The Medieval-like reformatory for “fallen” women on Riverside Drive

In 19th century New York, benevolent societies began springing up. These groups were typically founded by religious leaders or citizens of means to help the less fortunate or end a social evil like alcoholism, gambling, and prostitution.

The Magdalen Asylum in an undated photo

Among these new organizations was the New York Magdalen Benevolent Society, launched in 1830. The Society’s mission, according to 1872’s New York and Its Institutions, was to promote “moral purity, by affording an asylum to erring females, who manifest a desire to return to the paths of virtue, and by procuring employment for their future support.”

In other words, the Magdalen Benevolent Society catered to “fallen women,” so-called “magdalens” who found themselves in the clutches of vice and needed to be reformed.

The asylum building in 1915, surrounded by the Riverside Drive extension and new apartment buildings

In the 1830s, the Society took over the upper floors of a building on Carmine Street and then moved to a larger site far from the city center at Fifth Avenue and 88th Street.

By the late 19th century, the group was looking for new quarters for the 50-100 women they took care of at any one time, who ranged from 10 to 30 years old, states the 1872 guidebook.

In the 1890s, a larger space for a new asylum far out of town in West Harlem was secured. Built specifically for the Society between 138th and 139th Streets, this secluded, fortress-like institution overlooked the Hudson River.

“Designed by architect William Welles Bosworth (1869-1966), the attractive neo-medieval building stood on extensive grounds that led all the way to the edge of the island where railroad tracks traced the Hudson River,” wrote Bronx Community College’s Andrea Ortuño, PhD, in a post for Urban Archive.

“The new building included room for 100 inmates as well as a chapel. Adjacent to the chapel was a separate building that functioned as a laundry––the proceeds from which partially supported the operation of the Magdalen Asylum.” 

The “inmates” (a word used at the time for anyone living in an institutional setting, not just prison) worked the laundry and attended prayer sessions. They also made headlines when they escaped, as these two Evening World articles from June and July 1894 attest.

Slated for demolition in 1961

The asylum on 139th Street was short-lived. “Despite the Magdalen Asylum’s uptown relocation, continued urban development, namely plans to extend Riverside Drive, had an adverse impact on the isolation of inmates,” wrote Ortuño.

“In order to maintain the city’s grid of streets, 139th had to be extended to meet the path of Riverside Drive and hemmed in the south side of the building. The wide sidewalks planned for the east side of Riverside Drive abutted the rear of the asylum and would eventually expose the female inmates to all manner of passersby on the street.”

A replacement is announced: a new apartment complex

The Magdalen Benevolent Society thought it better to relocate once again. By 1904 they’d left for a more remote location in Inwood. Stories of dramatic escapes on the part of the inmates at this new spot, later renamed Inwood House, have been collected from newspaper archives by myinwood.net.

The former asylum building was then turned into the House of the Holy Comforter, which accommodated “incurables,” according to a 1905 New-York Tribune article. After a period of abandonment, the asylum was knocked down in the early 1960s. An apartment complex called River View Towers is on the site now…and no trace of the fallen women once sent there remains.

Riverside Drive has a fascinating history. Join Ephemeral New York on a walking tour Sunday, August 29 that explores the history of Riverside Drive’s mansions, monuments, and more!

[Top photo: New-York Historical Society; second image: MCNY F2011.33.53; third image: Evening World; fourth image, Evening World; fifth image MCNY x2010.11.3146; sixth image: x2010.11.3145]

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14 Responses to “The Medieval-like reformatory for “fallen” women on Riverside Drive”

  1. Rob Says:

    In the last newspaper article they talked of “the island”, Rikers island?

    • Lex Moran-Solero Says:

      I was wondering which island too. Maybe Welfare Island (aka Blackwell’s Island), now Roosevelt Island?

  2. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Good question!
    I’m going to assume it’s the penitentiary or workhouse on Blackwell’s Island, were men and women were ferried for a range of charges until Rikers opened up in the 1930s.

  3. Shayne Davidson Says:

    The place looks like Disney’s Cinderella castle, but looks can be deceiving!

  4. countrypaul Says:

    Those medieval fortress-style buildings look great on the outside, but I bet it was a very dark and austere interior, especially with the punitive attitude in their mission statement. Attitudes like that make me grateful to be living in a more enlightened age!

    I hadn’t realized that Riverside Drive was built in stages; its expansion would make a great story if you haven’t already covered it.

  5. Greg Says:

    I wonder what became of Eva White and Martha Houghteling. Perhaps this article is the only remaining record of them.

  6. Mike Valentin Says:

    Thank you for the re-telling of the Reformatory on Riverside Drive! Based on the pictures and articles, I can provide some additional information, first hand. I grew up at 610 Riverside Drive, 1958 – 1968, now remembering it all with the patina of beautiful recollections and experiences.

    The reformatory was also used as a “yeshiva” of some kind, because of the comings and going of Orthodox Jews, Hasidic going in and out. It was a No-Go area and was patrolled and protected. But the walls establishing the south side (139th) were too much to resist for local kids to play upon. I can attest having sustained bloody injury there, long since recovered and remembered. The location was also protected by a local injured legged man (Willie) who ran to and fro with his cane keeping us away.

    By the way, the walls were hollow and provided passage along the walls and into the main house through tunnel.

    Riverside Drive is an amazing place, interesting engineering and pillars of change representing everything from horse buggy, trains, highways, bridges (GW) eventually autonomous intelligent vehicles. Incredible!

  7. thekeystonegirlblogs Says:

    How dare they escape from such a caring, and beautiful establishment!

  8. Bill Wolfe Says:

    In the second photo, I’m curious what the circular structure is at the far end of Riverside Drive. If this were Long Beach harbor, I’d say it was an oil storage structure, but that can’t be what this was.

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