The noble mission of a Victorian Gothic building on ‘depraved’ Sullivan Street

When Charles Loring Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society in 1853, this 26-year-old minister came up with some radical ideas to help the thousands of poor and neglected kids who lived or worked on city streets—like sending children out West on so-called “orphan trains.”

But some of Brace’s ideas would seem like common sense to contemporary New Yorkers. Later in the Gilded Age, Brace decided to build lodging houses and “industrial schools” in New York’s impoverished neighborhoods, places where children could learn a trade and prepare for adult life.

In an era when options for street kids often meant the almshouse or an orphan asylum, homes and schools like these could be real lifelines.

Sullivan Street Industrial School in 1893

One of these industrial schools still stands on Sullivan Street between West Third and Bleecker Streets. Opened in 1892, it’s a red brick beauty with Gothic and Flemish touches (that stepped gable roof!) on a South Village block where Italian immigrants dominated in the late 19th century.

Brace ministered to street kids, but he also had famous friends. One was Calvert Vaux, the co-designer of Central Park as well as the creative genius behind the Jefferson Market Courthouse, just an elevated train stop away on Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street.

Sullivan Street, 1893, on the same block as the school

“Brace enlisted his friend, architect Calvert Vaux, to undertake the designs of the Society’s dozen lodging houses, characterized by ornamental features that recalled Dutch architecture, meant to contrast with “ugly” surroundings that prevailed then,” wrote Brian J. Pape in WestView News.

Vaux designed the Sullivan Street school, as well as the Society’s Lodging House on Avenue B and Eighth Street, the Elizabeth Home for Girls on East 12th Street, and the Fourteenth Ward Industrial School on Mott Street, all of which are still part of the cityscape and share the same architectural flourishes.

Sullivan Street, 1895

To fund the school, two benefactors stepped forward with the $90,000 needed: Mrs. Joseph M. White and Miss M.W. Bruce, according to an 1892 New York Times article. Supporting the Society was popular with wealthy Gilded Age families, and both women had long been involved in the Society’s efforts.

Opening day in December was captured in print. “The children, to the number of 420, girls and boys, between the ages of five and thirteen, were marshaled into the audience room under the charge of Mrs. C. Forman, principal of the school, and her nine assistant teachers,” wrote the New York Times. “They were dressed in their new suits of clothing, given to them on Monday last by Miss Bruce.”

The school and a next-door playground in 1939-1941

For decades, the Sullivan Street Industrial School served a community that became one of Manhattan’s Little Italy neighborhoods. Classes in woodworking, metalworking, sewing, dressmaking, cooking, and other skills were offered.

The Society didn’t beat around the bush about the rough and tumble neighborhood, however. “This school was placed in one of the most depraved localities in the city and already an improvement in the neighborhood is visible,” the Society wrote in a 1892 report.

The school was more than just a place of learning. An 1899 report by Principal Forman explains that funds were raised from “generous friends” to distribute food and fuel, as well as hot dinners. An organization called the Odds and Ends Society “furnished many warm and comfortable garments” for the children, and mothers who were considered “deserving poor” with husbands out of work were given money to help with rent.

Today, it looks like this former lifeline is a rental building on a much more affluent Sullivan Street. At least one apartment offers up-close views of that stepped gable roofline.

[Second image: History of Child Saving in the United States; third and fourth images: NYPL; fifth image: NYC Department of Records and Information Services]

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14 Responses to “The noble mission of a Victorian Gothic building on ‘depraved’ Sullivan Street”

  1. mitzanna Says:

    Interesting that in two years, from 1893 to 1895, so much trash or maybe mud or filthy snow had accumulated on the street. The two NYPL photos of Sullivan Street seem to be taken from the same angle.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      The photos are hard to believe, right? But remember, New York City didn’t have a real professional street cleaning system until 1895, when the White Wings were launched by George Waring, a Civil War colonel. Navigating the streets even in nice neighborhoods was tough.

  2. Bill Wolfe Says:

    I’d never heard of the orphan trains until reading about them in one of Victoria Thompson’s gaslight mysteries. It’s impossible not to wonder what happened to all those children.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I have read accounts from historians who tracked down some of the kids, and many of them led productive, well-adjusted lives after being adopted by local families.

    • mamie52 Says:

      My mother was an Orphan Train rider. She was 11 days old in 1915 when her mother gave up her rights to her child by placing her at NY Foundling Hospital which was run by the Sisters of Charity. She rode a train from NYC to Minnesota in 1917. She was one of he fortunate ones as she had a destination when she left NYC. Many were not so lucky and road the train until someone at one of the stops along the way picked them to go home with them. Many were abused and used basically as farmhands and servants and were never formally adopted. My mother was legally adopted into a loving, Irish catholic family where she was treated respectfully and was loved. She was lucky, she had a mother who gave her life and a mother who gave her a life. She was a fine woman who never let the unknown get in her way.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        What an amazing story—sent on a train at 2 years old, but thankfully with a happy ending. I wish all the kids on these trains were so lucky.

      • Bill Wolfe Says:

        Thank you for sharing this story.

  3. beth Says:

    this is an amazing story, think of the lives they changed

  4. Shayne Davidson Says:

    It didn’t always work out well for the children. Check out “West by Orphan Train” (available on Prime) to hear the stories of some of the children.

  5. countrypaul Says:

    And these are the “good old days” some folks want to glow us nack to? Thanks, here and now are both just fine.

  6. alewifecove Says:

    Brace no doubt met Vaux through Olmstead as he went to college with John Olmstead and was a long time, and very close, friend of Fredrick Law Olmstead.

  7. Lorinda Says:

    My Grandmother lived across the street from the Jones Memorial Center on East 73rd street. The neighborhood was Czech. My Mother and later my brother and I went there for ballet classes and nursery school and movies – Snow White – and summer camp. We played in their yard under supervision. It was part of the Children’s Aid Society. The building looked just like the one in the picture. Also the Rhinelander center on east 88th street. Ronald McDonald House is now where Jones Memorial was.

  8. This Gothic building near Avenue C was an “industrial school” for poor and homeless kids | Ephemeral New York Says:

    […] and Radford all over Manhattan, including the 14th Ward Industrial School on Mott Street and the Sullivan Street Industrial School in today’s Soho. (Both buildings still grace the […]

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