more streets named for Henry!  As this borough was a collection of small villages — and still feels that way in some areas there today — there were various Henrys that had to be eliminated for the ease of mail delivery and mapping.

If you have any information on the more unknown Henry Streets, any speculation, or if I missed any Henry Streets, please leave a comment below or email me at boweryboysnyc@earthlink.net.

Henry Street Settlement: From the doors of old townhouses springs the compassionate heart of the Lower East Side

Children gallivant and pose for pictures outside 265 Henry Street, date unknown (Courtesy Henry Street Settlement)

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION Until May 21st, you can vote every day in the Partners In Preservation initiative, a program that will award grant money to certain New York cultural and historical sites among 40 nominees. Having trouble deciding which site to support? I’ll be featuring a few select sites here on the blog, providing you with a window into their history and hopefully giving you many reasons to visit these places, long after this competition is done. Read about other candidates here.


Historic Site: Henry Street Settlement


Without perhaps intending it, social services pioneer Lillian Wald, in her desire to help thousands of poor immigrant women and children in the Lower East Side, also saved a rare and forgotten part of New York City history.

 The modern Henry Street Settlement is spread throughout several buildings in the neighborhood, providing health care, shelter, job training and a host of services to the community.  But it started out in just three adjacent Federalist-style townhouses on Henry Street, recruited into duty by Wald and her benefactor Jacob Schiff to stem the tide of disease and harm that threatened families in the world’s most densely populated neighborhood in the late 19th century.


A Different Lower East Side
As New York grew northward in the 19th century, wealthy landowners carved up their land with hopes of profit and a desire to foster New York’s next great elegant neighborhood. Revolutionary War colonel Henry Rutgers, who lends his first name to the street where the Settlement makes its home, sold off his property near Corlear’s Hook to businessmen with financial concerns along the Manhattan waterfront.

Below: An illustration from Forgotten NY, outlining the dividing line (literally, Division Street) between surrounding properties and Rutger’s own (in yellow). The buildings discussed are at Henry and Montgomery.

Many of the great shipbuilders lived in today’s Lower East Side (in the 1810s, it might have been called the Upper East Side) in fabulous residences within walking distance of the shore. Even by the 1850s, when the character of the neighborhood began to change, the mayor of New York Jacob Westervelt still resided at 308 East Broadway close to his shipyards. His neighbor at 281 East Broadway was city surveyor Isaac Ludlam.

Typical of the buildings that defined the neighborhood were 263 and 265 Henry Street, Federalist townhouses built in 1827. Its neighbor 267 Henry Street is a touch more ornate, with a different shade of brick  in a Georgian Eclectic style.

Picturing these streets today lined with such buildings is requires a vivid imagination. That’s because of the sudden mass of immigrants who arrived in New York by the 1850s, moving into poorer neighborhoods along the waterfront and in places like Five Points. Most of the homes along once-elegant Henry Street were torn down and replaced with tenements. Later, many of those tenements were themselves replaced with blocks of apartment complexes in the early 20th century.

These three Henry Street buildings have survived (as well as a few others, including Ludlam’s old home) because they were repurposed by a woman of uncommon compassion, one of New York’s most important figures in health and social services.

Settling Down
Lillian Wald first came to the city in 1891 as a student of New York Hospital’s nursing program. An intelligent and ambitious woman from Rochester, Wald quickly found purpose in one of the few respectable professions in the late 19th century where women could rapidly excel. She’s marveled at today as a person of extraordinary compassion. But in many ways Lillian was a modern entrepreneur, able to latch onto the progressive instincts of the day to solve the immediate social ills facing New York with great imagination and a bold lack of prejudice.

When Wald (at right) founded the Nurses Settlement in 1893, she was building upon the practices of altruistic Christian programs (like the Methodist missions into Five Points) that brought social services into the very heart of slum-filled, overcrowded neighborhoods. However Wald was Jewish, and her perspectives involving health care were profoundly nonreligious and ‘universalist’ for the day.

In that year she also met wealthy banker Jacob Schiff (who himself had immigrated to New York in 1865) who purchased the three Henry Street buildings for Wald to properly set up her nursing agency. From that moment, it became the Henry Street Settlement, housing a squad of nurses sent out into the neighborhood to tackle an ungainly number of health issues.

In an era where poor patients were often turned away from standard hospitals, Wald and her team of extraordinary women provided care for free, often risking their own lives to enter squalid tenements and exposing themselves to many illness that today have been completely eradicated. (One of her nurses, Margaret Sanger, would later become America’s leading birth control advocate.)

The Settlement had no problem making the former Henry Street residences into working clinics. The rooms still felt like a home in its decor, a respite for many visiting patients. The nurses lived upstairs in rows of small bedrooms, most of which today have been turned into cozy offices. The most lively (and historically important) room at the Settlement was the dining room, with large mahogany tables where Wald entertained a wide variety of guests, from poor patients to the great thinkers and Progressive voices of the day.



Below: A knitting class in the famous Henry Street dining room, May 1910. The fireplace at left is still very much intact. [LOC]

Beyond Borders
The Henry Street Settlement soon expanded its mission statement to generally improve the quality of life in the Lower East Side. Concerned that neighborhood children had no place to play, Wald set aside her courtyard to become one of New York’s first playgrounds in 1902.


Below: The location of the playground, just behind the Henry Street structures.

Wald frequently held meetings here for strikers rallying against the women’s garment industry. In 1909, she invited both white and black guests for a dinner, organizing a group that would soon grow to become the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (the NAACP).

An excerpt from her 1915 book ‘A House On Henry Street‘ illustrates the racial politics of such a seemingly simple dinner party:

“At the time of the first convention of the organization, [the NAACP] formed to further better race relations in this country, the occasion promised to be almost too serious unless some social provision were made. 


I suggested a party at the House, but even the organizing committee was fearful. ‘Oh, no!’ they protested. ‘It won’t do! As soon as white and colored people sit down and eat together there begin to be newspaper stories about social equality.’ 


‘But two hundred members of the conference couldn’t sit down,’ I submitted. ‘Our house is too small. Everybody would have to stand up for supper.’ ‘Then it would be all right,’ they said with relief, and the party was successful.”

Above: One of the two original dining tables. Wald hosted hosted dozens of intellectual luminaries in this room, including Jane Addams, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacob Riis and Theodore Roosevelt.

Wald would become a leading figure for New York social programs, often enlisted by the city to bring improvement to the city’s other public services. (In 1902, Henry Street’s Lina Rogers become the very first school nurse.)  The Settlement even become an important venue for the arts with the debut of the Neighborhood Playhouse theater in 1915. The tradition lives on at the Abrons Arts Center, another part of the Settlement that continues to be a critical part of the Lower East Side cultural community. (At right: A flyer for a WPA meeting, between 1936-41, LOC)

Wald died in 1940, but her Henry Street Settlement has only expanded in the years since her passing. Today they have facilities in over a dozen buildings throughout the neighborhood, expanding their focus to include job training, mental health services, adult education, a shelter for victims of domestic violence and even a computer lab.

Those original three buildings, housing mostly administrative offices today, are still a wonderful expression of an early era of New York history. Traces of that history sits next to the practicalities of office life; in one room, an original kitchen hearth and brick oven from the original tenants sit next to a couple photocopiers. Employees sit at laptops in Lillian Wald’s original bedroom with its spectacular sleeping porch overlooking the former playground.

The Henry Street Settlement hopes to use the Partners In Preservation grant money to combat the challenges of keeping their nearly two-centuries old offices in working order, to upgrade and prepare these old rooms for many more decades of providing a little more life to the Lower East Side.

Disclosure: I have partnered up with Partners in Preservation as a blog ambassador to help spread the word and raise awareness of select historical sites throughout the tri-state area. Though I am compensated for my time, I have not been instructed to express any particular point of view. All opinions expressed here are strictly my own. And since writing about New York landmarks is kinda my thing anyway, I’m thrilled to share my love of these places!

The 25 Most Influential Women in New York City history


ABOVE: These are the ladies who lunch in Prospect Park 1935

We talk about a lot of white men on the Bowery Boys podcast. When discussing the mainstream history of the city, it’s pretty unavoidable. Men had the money, the power, the influence. Not to mention most of the corruption, the crime, the scandal.

So as Women’s History Month draws to a close (okay, I’m one day late), I thought I’d make a very opinionated list of the 25 women who made the biggest impact to the city of New York, at least as seen by this humble blogger and podcaster.

There have obviously been many, many New York-based women whose contributions changed the country and the world. There are your feminists (Elizabeth Cady Stanton), your activists (Ella Baker), your entrepreneurs (Estee Lauder), your tastemakers (Diana Vreeland) and your entertainers (Madonna).

But these 25 helped shape the actual city itself. The neighborhoods, populations and culture, to be sure. But most importantly, they each effected perceptions of the city, both to its residents and outward to the world. (Thus, for instance, you’ll note my heavy emphasis on preservationists.)

This is not an ultimate list. I obviously do not know the impact of every woman who ever lived in New York City. Many women communicated power through wealth and property; I don’t have the social register from every season and cannot gauge the influence of every bold-faced name. These are just 25 that have crossed my path since we started the Bowery Boys that I just wanted to celebrate today.

I’ve obviously missed out on a few, so if you have a particular favorite that’s missing, please put them in the comment section. At the bottom I have a list of ladies that made my personal honorable mention. So here we go!

Brooke Astor (1902-2007)
Philanthropist

She was the last of the socialites, as they say. The queen of old American money, for 105 years Astor ruled as the last official vestige of one of Manhattan’s wealthiest families, setting a standard for philanthropy and sadly leaving an uncertain legacy amid scandals involving her heirs.

Power is the ability to do good things for others. — Brooke Astor

Alice Austen (1866-1952)
Photographer

Few saw the Gilded Age city quite as Austen did, a Staten Island native who captured the beauties of New York, the horrors of Ellis Island’s quarantine station, and the wonders of the world, but probably took her best shots from her own backyard at Clear Comfort, in Rosebank, SI.

Below: a girl newsie in 1896, as captured by Austen

Nellie Bly (1864-1922)
Journalist
Her bravery, curiosity and outright nerve made her a writer of international fame, one of the first investigative journalists in the age of sensational journalism. But the story that put her on the map was her undercover expose at Blackwell’s Island, ripping open the abuses of New York’s island of untouchables, changing how the city thought about both the infirm and the incarcerated.

Could I pass a week in the insane ward at Blackwell’s Island? I said I could and I would. And I did. — Nellie Bly

Margaret Corbin (1751-1800)
Revolutionary
Things were so precarious in the fall of 1776, the dawn of the Revolution, that anyone who lived in New York might have turned the tide of war. Many women did their part to battle the British, from Mary Lindlay Murray the to the mysterious Agent 355, a shrouded spy among the British. But Corbin is notable not just for particular bravery but for sacrifice; she continued to lob cannon fire at the British from Fort Washington in today’s Washington Heights well after her husband was killed. Corbin herself was later imprisoned by the British. Today the street along Fort Tryon is named for her.

Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005)
Trailblazer
The pride of Bedford-Stuyvesant maneuvering through the precarious world of New York politics, Chisholm won a seat in the state legislature in 1964 but always dreamed to represent Brooklyn on a national level, in the U.S House of Representatives. She finally got her wish to represent her neighborhood when redistricting lines were finally redrawn — finally allowing a black candidate to run (and win) in a largely black community — and won her seat in Congress in 1968. Shirley never disguised her ties to her beloved Brooklyn neighborhood, even as a candidate for president of the United States.

That I am a national figure because I was the first person in 192 years to be at once a congressman, black and a woman proves, I think, that our society is not yet either just or free. — Shirley Chisholm


Margot Gayle (1908-2008)
Community leader

Gayle, who died last year at age 100, loved her Victorian architecture and in particular cast-iron, the antiquated style of downtown New York warehouses. Seeing destruction imminent, she decided to save what she considered one of the city’s most neglected treasures. Forming her first community group in the 1950s to save castle-like Jefferson Market Courthouse, Gayle galvanized a grassroots architecture movement.

There might be no SoHo without Gayle; as a campaigner, her work in saving and preserving this heretofore disregarded part of downtown led to one of Manhattan’s great neighborhood success stories. The SoHo Cast Iron Historic District exists due to her efforts. And, more importantly, her work became a template for how future neighborhoods could be revitalized. (Read her Times obituary here).


Emma Goldman (1869-1940)
Agitator

Probably the most influential anarchist in American history, Goldman promoted the rights of workers and upended the role of women in New York politics. The Russian-born activist made her name on the streets of Manhattan, stirring Bohemia and workers alike, butting heads with most of New York’s leading industrialists in the process.

Her views are controversial, often horrifying by today’s standards. (She once ordered the assassination of Henry Clay Frick, for instance.) But her powers as an orator and rabble-rouser are unquestioned; her stirring words in Union Square (pictured above) during the panic of 1893 gave voice to the outrage of the city.

If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal. — Emma Goldman


Leona Helmsley (1920-2007)
Magnate

Leona and her husband Harry reigned over a vast Manhattan empire of highrises and hotels, permanently changing Park and Madison avenues, helping transform New York into a city of condominiums. Her status as the Queen of Mean also formed the modern caricature of overbearing and out of touch wealthy elite. Later convicted of tax evasion, Leona died in 2007 a laughing-stock. (That Suzanne Pleshette film didn’t help either.) But her reach extends through many of the city’s great iconic buildings, including the Empire State Building, which she and her husband once managed.

Billie Holiday (1915-1959)
Chanteuse
Of all the thousands of entertainers that have left their imprint on the city, Holiday’s is the one that makes the deepest impact. Her entire story — her birth, her rise to fame, her indiscretions and her tragic death — takes place in New York. Her greatest performances electrified and reshaped race assumptions in 1930s and 40s nightlife; legendary nights at places like Cafe Society ensured entertainment would no longer be strictly a black and white affair. Her performance style is emulated nightly in cabarets and clubs throughout the city.

Ada Louise Huxtable (1921-2013)
Critic
She is the best known woman in twentieth century architecture, and she isn’t even an architect. It’s hard to analyze the history of any building without first checking in with Ada to see what she has to say on the matter. Her writing is elegant, persnickety, direct and affectionate to architectural aesthetic as a whole, and New York City in specific. As a writer for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Huxtable directed New York’s architecture scene from behind her desk, excoriating designers for excess or dullness, praising beauty when it improved the city’s legendary skyline.

I like old buildings that are intriguing and quite wonderful but don’t make the history books. What you discover is there’s a little group of people that have been admiring them quietly by themselves all along. — Ada Louise Huxtable

Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643)
Dissident

Escaping persecution in both Puritan Massachusetts and Rhode Island, religious revolutionary Hutchinson and her followers settled in today’s area of the North Bronx in the 1640s, one of two significant female leaders in the early New York area. Although she was later murdered — Lenapes wiped out the settlement in 1643, a victim of New Amsterdam’s persistent conflicts with native tribes — she still leaves her mark today. The Hutchinson River and Parkway both carry her name.


Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)
Community defender

Her theories on urban life have benefited many North American cities, but it was her struggles to save neighborhoods from Robert Moses and the rise of car culture in the 1950s and 60s that make her most influential today. The entirely of downtown Manhattan has her to thank for fighting back — and ultimately defeating — Moses’ destructive Lower Manhattan Expressway proposal. The theories described in her classic “Death and Life of Great American Cities” were shaped from observing life from her window at 555 Hudson Street in the West Village.

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody. — Jane Jacobs

Lady Deborah Moody (1586 – 1659)
Founder
The British-born Moody, like Hutchinson, took to the unknown when persecuted for her religious beliefs. With the permission of William Kieft, the “dangerous” Moody set up the colony of Gravesend in 1645, becoming the first female founder of an American colony. Gravesend was one of the original towns of Brooklyn and is still the name of a south Brooklyn neighborhood today.


Jackie Kennedy Onassis (1929-1994)
Icon

Settling in New York after the deaths of two husbands, Onassis was the biggest bold-faced name in the city, famously suffering the intrusive effects of paparazzi. However she used her headline grabbing name wisely as a member of the Municipal Art Society, helping defend Grand Central Station, Columbus Circle and Staten Island’s Snug Harbor from modification or outright destruction. The Central Parks reservoir is named in her honor, and MAS gives out a yearly Jackie Kennedy Onassis Medal to noteworthy New Yorkers. (Margot Gayle received it in 1997.)

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)
Wit

As doyenne of the Algonquin Round Table, Parker had the sharpest friends in town in the 1920s. Her droll charm helped create the archetype of New York caustic intellectualism, something Woody Allen, Fran Lebowitz and an entire culture of New Yorker readers can well recognize.

I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy. — Dorothy Parker

Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874-1948)
Collector

She could very well have stayed in the sidelines with the other spouses of multi-millionares. But Abby’s tastes and passions for modern art led her to an astonishing collection she kept on an upper floor of her townhouse, away from her husband J.D. Rockefeller Jr., who didn’t much care for those odd little pictures. Years later, that townhouse would give way to Abby’s pet project, the Museum of Modern Art, one of the most influential galleries for 20th Century art. Her memory is kept alive at the museum with the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden.

Emily Warren Roebling (1843-1903)
Bridge Builder

Construction on the Brooklyn Bridge had barely begun when her husband and master engineer Washington Roebling came down with crippling symptoms of the Bends. Emily at first operated only as his eyes and ears, but soon grew into the role of leading the completion of New York’s first great bridge. Ceremonially, she was the first person to cross it.


Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)
World Leader

One of the most powerful American women to have ever lived was a New Yorker through and through. Her aristocratic name may have opened doors for her early on, but her compassion and ingenuity would soon set her apart, first as a social worker in Manhattan slums, then as the spouse of a governor and president. She returned to New York after FDR’s death to become a U.S. delegate to the United Nations. (Above: Eleanor with New York City society women.)

Beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art. — Eleanor Roosevelt

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966)
Rebel

Her influence in the fields of reproduction and birth control would eventually go global, but all nurse Sanger really wanted to do at first was help out women in the Lower East Side. From her work in the slums, Sanger believed radical action was neccessary to control the rising tide of pregnancies, leading to larger families and greater poverty. In 1917 she opened New York’s first birth control clinic in Brooklyn and was promptly thrown in jail. Ten years later, her innovations as an educator in birth control — she’s the mother of Planned Parenthood! — would catch on worldwide.

During these years in New York more and more my calls began to come from the Lower East Side, as though I were being magnetically drawn there by some force outside my control. — Margaret Sanger


Verna Small (1916-2008)
Preservationist
Small is the queen of Greenwich Village, a fiesty, often poetic community leader who provoked residents into lobbying for historic preservation. She organized or led one group after another, all in an effort to preserve the remainder of the Village before developers could sweep it away. She succeeded. Today it seem impossible that the Village was ever in that much danger at all. Her many years with the Landmarks Committee in the 1980s assured the rest of the city would benefit from her tender loving care.

The attitude of the Village was ‘We’ve got to catch up with Brooklyn Heights!’ — Verna Small


Dorothy Schiff (1903-1989)
Publisher
Native New Yorker Schiff owned the New York Post from 1939 to the 1970s and eventually shaped its editorial policy as publisher, the first New York woman to do so. Her stinging, left-leaning views and saavy tastes for great writers turned the once tame newspaper into the city’s most successful tabloid. Her sudden decision to sell it to Rupert Murdoch in 1976 led to the decidedly different, far more sensational Post we’re familiar with today.

Lillian Wald (1867–1940)
Social Worker

The patron saint of the Lower East Side, devoted nurse Wald helped found both the Henry Street Settlement and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Her desire to help New York’s poorest consumed her life. Her altruism helped save thousands of lives and set the standard modern social work and nursing. If that isn’t enough, her innovations from everything to playgrounds and school lunch programs redefined New York education and reverberated throughout America. Um, what have you done today to help your fellow man?

Madam C.J. Walker (1867-1919)
Tycoon

Walker, a self-made entrepreneur and hair product queen, was the richest and most powerful woman in Harlem, during the neighborhood’s pivotal years of growth in the dawn of the Harlem Renaissance. (Some sources say she was America’s first female millionaire.) She shattered color and gender barriers, employing hundreds of other black women and eventually leaving most of her wealth to notable African-American organizations. Walker’s daughter A’Lelia was a patron of many great writers of the Renaissance era.

And her name? She was once married to a man named Charles Joseph Walker; he left in 1910, but the C.J. — and the Madam — stayed.

Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Observer

Wharton was a woman of ultimate privledge in Gilded Age New York but had an uncanny ability to describe it. Our notions of what upper-crust New York was at this time are shaped in part by her novels and short stories. Her creations Lily Bart and the Countess Ellen Olenska are still the best evidence we have of the absurdities and restraints upper-class New York.

A New York divorce is in itself a diploma of virtue. — Edith Wharton

Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942)
Patron

Gertrude, the daughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, turned her powerful name, untold wealth and fascinations with art into an endeavor that would benefit the general public, eventually founding the Whitney Museum in 1931. But unlike Abby Rockefeller, Whitney actually was an artist herself, a sculptrress and a habitue of turn-of-the-century Greenwich Village bohemia. Gertrude’s daughter Flora Payne Whitney would go on to head her mother’s museum for decades.

And 25 more that I didn’t get to write about this time around:

Society ruler Caroline Webster Schermerhorn Astor, aka THE Mrs. Astor, civil rights organizer Ella Baker, photographer Margaret Bourke-White, journalism pioneer Jane Cunningham Croly, interior decorator and culture hound Elsie de Wolfe, feminist march organizer Betty Friedan, Brooklyn community activist Rosetta “Mother” Gaston, dance icon Martha Graham, New Yorker co-founder Jane Grant, art aficionado Peggy Guggenheim, speakeasy queen Texas Guinan, Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston, daring socialite Eliza Jumel, film critic Pauline Kael, restauranteur Elaine Kaufman, survivor Tricia Meili, mayoral candidate Ruth Messinger, superstar and parks lover Bette Midler, 19th Century philanthropist Anna Ottendorfer, politician Francis Perkins, abortionist Madame Restell, Central Park maven Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, presidential mom Sara Delano Roosevelt, wealthy suffragette Alva Vanderbilt, Village defender Ruth Wittenberg and grand rebel-rouser Victoria Woodhull