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Madison House: Tops In Every Respect



A Personal View of the Origins and History of Madison House: New York City

(Note: This Is a Retrospective View About the Origins and History of a Settlement House on the Lower East Side of New York City written by Jeanne Talpers, Daughter of Philip Schiff, a Social Work Pioneer, Who Attended Madison House as a Youngster and Grew Up to Become the Headworker in 1934.)

“Like all of you, I came from the same neighborhood and from the same type of family and home environment. Like you, I received more from Madison House than I can ever hope to repay. As with you, Madison House, Camp Madison, and I were all wrapped up in one package. The great personalities which were destined to lead and direct Madison House had the same influence over me as they had upon you. We talked, breathed, dreamed about it. We bragged about it to others. Every group or agency in the social work field was aware of our self-governing machinery. We were tops in every respect. (Philip Schiff, speech to the alumnae of Madison House, October 25,1954.)

How did this little Neighborhood House become “tops in every respect?”

What was so special about this tiny place that made the difference in the lives of so many youngsters?

When Dave Shakow, my Dad’s best friend since childhood, spoke at a National Institutes of Health Symposium honoring him after his retirement as Chief of the Laboratory of Psychology at the National Institute of Mental Health, he wanted his colleagues to know about the impact Madison House had on his life.  In his speech, Dave said,”

“The institution that had by far the greatest effect in my formative years was the settlement of which I was a member, Madison House.  Some of you may not be aware of the important role of Settlement houses in our crowded cities during the latter part of the last century, and the early part of this century. They did a prodigious job in helping thousands of first generation American-born children from the tenements make the transition from the cultures of their immigrant parents to that of the new country.

“Among New York’s many settlement houses were Henry Street Settlement, University Settlement, College Settlement, The Educational Alliance, and. Madison House.  Madison House is perhaps the least known of the outstanding settlements. Historians of the East Side pretty generally neglect it, possibly because it was relatively small and did little self-advertising.  Madison House suffers as well from the imperceptiveness of historians who become so dependent on secondary sources for their data. But for those in the know… its boys and girls and its leaders…it was clearly paramount. It was so obvious to us! What else could Madison House be, but the central jewel of the neighborhood house crown”? (David Shakow Symposium, National Institutes of Health, May 8,1971)

More than half of my father’s life was spent at Madison House. From the time he was ten years old until he left as head worker at the age of 38, he lived and breathed Madison House. Those twenty-eight years were crammed with energy; growing leadership responsibility; and determination to better the lives of those who, like himself, came out of the lower East Side tenements. Intense friendships; inspiring club leaders who awakened a love of music, theater, and art; opportunities to test out political and spiritual ideas were magnets that drew my Dad and so many other young people to “The House.”

Dad lived a few blocks away from 216 Madison Street.  He joined the House in 1911 when he was ten years old. I joined the House spiritually about 70 years later when I obtained the microfilms of the Madison House archives located at the University of Minnesota’s Social Welfare History Archives.

After Dave Klaassen, the Social Welfare History archivist sent me the microfilms, I took them over to the Georgetown University Library. I did not have a clue about what was in them.  But I do remember the excitement and joy the day I started reading these documents on the microfilm machine. There in the hundreds of pages of articles, newsletters, reports, and letters, I had a reunion with my Dad.  Within a few weeks, I was immersed in a world where my father, like so many others, learned to honor their traditions while expanding their horizons. The Madison House archives not only pulled me into my father’s life, but also fleshed out the inner workings of a remarkable institution. Reading the newsletters, I could see my Dad with his friends. I could follow him as a young teenager active in his club, the Argonauts, and as a leader in “The House.” I could glimpse his personality and thoughts through articles he wrote for the newsletters and chatty comments in the newsletters about his looks and charm. I even found his 15-page annual headworker’s report written in 1937, during the Depression.  I also realized that Madison House was the place where he did basic training for his life’s work

While our lives were seared and singed by economic conditions we, nevertheless …had the great ethical values drilled into us.  Struggle was part of our daily existence with only Madison House standing between us and social breakdown. We found ourselves in a position where we were promoting our own welfare as youngsters who were growing up in a society which had little to offer us and therefore our spiritual and cultural growth took on additional meaning.  We strove for strengthening the democratic process for ourselves and our group.  All of this led to group homogeneity, quite uncommon in those and in these days.  We knew what it meant to struggle for a better way of life against insurmountable odds.  We subconsciously developed a vision of the future, which, while it lacked definite shape and form, nevertheless was present in all that we did.   We were, perhaps unknowingly, preparing ourselves to take an active and dynamic role in our future society.” (Philip Schiff, Speech to Madison House Alumnae, October 25,1954)

Origins of Madison House

Madison House was an oddity in the settlement house world of the late 1800s, early 1900s. Although its members were almost all Jewish, it was neither founded nor funded by the German Jewish community and was governed by its members, not by its financial contributors. Madison House’s origin is a window into differences within the Jewish communities in New York City and a reflection of the growing influence of the Ethical Culture Society movement not only in upper Manhattan but also in the Lower East Side. Much has been written about the tension between American German Jews and Eastern European Jews. Leaders of the German-Jewish community, the Seligmans, the Schiffs (not my Dad’s family), the Lehmans, the Loebs, the Warburgs, et al were wealthy bankers and financiers who were just beginning to feel more secure in the non-Jewish business world, if not the social world. They lived within blocks of each other, socialized mainly with their own crowd, belonged to the reform Temple Emanuel, and encouraged their children to marry within the “circle.” Their antennae always were up for signs of anti-Semitism, and they scrupulously avoided calling attention to their wealth and religion.

Suddenly, starting in the late 1880s, hundreds of thousands of Russian and Polish Jews swarmed into the Lower East Side. Poor, unkempt, wearing strange hats and coats, speaking only Yiddish, living in cramped, unsanitary tenements, and talking about socialism, these “oriental-looking” people were an embarrassment to their German Jewish co-religionists who feared an anti-Semitic backlash.

Knowing of the difficulties and struggles of the newcomers, the German-Jewish community was torn between distaste for their brethren and obligation to observe the Jewish tradition of Tsdekah (doing good deeds). Tsdekah won out. German Jews formed committees to help the newcomers when they arrived by providing temporary shelter, financial assistance, and employment services. They also established settlement houses where immigrants could learn the English language and American customs. In short, they tried to quickly Americanize these newcomers. As major financial contributors, German Jews served on settlement house boards. Some, like Jacob Schiff, became very involved in the programs; others focused on fund-raising events or volunteered within the agencies. However, underneath the giving of money and time was an assumption that the givers knew what was best for the recipients. The recipients did not always appear grateful. Some had been leaders in their own Jewish communities, some were educated, some were professionals, and some had been political activists. But almost everyone had pride and could sense when they were being patronized.

From the beginning, the young founders of Madison House knew that they wanted to create a different atmosphere, a democratic atmosphere in which every member, not just the benefactors, had a voice in planning and policy. Their inspiration and commitment came out of their affiliation with the Ethical Culture Society and its leader, Felix Adler. Felix Adler probably would have succeeded his father, Samuel Adler, as the rabbi of Temple Emanuel.  After Adler had completed his rabbinic studies in Germany, he was invited to give a sermon on Judaism of the Future to the eager and welcoming congregation.  However, the young Adler’s sermon in which he questioned the role of formal religion so shocked and angered most, but not all, of the congregants that he was never asked to return.

Adler contended that:

Religion not confined to church and synagogue alone shall go forth into the market place, shall sit by the judge in the tribunal, by the counselor in the hall of legislation, shall stand by the merchant in his warehouse, by the workman at his work…Then shall religion in truth become a cause, not of strife but of harmony, laying its greatest stress not on the believing but in the acting out.  A religion such as Judaism ever claimed to be not of the creed but of the deed….We discard the narrow spirit of exclusion, and loudly proclaim that Judaism was not given to the Jews alone, but that its destiny is to embrace in one great moral state the whole family of men..”(Adler, F., October 11, 1973. The Judaism of the Future)

In 1876, Adler was urged to expand his ideas in a public forum. On May 15, 1876 he addressed a mostly Jewish audience at Standard Hall, and the Ethical Culture movement was launched.

“We propose to entirely exclude prayer and every form of ritual… Freely do I own to this purpose of reconciliation, and candidly do I confess that it is my dearest object to exalt the present movement above the strife of contending sects and parties, and at once to occupy that common ground where we may all meet, believers and unbelievers, for purposes in themselves, lofty and unquestioned by any. …Freedom of thought is a sacred right of every individual man.  Believe or disbelieve…We shall at all times respect every honest conviction, but be one with us where there is nothing to divide in action.  Diversity in the creed; unanimity in the deed.”

Adler’s influence soon spread, and his Sunday sermons, delivered in Chickering Hall, Cooper Union, and Carnegie Hall, appealed to thousands of people from all walks of life. Some were Reform Jews like Joseph Seligman, Belle and Emanuel Moses (Robert Moses’ parents), and union leaders like Samuel Gompers. Rabbi Stephen Wise disenchanted with Reform Judaism’s slow response to helping newly arrived immigrants, also was affected by Adler’s commitment, as were first-generation college students.

Adler led by example:

Aware and outraged over the terrible living conditions in housing, health, sanitation, hunger in the Lower East Side, Adler plunged into action. He lectured, he persuaded, he investigated. He also supported and mediated labor’s demands for higher wages and improved working conditions. Most of all, he inspired others to join him in these causes. Working tirelessly himself, Adler was to see his disciples found the Madison House Settlement on the Lower East Side to advance the ethical program of social service. (Moses Rischin, The Promised City. 202).

Looking back on those early years, Dr. Adler said:

“Now the daring thought that we had, in the beginning of the Ethical Movement, was to unite in one group, in one bond, those who had this religious feeling and those who simply cared for the moral betterment…But I founded this Society with the express purpose and intent that it should not consist only of those who stood as I did, who had the same religious feeling and needs, but that it should be open to all those who believed in moral betterment, because that is the point on which we all agree. Our ethical religion has its basis in the effort to improve the world and ourselves morally. (Our Part in This World, Horace L. Fries, Edpp. 66, 68)

Some who joined the Ethical Culture Movement focused on learning and understanding Adler’s philosophy; others absorbed the philosophy but focused on improving the world. In the late1800s, the Lower East Side was fertile ground for those who wanted to improve the world.  This was where principles and reality met.

Madison House: A Laboratory for Adler’s Ideas.

Fired by the spirit of Dr. Felix Adler, whose thoughts were to bring people back from heaven to earth, from belief in God to faith in man, a group of young people, including Henry Moskowitz, J. Salwyn Shapiro, Louis Landy, Jacob Shufrow, and Paul Abelson in their late teens and early twenties became dissatisfied with the merely social side of the settlement world they had seen. One day in 1898, they rented a few rooms at 232 Madison Street and opened up shop. Their aims were —twofold: primarily to inculcate a spirit of ethical idealism, which applied practically to their particular problem, meant leading parents and children along their separate roads to a destination of common understanding, and secondarily, to devote themselves to social reform, that is to the betterment of physical conditions.” (“A History of Madison House,” Madison House News, 1931, author unknown)

Thus, in 1901, the young founders, aided by funds from the Ethical Culture Society, rented a two-story, old-fashioned high-stoop house at 310 Madison Street. The house had the luxury of a basement with two rooms and a parlor floor with one large, multipurpose room that could be divided into two rooms by a folding door. From 1904 to 1910 the house settled in at 300 Madison Street and became known as “Big 300.” In1910 the House moved to 216 Madison Street, and in 1929, enough funds were raised to design and build 226 Madison Street. The new building debuted as the prosperous Roaring Twenties decade was coming to an end.

Strange Interlude

A few years before Madison House moved into 226 Madison Street, a dramatic shift had occurred in the Lower East Side. In 1921, the Restrictive Immigration Act slammed the doors shut on European Jews.  Closing of the immigrant pipeline, coupled with the growing prosperity of second-generation immigrants, changed the Lower East Side. Rather than pushing chairs together to make room for newly arriving relatives, families were putting furniture on vans and moving uptown to larger apartments.  Vacancy signs and half-empty classrooms also reflected the exodus.

In 1927, Zelda Popkin’s article, “The Changing East Side” published in the February issue of the American Mercury, flippantly, yet in some ways, accurately, challenged the need for settlement houses.

“On that notorious Southeastern tip of Manhattan Island which for a half century has been synonymous with threadbare idealism and sickening congestion, Packards rub fenders with pushcarts today, night clubs are flourishing, and neighborhood Chambers of Commerce speak with the voice of progress.  The settlement houses in which an earlier generation flapped on its wings is now teaching the arts of serving salmon salad and applying cosmetics to a youth that yearns only to look and eat and amuse itself like its uptown neighbors.  Americanization has come at last to New York’s East Side.  It will never again be called a hotbed of radicalism.

“The old spirit of self-sacrificing idealism is dead.  It sickened with the armistice.  It died with the election of Calvin Coolidge.  It was buried when the nails were hammered into the coffin of its symbol and hero, Meyer London.”

Acknowledging that the East Side indeed had been affected by these demographic changes, Algernon Black, headworker of Madison House, took issue with some of Ms. Popov’s observations.

“…It was inevitable that the changes in economic organization and standards of living and tremendous materialism of our time should influence the philosophic outlook.  If any thing is startling, it is not the new, but the persistence of the old.  How, in a city so beautiful and so wealthy, can there still be such ugliness, dirt, dire poverty, and detestable housing?

Through it all the settlements are still carrying on even though their work is changing. Among the old, there are still groups whose old ties are strong… For the young, the quickening pace of life and the emphasis on superficiality has gone so far as to cause a reaction.  Between large impersonal business organizations, the harried life of the job, and a disintegrating family life, friendship and creative interests have tended to slip out.  But young people care about these more permanent and personal things.  So it is that they crowd the East Side settlements even more today than they did when the East Side population was larger.  Many who now live in the Bronx and Brooklyn, make the long trip two and three nights a week in order to enjoy and grow up in the young community of which they were so long a part.

“Perhaps the poverty and suffering and struggle of the past had a certain purging power.  As a result of this, East Side life took on a purity and reality which it would be hard to duplicate elsewhere.” (Madison House News, April 1926)

Fortunately, settlement houses did not close their doors.  Two years later, the stock market crashed, the limitless sky fell in, and the role of settlement houses was no longer in question.

The Depression Years

By the time my Dad became headworker of Madison House in 1934, the Depression had overwhelmed the country.  On the Lower East Side, thousands of men and women were unemployed, and families had no safety net. Seventy-five percent of Madison House members were on relief, many families faced eviction, and many ran out of their limited food and money before the end of the month. Like all Settlement houses, Madison House was once again on the front line.

“The past year has definitely proven to us that we cannot remain static and passive…. a neighborhood composed of unemployed and people on relief can easily fall prey to the “isms.” unless we help provide it with such democratic tools as full group participation, honest thinking, and affirmative actions on matters concerning their everyday welfare.  I am firmly convinced that localities like ours, multiplied thousands of times throughout the country can keep democracy safe only if we make possible its functioning through careful planning and painstaking efforts in our everyday contact with the community.  True enough, a task of this magnitude falls considerably short in the process of execution.  Nevertheless, if we are able to maintain the essentials, we will have done well.  To this task we shall continue to dedicate ourselves, hoping through our social, cultural, educational, and social action programs to help bring about the better way of life.” (Headworker Annual Report 1937-1938, Philip Schiff, Headworker)

Adapting to a Changing Neighborhood

Unfortunately, it took World War II to end the Depression.   Between the draft and the expansions of the manufacturing sector required for national defense, unemployment was no longer a problem. After the war, demand for consumer goods, including houses and automobiles, made the Depression seem like a bad dream, at least for those who had moved into the middle class.  The demographics of the Madison House neighborhood changed dramatically.  Most Madison House members had moved out of the Lower East Side, and a new generation of immigrants had moved in.  The languages were no longer Yiddish; they were Spanish, Chinese, and other Asian tongues.  Like the Jewish immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th century, many of the new immigrants worked in the garment industry, lived in crowded housing, and hoped that their children would prosper.

Fifty years after Madison House was founded, the community it had served was changing.  On March 21, 1948, these changes were eloquently noted by Israel Ben Scheiber, president of Madison House, who spoke at a ceremony at the Ethical Culture Society celebrating Madison House’s Fifty Years of Community Service.“

“Now we have a new development, a new wave of immigration; this time, Puerto Ricans, seeking opportunity crowd back into these same desolate, no longer boarded up houses.  There have come shifts in population too, with Negroes, Chinese, many national groups, Jew and Gentile, in this one neighborhood.  New problems now, with those already here, suspicious of the new comers, old and new antagonisms, danger signals.  Madison House has lived and served its neighbors through two wars and a cruel depression.  The world of which it is a part has shrunken in size… Conversely, world problems have grown in size and complexity.  Beset as we are by these almost crushing world problems, can a small neighborhood house be important?  Can we grant it the energy, the time, the money it asks?  We answer yes.  The problems of Madison House and its neighbors must be met and solved if our world problems are to be finally solved.. As we help the people of our community to come to grips with the issues of inflation, of better school home relationships, of decent housing, of living and working together peacefully and creatively with those of different color and culture and belief, we dare hope that along with other communities working in this way the world over, we may yet achieve a world of peace, a true world of community.  In this spirit, and with this hope, we go forward.”

Before the formal activities at the Ethical Culture Society, Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, who was the keynote speaker, went down to Madison House where she planted a tree.

I hope the tree will grow.  I cannot say that it is in ideal circumstances to plant a tree in the pavement of New York but if it grows as Madison House has grown, it can be a symbol that not only Madison House, but the things for which the House has stood may help the nation to grow.

“In congratulating Madison House on the way it has met the problems of the past, I can only hope that the tree in front of Madison House will grow and the spirit within Madison House will grow even more so that the problems of the next few years which are not only the problems of the growth of our own nation but which are the problems of the growth of the world community will be met in ways which give the peoples of the world hope for the future. I can only hope that through Madison House and many other agencies we will meet our obligations and grow to be the kind of people worthy of being citizens in the democracy of the United States.”

In 1953, five years after celebrating its 50th anniversary, the five-story building known as Madison House was demolished to make way for the LaGuardia Housing project and the staff and programs merged with Hamilton House.  At a farewell ceremony, one of the five founders, J. Salwyn Shapiro, gave Mrs. Josiah Willard, president of Hamilton House, a letter written in 1898 stating the founding principles of Madison House, among them the aim of self-improvement and the desire to bring more light to people.

“We were like a mouse trying to swallow an elephant,” said Geoffrey Weiner, headworker of Hamilton House at the time of the merger.  “But it worked.”

Now known as Hamilton Madison House, the agency has a $10 million budget and fourteen sites, some of which are in other parts of New York City. The House provides day care programs for children and senior citizens, mental health counseling, drug rehabilitation, services, and emergency assistance to over 11,000 children and adults, most of whom are Asian or Hispanics. Several of the sites are located within a 10-block area of the World Trade Center.

On September 11, 2001, Hamilton Madison House staff responded immediately. In addition to donating food and giving blood, bilingual staff members went directly to Ground Zero and the Armory on 26th Street, where they translated for people searching for loved ones. A few days after September 11, senior services staff visited the home-bound, arranged for prescription deliveries, distributed emergency cell phones, and provided counseling.

“Although Hamilton Madison House now serves a population that differs from Madison House, the goals are the same. The neighborhood is the essential component in the life of a city. The neighborhood is where children are born and reared, where family life is nurtured. It takes a community to raise a child and to support a family. Neighborhood conditions have a direct bearing on the values and behavior patterns of neighborhood residents and workers at neighborhood centers seek to improve these conditions.“

(Source: United Neighborhood Centers of America, mission statement).

Settlement houses, like Hamilton Madison House, have long been part of urban America. Many still provide the basics of life and have become the front line agencies for local, state, and federal programs.  Others have become educational, cultural, and athletic centers. Whether the settlement house movement as originally conceived will reemerge is impossible to predict but possible to contemplate.

One Reply to “Madison House: Tops In Every Respect”

  1. The stories of Lower East Side settlement houses, as well as the more general history pointed out on this site, is extremely well thought out in terms of looking critically at their past contribution and role today.

    However, to cite this in an academic research paper, it would be extremely useful if dates of publication and other such conventions were provided here :). Your assistance in this regard, would be appreciated. When was this recollection written, edited and posted would be particularly helpful, as would noting any academic affiliation for this site. Thank you.

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