The walled-in settlement house by the East River

You can see one side of it from the FDR Drive at 76th Street. High above the roadway overlooking the East River is a Georgian-style red brick building and what must have been an entrance with a faded plaque above it.

Squint and you can make out what it says: East Side House Settlement.

Settlement Houses began popping up in New York City in the 1890s and early 1900s. Born out of the benevolence movement of the Gilded Age, they were built by social reformers who “settled” into a poor or working-class community, launching a home base where the community could go take advantage of classes, recreational activities, and cultural offerings.

Many of New York’s settlement houses were built in Lower Manhattan. The East Side Settlement House (as it was known early on) got its start in 1891, founded by a lawyer, Everett Wheeler, according to the house’s web page.

Perhaps Wheeler saw the need for a settlement house in Yorkville, which was becoming a dense tenement neighborhood for a new wave of German immigrants, along with newcomers from Hungary and today’s Czech Republic.

The first house for the East Side Settlement House was an old clapboard house (below).

The one still standing today opened in 1903, privately funded by wealthy New Yorkers who hoped the facility would become a “contagion of good morals,” according to a New-York Tribune article covering the opening day ceremony. (Below, in 1903)

To spread those good morals, the house had separate “clubrooms” for boys and girls, an assembly room, a cooking skill with gas ranges, two gyms (one for men and one for boys), a billiards room, and various other rooms for events.

It must have been an inspiring place in the first half of the 20th century, with John Jay Park opening next door, along with a public bathhouse and then an outdoor public swimming pool in the 1940s.

But as the century went on, the house’s days were numbered, especially as Yorkville changed and the East Side (FDR) Drive and industry (below, in 1926) obstructed river access. In 1963, the East Side Settlement House relocated to the South Bronx, where it remains today.

“Its genteel Georgian building, perched on a river-lapped greensward, had been battered and bruised by decades of hard use and imprisoned by the East River Drive, later F. D. R. Drive, which gobbled up Exterior Street in the 1940s,” wrote Christopher Gray in the New York Times in 2012.

The Town School took it over, and in the 1980s a towering apartment building hemmed the former settlement house in, blocking its facade.

“Now part of the old south-facing Georgian facade survives within a Town School hallway, and part of an old factory is visible in the auditorium,” explained Gray. What remains of the facade faces east, between the apartment tower and a new Town School wing to the north.”

But you can still catch a glimpse of part of the settlement house, with 1891 and 1903 carved into the side (above)—a remnant of the city’s progressive movement and a very different Yorkville.

[Third image: East Side House Settlement; fourth image: New-York Tribune; fifth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

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6 Responses to “The walled-in settlement house by the East River”

  1. Ricky Says:

    I find it interesting that these “Old New York” buildings, whether they are Georgian, Federal, Beaux-Arts, or whatever style are still beautiful today. But look at that building next door with its glass, brick, and rounded corners. It sure isn’t beautiful today, that is, if it ever was.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Agree, not beautiful…maybe it looked better in the 1980s.

    • Kathleen kirby Says:

      Next door was the old East Side House on the hill .It is now a private school Town School .Inside has some of the old facade .I still love in Yorkville

  2. Kathleen McCormack Says:

    ESH became town school and they took the beautiful entrance down in the 70′ s I thought this might be the Winefred Wheeler Nursery
    After they fixed up THE SCHOOL .don’t remember it looking like this.
    We went to ESH UNTIL 1959.IT WAS BOYS & GIRLS .You had to be voted on a team to belong I was on the Aces & Tim’s Mother Mary & my sister Maureen were on the SWALLOWS.WE HAD A DANCE EVERY FRIDAY NIGHT ,WEDNESDAY WASGIRLS GYM NIGHT .I WON PRETTIES GIRL.& BILLY AHO ,HANDSOMEST.WE WENT TO CAMP STEPHNEY FOR 2_WEEKS IN THE SUMMER FOR $10A WEEK ..BEST OF TIMES STIIL HAVE FRIENDS FROM ESH .

  3. bo Says:

    Great post!

    Here are links to photos of the surviving south-facing Georgian facade:

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