A 12th Street home and school for destitute girls

There’s an unusual red brick building at 307 East 12th Street that has Victorian Gothic bells and whistles mixed with a Flemish-style gabled roof.

A home? A school? Turns out this four-story beauty originally served as both when it opened in 1892 as the Elizabeth Home for Girls.

Run by the Children’s Aid Society, one of many organizations dedicated to benevolence in the Gilded Age city, the Elizabeth Home took in girls whose families were either too poor to take care of them—or who didn’t have families at all.

“The handsome structure was designed as a home and training school for destitute girls, and is well adapted to the needs of the inmates,” a New York Times article stated on dedication day. (“Inmate” meant anyone living in an institutional setting.)

“Elizabeth” was the name of a deceased sister of Emily Wheeler, a New Yorker who first used her wealth to fund the earliest day nurseries for the kids of working mothers before purchasing the land on East 12th Street and turning her attention to the plight of homeless girls.

The goal was to help girls avoid the “evil influences of the streets,” according to an 1893 Times article.

Dormitories and bedrooms were on the upper floors, along with a dressmaking workroom. The first floor and basement consisted of a laundry, typing room, dining room and kitchen, and sewing machine area.

By “school,” the Children’s Aid Society didn’t mean reading and writing so much as preparing the girls who lived here to earn a living.

“The statistics of the home showed that in the last year 22 girls had been trained in the dressmaking department, 99 in the machine room, 24 in the laundry, and 35 in housework, while 108 had been sent to situations, 28 to employment, 44 returned to friends, and 44 to various institutions.”

The building’s architecture might look familiar.

It’s the work of Calvert Vaux, co-creator of Central Park, who decades later helped design several homes for boys and girls put up by the Children’s Aid Society, such as the Lodging House for Boys on Avenue B and the Mott Street 14th Ward Industrial School, both still extant.

Destitute girls continued to exist in New York, but the Elizabeth Home was sold in 1930, only to be reopened as a girls’ home in the 1940s by the Florence Crittenton League, which had its roots saving “fallen women” in the Gilded Age city.

By 1982, the unusual building became a co-op. Last year, a two-bedroom on the ground floor—where the “inmates” learned typewriting and sewing—sold for $1.3 million.

[Second photo: via GVSHP)

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9 Responses to “A 12th Street home and school for destitute girls”

  1. ksbeth Says:

    Wow – if this building could talk-

  2. Mykola (Mick) Dementiuk Says:

    You should have seen that area in the 1960s- 70s, bad girls/hookers were all over. They were cheap, a few bucks and they were after another mark. I’m sure that under the stairs was an ideal roosting spot to have a tryst. I saw it take place in buildings all over the area.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Apparently it was still a home for runaway or homeless girls then, and the girls earned the wrath of neighbors for hanging out on the street engaging in illegal activities….

  3. Mary in Manhattan Says:

    Very cool, how did you find out about this historical building?

  4. A 12th Street home and school for destitute girls | Real Estate Marketplace Says:

    […] Source: FS – NYC Real Estate A 12th Street home and school for destitute girls […]

  5. Tom B Says:

    The Gilded Age had some reformers with good intentions. Now it has a whole different concept. Back then lack of money made you destitute. Now its drugs, drugs. Mo money today only means mo drugs. Having more kids and keeping them means a bigger Govmint check.

  6. David H Lippman Says:

    Fascinating story…I wonder if any of those girls achieved fame, or at least good lives?

  7. Fallopia Tuba (@franklanguage) Says:

    I’ve often walked past this building and [correctly] guessed it was designed by Calvert Vaux, who also designed the Newsboys’ Lodging House on the corner of 8th street and Avenue B.

    I have a Harper’s article from 1886 entitled “Another Newsboys’ Home,” which has a steel engraving rendering of the proposed building. The article states that it is to house “the grimy little boot-blacks, and their rivals in trade, the newsboys.”

    There are a few Calvert Vaux houses still standing, including one on 6th street between B and C.

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