The Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group was established by a group of Upper West Siders who share an interest in the history of the area they loosely define as stretching from West 96th Street to West 110th Street, the Hudson River to Central Park.
By Pam Tice, Member of the Bloomingdale Neighborhood History Group
The bucolic Upper West Side provided an excellent location for an orphanage in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. The thousands of immigrants arriving in the city expanded both poverty and disease, leaving many parents unable to cope with caring for their children. Many of the children ended up on the streets trying to care for themselves. The city reformers saw them as threatening civic stability. The Reverend J.F. Richmond reflected the moralistic tone of the time when he wrote, “Every great city contains a large floating population whose indolence, prodigality and intemperance are proverbial, culminating in great domestic and social evil… from these discordant circles spring an army of neglected or ill-trained children, devoted to vagrancy and crime, who early find their way into the almshouse or prison, and continue a life-long burden upon the community.” A Police Chief called them “vagrant, vicious and idle children.”
Many orphanages were established around the city. South of the Bloomingdale neighborhood was the New York Orphan Asylum Society organized in 1806; Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was an early supporter. By 1839, the Society relocated from Greenwich Village to a large facility at (today’s) Riverside Drive at 73rd Street.
There were four orphan houses in or near our Bloomingdale neighborhood. A more extensive description can be found on the BNHG’s website.
The Leake and Watts Orphan House, still partially standing, was located on the grounds of today’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Created through the will of John Leake, the land was purchased from New York Hospital’s Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, just to the north. Children age three to twelve were housed there; in the 1850 census there were about 200. The four-story brick building was designed by the prestigious architect Ithiel Town, housing boys in west and girls in east wings.
In the 1880 census, the workers, headed by a Superintendent and his wife, the Matron, included three cooks, a waiter, three farmers, an engineer, five seamstresses, one nurse, four laundresses, five teachers and three “servants.” The Trustees were granted the right to “bind out” the children at age twelve to local farmers, factory owners, and artisans to teach them a trade so they could become self-supporting. These indentures lasted three years for girls and five years for boys.
In 1888, the Orphan House sold its land to the Episcopal Church and moved to Yonkers. Over the years, the building was partly demolished, leaving the portion we have today, named the Town Building in honor of its architect.
In 1891 the Society for the Relief of Half Orphans and Destitute Children relocated from Greenwich Village to 110 Manhattan Avenue at 104th Street. These children had one parent but needed care so that the parent could work. Parents paid 50 cents a week for board. In 1910, the Society moved to a farm in Windham, New York.
In 1864, the Rector of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church on Amsterdam Avenue at 100th Street formed Sheltering Arms to take charge of children during moments of family distress with a deceased or incurably ill parent or a loss of both parents. Initially, they were housed at the Rector’s house at 101st Street and the “Boulevard,” and then an annex was built. But by 1868 when the Boulevard was fully developed as a roadway (Broadway) the operation was moved north to Manhattanville.
During the 1870s, another Episcopal Church organization caring for orphans of “the unfortunates,” the Children’s Fold, had to close its operation because their founder, Reverend Cowley, was accused of starving children in his care. The sensational trial caused some policy changes in New York State concerning who was allowed to form such organizations. The uprooted children were cared for at Sheltering Arms and at Dr. Valentine Mott’s mansion at the Boulevard and 94th Street. In the 1880 census, Mrs. Skinner, the Matron, is listed along with her adult daughter, five servants and two errand boys to care for the 65 children counted there.
For a short while, the old Woodlawn Mansion at 106-107th Streets and Broadway and West End Avenue became the New York Infant Asylum where staff cared for foundlings and other abandoned children under two years old.
For all their good work, the charities could not deal with all the children who required care in 19th century New York. The Children’s Aid Society, formed in 1853, began to ship children to farm families in the Midwest on what became known as “orphan trains.” Some children were put on the trains by their parents who were able to retain custody, as the move to the Midwest was seen as an opportunity. Between 1854 and the 1920s, 200,000 New York City children were relocated. In recent years, as more people have started researching their family histories, the orphan trains have gained great interest.
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