This Gothic building near Avenue C was an “industrial school” for poor and homeless kids

In the 1880s and 1890s, the East Village of today became a magnet for lodging houses and training schools designed to help impoverished children from becoming casualties of the harsh life of New York’s streets.

The Sixth Street industrial School, 630 East Sixth Street

It was an era of great support for private social services. The Tompkins Square Lodging House for Boys and Industrial School on Eighth Street and Avenue B opened in 1887. The Elizabeth Home for Girls, on 12th Street between First and Second Avenues, took in its first residents in 1892.

In 1890, the Sixth Street Industrial School (above) opened its doors just west of Avenue C, in what was then called the Dry Dock District. Like the other buildings, it’s a stunning Gothic beauty with a stepped roof, dormer windows, and resplendent red brick. Also like the others, Calvert Vaux—the co-designer of Central Park—is the architect (with a partner, George K. Radford).

CAS: Children’s Aid Society

Each facility—which taught some academic classes along with lessons in specific trades and the life skills a young person would need to eventually live independently—was overseen by the Children’s Aid Society. The CAS got its start in 1853, when a young minister named Charles Loring Brace sought to help the estimated 10,000 street children, or “street rats” as police called them, living on their own and often working dangerous jobs or forced into criminal activity to survive.

At least a dozen lodging houses and industrial schools were built by the CAS and designed by Vaux 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 cityscape.)

The Sixth Street Industrial School in 1939-1941

“Vaux sought to develop buildings that stood out from the city’s tenements, which defined poor and immigrant life in the area with generally grim living conditions,” stated an Off the Grid post from Village Preservation. “His buildings, often free-standing, displaying varied rooflines, and characterized by ornamental features that recalled Dutch architecture, attempted to evoke the feeling and image of a ‘snug country inn.’”

The CAS was a popular charitable organization in the benevolent Gilded Age city, garnering financial support from society families like the Astors. Funding for the Sixth Street Industrial School came from Mrs. William Douglas Sloane—aka Emily Vanderbilt, daughter of William Henry Vanderbilt and granddaughter of Commodore Vanderbilt.

“The Sixth Street School, under the generous support of Mrs. William D. Sloane, continues its good work among the poor of the East Side,” stated the CAS annual report from 1892. “The primary and industrial classes are most successful, and the children receive a training which is of value to them all through their life.”

Industrial schools and lodging houses for poor or homeless kids disappeared during the 20th century. The CAS still exists though, rebranded recently as Children’s Aid. And while the breathtaking building at 630 East Sixth Street is no longer a school, it continues to serve as a nonprofit called Pencer House, “an apartment building for limited-income and formerly homeless New Yorkers,” according to the organization’s website.

[Fourth image: NYC Department of Records & Information Services]

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12 Responses to “This Gothic building near Avenue C was an “industrial school” for poor and homeless kids”

  1. beth Says:

    what a beautiful building

  2. Beth Says:

    I knew this was a Vaux building as soon as I saw the photo. They are so distinctive. We’re lucky to still have some of his non-park designs still in the city.

  3. countrypaul Says:

    It’s good that it is still fulfilling a related function to its original intent. Handsome building, too.

  4. ephemeralnewyork Says:

    Vaux has that signature style, and I love it—Jefferson Market too.

  5. Jaw Says:

    Beautiful Post!

  6. alewifecove Says:

    Charles Loring Brace went to Yale with John Olmsted, Frederick’s brother. Frederick and Charles remained life-long friends.

  7. velovixen Says:

    I love the CAS carving–and almost everything else about the building, which I’ve walked or cycled by many times.

    It’s certainly important to teach practical and academic skills. But the importance of a welcoming atmosphere–one that shows the poor and other outsiders that they’re as welcome and worthy as anyone else–is too often overlooked. I think now of someone I knew who taught in a NYC high school where nearly all of the students were Hispanic immigrants (or children of immigrants) or African-American. She told me that there were never enough desks in her classrooms for all of the kids. Her principal and district administrators told her, in essence, that kids would drop out. It’s hard not to think that they were trying to make them feel unwelcome.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      Inspiring architecture can do that—make people feel welcome and appreciated, whether it’s a school or workplace or government building or public space. Vaux and other architects had the right idea in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by designing buildings with this in mind. I wish we had a movement like that today. So many newer schools and other buildings resemble prisons.

    • kenny Says:

      There is an almost identical CAS symbol at the old Fourteenth Ward Industrial School of the … on Mott Street between Houston and Prince (across from Old St Pat’s)

  8. lorinda Says:

    One of those schools was Jones Memorial on East 73rd Street. I attended it and too ballet classes, and pre-school. I saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs along with half the kids in the neighborhood. It also sent me to summer camp. On 88th Street was the Rhinelander Center.

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      I just became aware of the Rhinelander Industrial School, designed to serve the inhabitants of Yorkville tenements in the early 1900s. Thank you for mentioning it; these industrial schools and lodging houses were not all built downtown.

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