All the reasons to love this Mott Street school

The gabled roof, the arched windows, the Victorian flourishes—there’s a lot to love about 256 Mott Street, the former Fourteenth Ward Industrial School between Prince and Houston Streets.

And it’s not just the lovely aesthetic or the fact that it’s across the street from the beautiful Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The school’s mission gets a thumbs up as well.

Built by the Children’s Aid Society in 1889, the funds were supplied by John Jacob Astor, who constructed it as a memorial to his wife (the Astors were big donors to the CAS, one of Gilded Age New York’s most prominent charities).

The lovely new school replaced an older industrial school not far away on Crosby Street. (Above, the school “playground” in 1890.)

If this Gothic red-brick style looks familiar, it may be because the architect was Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park.

Vaux was also the creative mind behind Jefferson Market Courthouse and some of the Children’s Aid Society other buildings, like the Tompkins Square Lodging House for Boys on East Eighth Street and Avenue B, which also served as an industrial school and has the same Gothic feel.

So what’s an industrial school? It’s a school intended to teach poor, usually immigrant kids to be “self-supporting,” as a New York Times article covering the dedication ceremony on February 8 put it.

Think of it as a school that mixed the usual academic lessons with trade and life skills classes and a heavy dose of patriotism.

“On the basement floor are a kitchen and dining rooms for teachers and pupils; on the floor above, kindergarten and primary schoolrooms, and the second floor two schoolrooms,” stated the Times. “The fourth has rooms for primary and industrial school work.”

The pupils at the Fourteenth Ward Industrial School were heavily Italian, the Times wrote—the children of newcomers who were rapidly recolonizing the tenement district that would soon be known as Little Italy.

“The memorial to Mrs. Astor will form an attractive center of industry, thrift, and cleanliness in a region which is noted for none of those characteristics,” the Times commented.

In the 1920s, the Industrial School was closed, and 256 Mott Street became Mulberry House, kind of a community center with a library and playground that offered “Americanization” classes and social opportunities.

Today of course, Mott Street is quite posh, and there’s no need for an industrial school or community center. What’s going on with number 256 today? It’s a co-op.

[Second photo: Jacob Riis. MCNY, 1890; 90.13.1.299; fifth photo: Gillon, MCNY, 1975; 2013.3.2.2061; sixth photo Jacob Riis, MCNY, 1890; 2008.1.21]

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10 Responses to “All the reasons to love this Mott Street school”

  1. Zoe Says:

    This is a stellar post Ephemeral! What beautiful children & what a beautiful building!

    I hope the current residents know & apreciate the history of the building everytime they walk under that lintel w/ its saying above the door & how very fortunate they are.

    In the photo of all the students the girl third from left has on such a dirty dress… unlike those next to her. That must have been painful for her; especially for the photo 😦

    My grandfather arrived at Ellis Island from Beirut at age 13 in the 1910s & made his way to his older brothers in Ohio (who had established themselves earlier there as chocolatiers) by way of being a water boy on a train. (Boys & men of colour who carried & served passengers water). I knew this from our family storytelling (yes it’s an ancient & modern custom!) but later I read that agents from the train companies waited at or near Ellis Island to offer boys this particular job. When I looked in the 1910 census there was somebody w/ his name in a rooming house in lower NYC; but I was not sure if it was him as he had a name that was not uncommon. (I found him in the 1920 census in Ohio married & living w/ my grandmother).

    I believe Gibran Khalil Gibran attended this type of school in Boston.

    A common name for homeless & destitute children living on the streets of NYC then was ‘street Arabs’. Based on the Orientalist & Colonialist misperception (to describe that politely) of all Arabic speaking people being nomadic Bedouin & also that they/we were unwashed & dirty. The latter being the absolute antithesis of the truth; given the importance of daily bathing & baths & dining etiquette in the Arabic speaking world.

    I think Martin Scorcese said he grew up in an apartment near this building (& also on the LES).

  2. dontbringlulubook Says:

    Intelligently written – more of these, please.

  3. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Thanks Zoe—and I love the info about the train company agents waiting near Ellis Island to find boys to work for them. Before Ellis Island, immigrants landed at Castle Clinton on the Battery—and one reason it eventually closed was due to predatory employers who hung around, looking for the desperate and unaware.

  4. peopleplaceswords Says:

    Lovely work, Ephemeral. I live nearby, admired this building for many years. More details await the viewer. Despite the yuppies with pedigreed dogs, Nolita retains history. Zoe, Scorcese’s family attended mass at SPOC. Prince Street wall of cemetery undulates as seen from corners. Its heavily supported from inside. (Mean Streets locations include SPOC and Baxter St. S. of Hester. My kids attended PS130 on Baxter. Then it looked as it did in 1973.) North of Cathedral on Mulberry side is “Saint Michael’s Chapel, a Russian Catholic Community of Byzantine Rite,” a small brick building from1935. Across the street is a brick townhouse from 1827. Albanese’s vintage Italian butcher store is at 238 Elizabeth, near the threatened Elizabeth St. Garden. Morning visits on weekends are recommended.

    • Zoe Says:

      Peopleplaceswords

      It’s a great neighbourhood! (I lived down the street in the 80s).

      Thank you for telling people about the Russian Byzantine Church. I know it. It’s a small gem downtown. (We are Lebanese Byzantine. Melkite. Which is the oldest Church. But my grandfather — who I wrote of above — attended a Russian missionary school in the mountains of Lebanon. I’m not sure if it was Orthodox or Byzantine. The Tsar built a lot of schools in Syria/Lebanon).

      Mean Streets is such a brilliant NYC film. It’s a shame a lot of the old Italian bakeries & butcher shops & dairy shops there have closed…

  5. Zoe Says:

    Ephemeral I fell down a rabbit hole on your site & found your previous interesting post about ‘Street Arabs’! (Only after I made mention of that racist term above).

    I had read or saw in a documentary years ago (on Jakob Riis?) that so many more women died in childbirth then or from infectious disease that many of those children were virtual orphans. Vs. only fleeing abusive homes & large families in crowded tenements. I hadn’t heard the latter before. Although it sounds completely plausible.

  6. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    I think the kids came from all types of situations. Many were what they called “half-orphans,” meaning one parent died, and the other couldn’t afford to take care of them. Families were large and tenements were small, and money was always tight—there were two brutal recessions in the late 19th century—so if a child could work, they often had to work.

    • Zoe Says:

      Thanks Ephemeral.

      It’s sad & interesting. I wonder then if some of them went home (to sleep or in horrible weather).

      Children are so resilient. I would love to know what became of the children in your photos here; but also in those of Jakob Riis & others.

      Your description reminds me of Lotte Lenya’s childhood in Vienna. Her mother was a laundress. (Which as you know was pretty much the lowest job for a woman before being a prostitute. My mother told me the hands of the laundress who came to their Berlin flat once a week to help them were red & swollen & rubbed raw & also calloused).

      Her mother used their tub in their kitchen in their Vienna apartment to do people’s laundry. But as Lotte (real name Caroline or Carolina) slept on a board on top of the tub; she had to spend all her time on the street. (I had two friends w/ this board/tub set up in the early 1980s. One on E.10th opposite the Russian Baths & the other on Ludlow).

      Her biography stated that because of being down on the street in front of their building all the time; at age eleven she was approached by a man there & became a child prostitute. This was of course before she was taken to Switzerland by a wealthy couple who bought her expensive clothes & gave her dance lessons… which basically saved her from the kind of big city street life you have written of.

      And I had no clue that Vienna had bathtubs in kitchens like in the LES & parts of Brooklyn etc. until I read that biography on her!

      I read a few of your posts on NYC street urchins (two?) linked through this one. They’re all very interesting. I hope you did not think I was inferring earlier that *your* use of the term “Street Arab” in one of those was “racist”. Of course I meant the term itself; due only of course to the *reasoning* I wrote of which was behind it (& not even to the word ‘street’ or ‘Arab’).

  7. Susie Says:

    I have never heard of an industrial school, that’s so interesting. A beautiful building, too!

  8. Jonathan W. Phillips (Real Estate Historian) Says:

    The building was purchased by a number of artists and the director emeritus of the Municipal Arts Society decades ago, and they eventually made it a coop and have worked together to keep this building in the excellent condition that it appears to be in.

    The interior cast iron columns were designed with Calvert Vaux with his early Victorian invented motifs taken from nature. It’s an amazing artifact of a building.

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