By Marjorie Cohen

Imagine I.M Pei designing a homeless shelter. Or Frank Lloyd Wright drawing plans for a community center. Not likely. But in the 1880’s, when the women who ran the Association for the Relief of Respectable and Indigent Females, needed an architect for the charity home they were building on 104th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, they chose the most famous architect of the time, Richard Morris Hunt. Hunt was the darling of rich, privileged New York families like the Vanderbilts and Astors, who commissioned him to design their palatial homes on upper Fifth Avenue and their 72-room “summer cottages” in Newport.

The Association was organized by women of New York’s upper crust to provide help for “gentlewomen who, having in their youth known better things, had in their old age fallen upon evil days.” Founded in 1814, the Association first served the widows of the soldiers of the war of 1812 and the Revolutionary War at a time when the only other choice for these women was the poor house, hardly a place for these “persons of refined sensibilities.”

Construction of the Association’s home on 104th Street (they’d outgrown an earlier facility on East 20th Street) began in 1881 in a piece of  Manhattan made ripe for development by the advent of a new elevated railway with a stop on 104th Street. At the building’s official opening in 1883, Hunt’s Victorian Gothic design with roof dormers, corner towers, turrets and a gabled roof got rave reviews from a New York Times writer: the “comfort” and “luxury” of the new building made visitors want to be “like old women.”

In the  early 1970’s the building fell on financial hard times and the Association had to move the women out. The plan was to tear the building down and  replace it with a  modern nursing home. Enter the preservationists—a group of graduate  students from Columbia University who fought valiantly to preserve the building.  In 1983 the building was landmarked by the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission and in the late 80’s it was painstakingly restored under the watchful eye of the Commission.

In 1990, the building re-opened as the New York branch of  Youth Hostelling International, a group dedicated to the service of world travelers; the first guest to check into the newly restored Hunt masterpiece was a backpacker from Denmark.

These days you’ll find only the occasional old lady here. Now it’s mostly 18-29 year old travelers who spend the night at the Youth Hostel at 891 Amsterdam Avenue but people of any age are welcome. There’s room for 672 travelers—this is the  largest Hostel in the Americas.  Accommodations in a multi-bedded dorm-style room cost from an amazing $39 to $49 per night; private rooms with a private bath go for  $89-$149. Taking seriously its mission as a place where “all, especially the young, gain a greater understanding of the world and its people”  hostel staff offers free and low-cost tours of the city (the 13- hour marathon tour is a favorite); summertime jazz   barbecues in its I-can’t-believe-this-is-New-York backyard; pub crawls, comedy nights and more.

More on Richard Morris Hunt

Although the wrecking ball has claimed the opulent private houses Hunt designed,  you can still see these examples of his work  in New York City:

Great Food Across the Street

Busters, a teeny, tiny spot directly across from the Hostel at 892 Amsterdam Avenue, can go up against any of its larger competitors when it comes to fresh, healthy and always tasty food. Asian salmon, a Caesar salad with shrimp and a lamb burger made with grass fed lam are all prepared in the postage stamp kitchen by Glenn and Fidel; prices are reasonable, catering is a specialty.

Buca, another mini-restaurant just around the corner from Busters (201 West 103rd Street) specializes in authentic brick oven pizza (try one with mozzarella, gorgonzola and pears) and other Italian comfort foods like flame-roasted vegetables and gnocchi with tomato sauce and fontina cheese.

A version of this piece ran in am New York.

Marjorie Cohen is a West Side Rag columnist.

Photo by Eliza Tasbihi via flickr.