Greenwich House, New York City
By John E. Hansan, Ph.D.
Note: Much of the first portion of this entry is taken directly from the “Introduction” to the archives of Greenwich House and used with the permission of the Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South, New York, NY 10012.
The latter portion of this entry is copied from the Handbook of Settlements a national survey of settlements published in 1911 by The Russell Sage Foundation of New York. This collection of detailed information about settlements operating circa 1910 was collected, organized and written by two settlement pioneers: Robert Archey Woods and Albert J. Kennedy. This Handbook contains a detailed description of Greenwich House in New York City. It is an extraordinary record of history because it describes in some detail the first eight years of growth and development of programs and activities conducted by Greenwich House under the leadership of Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch.
Introduction: Greenwich House was incorporated in 1902 as the Cooperative Social Settlement Society of the City of New York by Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch with Felix Adler, R. Fulton Cutting, Eugene A. Philbin, Henry C. Potter, Jacob Riis, and Carl Schurz. Under the leadership of its director, Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, Greenwich House provided social services and cultural and educational programs to largely immigrant clientele living in Greenwich Village. Greenwich House’s activities and programs reflected the vision and interests of Director Mary K. Simkhovitch (1867-1951). Before founding Greenwich House, Mrs. Simkhovitch had been active in supporting woman’s suffrage and social welfare legislation, and she had worked in the settlement house movement (e.g., three years at Friendly Aid House and one year at College Settlement on the Lower East Side). From these and other experiences she was convinced of the necessity for an entirely new approach to the problem of settlement work. She vigorously rejected the “Lady Bountiful” theory and and developed her own concept of settlement work as a social movement shared equally by contributors, staff workers, and neighbors in a cooperative effort. She envisioned Greenwich House as playing an integral role in the life of the neighborhood — being a part of neighborhood life, rather than simply a provider of services to the population of the area.
History: In its first quarter century, Greenwich House rapidly expanded, acquiring numerous buildings in the Greenwich Village area. It established Music and Pottery Schools, provided infant care programs, and investigated and reported on tenants’ rights, housing laws, and the high infant mortality rate in the area. The House actively supported legislation and other government action to alleviate these and other problems, such as “…some of the more notorious saloons.”
By the end of the First World War, Greenwich House had clearly expanded its role beyond that of a small social service dispensary. Integral to its growth and success were its residents, the young social workers and middle-class reformers who lived in the settlement house and who frequently worked with promising leaders developed from the client population. In addition to its cultural agenda and housing reform activities, it provided vital institutional support for government programs, a function that was further solidified in the 1930’s when many programs of the Works Projects Administration (WPA) were housed at the Settlement.
Beyond its pioneering work in housing reform, Greenwich House set programmatic innovations in other areas. The Nursery School was the first and prototypical program of its kind in New York City. Mrs. Simkhovitch, an ardent advocate of cultural programs, believed the arts to be essential human services. By 1917, when Greenwich House relocated to 27 Barrow Street, it offered music, theater and fine arts programs on site and also established art classes in many local public schools. The Greenwich House Arts Committee was initiated with the support of Mrs. Payne Whitney, who later founded the Whitney Museum.
Two classic studies published in the pre-World War I years, Mary Ovington’s Half a Man and Louise Boland More’s Wage Earner’s Budget: A Study of Standards and Costs of Living in New York City, were products of Greenwich House’s Social Investigation Committee. The Tenant’s Manual, published in 1903, was the first of its kind to document tenement laws and tenants’ rights. The House also sponsored fairs, carnivals, parades and other community events; presented plays and pageants; and furnished a broad array of medical and social services to community residents.
In the 1930s and early 1940s, national and international events directly shaped much of the activity of Greenwich House. The House needed to respond to changed circumstances — the joblessness and hunger created by the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, the New Deal and World War II. It was in this period that Mary Simkhovitch was one of the key figures responsible for the passage of the first federal housing act (1938).
Much effort was expended to find jobs for Greenwich Village residents. Greenwich House and Mrs. Simkhovitch had developed extensive contacts in local and national government, as well as in the private sector, and Works Projects Administration (WPA) programs were located at the House. The local population often sought assistance in finding jobs or WPA positions, as well in dealing with relief agencies. The House also continued its traditional activities and even opened a summer camp for children, despite the financial difficulties that it experienced in this period.
Greenwich House also became a center for community forums on political issues, often centering on opposition to fascism. Greenwich House was not affiliated with any political organization, and permitted a wide variety of organizations to utilize its premises. The only organization known to have been denied use of Greenwich House was the American First Committee. In addition to the political and educational work carried out at Greenwich House (though not necessarily by the House), assistance was given to anti-Fascist refugees, seeking jobs or residence in the United States.
Following the entry of the United States into the Second World War, the Greenwich House was active in the war mobilization effort. The House was involved in civil defense efforts (Mary Simkhovitch became an air raid warden) and a panoply of activities to support the war.
Mrs. Simkhovitch retired as director in 1946, and continued to live at Greenwich House until her death November 15, 1951.
A Report from the 1911 Handbook of Settlements
Greenwich House: 26-30 Jones Street (1902-). Men’s Club, 20 Jones Street (1903)
Established: November, 1902, by Felix Adler, Eugene A. Philbin, Jacob A. Riis, A. Fulton Cutting, Henry C. Potter, Carl Schurz and Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch, “…for the establishment and maintenance of a social settlement or social settlements in the city of New York, as centers for social, educational, and civic improvements, to be carried on in conjunction and association with the people residing in the neighborhoods where such settlement or settlements may be situated.”—Extract from Certificate of Incorporation.
“Greenwich House attempts to meet the needs of the neighborhood by facing its different aspects and seeing in how far a private agency such as the settlement can be of immediate use, and in how far it must call in larger forces. … A settlement aims to get things done for a given neighborhood. It proposes to be the guardian of that neighborhood’s interests, and through identification of the interests of the settlement group with local interests, it forms a steadying and permanent element in a community which is more or less wavering and influx. To work out the methods by which a neighborhood may become a consciously effective group is, I take it, the difficult task of the settlement everywhere. As a matter of fact, however, what settlements actually do seems often but remotely related to this task. In practice, every neighborhood house has to do a good many things which its advantageous position allows and almost compels it to effect. The relations of the settlement to charity and to education are to be noted as points in question.”—1904.
Neighborhood. “The district in which the house is situated is known as the old American quarter. Its outward signs are the small three-story house, the small shop, the picturesque and winding streets; and, permeating all, the note of torpor and decay. But this is a most superficial estimate. For crowding into the old district come great factories, with swarms of working people, and taking the place of the old private dwelling the new five-story tenement with stores on the ground floor, often as an improvement on the mouldy building it replaces, though frequently also introducing an overcrowding, hitherto foreign to this quarter. . . . The whole neighborhood is highly heterogeneous, both in population and in character of industry. The clothing, millinery, and laundry division easily lead in the local list of manufactures, but printing and paper goods; leather and rubber goods; metals, machines and conveyances; food, liquors, and tobacco are also conspicuously represented. The population is American in the sense of being second and third generation Irish, with some Germans, a growing army of Italian incomers and a group of colored people.”
I. Investication. Through its committee on social investigation the association has carried on a number of studies of local conditions, published and unpublished. Among these are two handbooks, one on housing (The Tenants’ Manual), and one on Public Art Education; also Wage Earners’ Budgets (published by Henry Holt); The Economic Status of the New York City Negro; studies in Home Manufacture, Local Schools, Description of Local Industry, Description of the Distribution of Population, Description of Local Housing, Local Sanitary Conditions, etc.
II. Efforts For D1strict Improvement, (1) Housing.—Besides a close and intensive housing study (A West Side Rookery), carries on a general campaign against violations of the tenement house law, and does much educational work with householders. The Tenants’ Manual is a part of this work.
(2) Streets and Refuse.—Secured the asphalting of Jones, Leroy, and Cornelia Streets, and has been constant in its efforts for better cleaning and collection of refuse.
(3) Play Spaces.—Efforts for an additional playground; for the use of a river pier for athletic purposes; for the larger use of the public school; has effected desirable changes in the local park playground; secured the use of its street at certain periods for festival purposes; and has suggested the reservation of certain city streets for the use of school children during the late afternoon.
(4) Public Schools.—Made a careful study (1905-6) of the relation of the school to the home on the basis of which it developed its school visiting work. Through this service it found itself able to (a) correct cases of irregular attendance; (b) urge on parents and children treatment for physical defects; (c) call in the aid of settlements, district nurses, convalescent homes, etc., for children; (d) explain to parents personally and in meetings the requirements of the department of health and the compulsory education law; (e) report to teachers and principals the conditions in homes; (f) follow up non-attendance in evening schools; (g) search the district for deaf and dumb children not attending school (as a result of which the city has undertaken a special school); (h) secure a specially prepared list of children needing vacations and secure opportunities for them to go away, etc. Conducted (1909) an outdoor pre-tuberculosis summer school for children in co-operation with the board of education, in lieu of a much needed and hard worked for winter school. There have been classes and special coaching for backward children. Working to secure the social use of public school facilities, and has itself secured the use of the public school gymnasium for its girls’ basketball team.
(5) Economic.—Relief in the economic crisis of 1907-8. For several years (1907-1910) maintained a crafts school in which lace, pottery, etc., was produced by neighborhood workers and sold. The experiment has been turned over to commercial channels, the educational period being past.
(6) Health.—Started (summer 1903) a small baby clinic, and as an outgrowth of this work developed a plan to decrease the infant mortality of the district by providing medical and nursing service and properly modified milk. Secured with the help of other local agencies in 1909 a dental clinic (co-operation with the Children’s Aid Society).
III. Local Institutional Improvement. Organized the Greenwich Improvement Society (1903), and with this society has been instrumental in securing the branch public library and the public bath (which includes a gymnasium and a roof garden). Secured the use of the hall in the public library for various uses (tuberculosis exhibit, public concerts, etc.).
Maintains district nurse, and certain specialized medical service; public school kindergarten; savings; classes in sewing, lace, embroidery, drawing, design, basketry, chair caning (last two for backward children), carpentry, pottery, carving, story telling. There is a Crafts Workers’ Guild. (The former shop work in lace making, mending, and weaving has been taken over by a firm of artists and decorators.) French, Italian and Irish musicals; entertainments, parties, etc.; clubs for men, women, young people, and children. Summer Work.—Backyard playground and garden; infants’ clinic; resident nursing service; baths for children; Saturday evening “stoop concerts,” and little dances for young people; many excursions and picnics; crafts work; flower distribution; vacations in co-operation with Fresh Air agencies.
Former Locations. Men’s Club Rooms, 23 Jones St., 1903. Club Center, Cornelia St., Winter of 1903.
Residents. Women 10, men 5. Volunteers. Women 28, men 2.
Head Resident. Mrs. Vladimir G. Simkhovitch, 1902-.
This work may also be read through the Internet Archive.
For more information about Greenwich House today, visit: www.greenwichhouse.org
For further reading and research:
Greenwich House Records finding aid. Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Greenwich House Photograph Collection finding aid. Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
Simkhovitch, M. K. (1938). Neighborhood: My Story of Greenwich House. New York: W.W. Norton.